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Save the Redwoods League releases stunning book on 100th anniversary

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They are among the most awe-inspiring natural wonders of the world. As Mother Nature’s skyscrapers, redwoods are among the tallest living things on the planet — the most gargantuan approaching 400 feet. And although not the oldest — the bristlecone pine has a longer lifespan by a good measure — the most senior denizens of the redwood forests were alive during the lifetime of Julius Caesar.

Today, less than five percent of the original 2.2 million acres of coast redwood forests that once covered the Northern California and Southern Oregon coast for more than 200 million years, still survive.

It took a scant 150 years for loggers and then major timber companies to fell California’s primeval forests. But one organization, the Save the Redwoods League, can be credited with helping to preserve what was left of these titans that had flourished since the days of the dinosaurs.

The conservation organization, which claims credit for helping to preserve 212,000 acres of coast redwoods and their cousins, the giant sequoias that inhabit the western slope of the Sierra, is celebrating its centennial, and marking the event with publication of a new book, “The Once and Future Forest: California’s Iconic Redwoods.” A fitting giant of a book measuring 15 inches long and weighing 4 1/2 pounds, it rises to the majesty of its subject with breathtaking photography — including a four-page panoramic pullout shot by Max Forster — and essays by five major writers who collectively explore the mythology, botany and science of these amazing trees. The book also traces the history of redwoods, from their antediluvian roots to their relationship with native civilizations, to their exploitation by loggers and timber companies and ultimately to the century-long campaign to save what is left. The commemorative book that comes in a heavy sleeve is published by Heyday and retails for $100 at savetherewoods.org.

“This 100th anniversary is as much an opportunity to look backward at our legacy as a chance to rally together for a future and focus on a vision for our second century,” said Sam Hodder, the president and CEO of the San Francisco-based League.

Writer and Sonoma State Professor Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, contributed an essay, “The Ancient Ones,” exploring among other things, the relationship of indigenous people to the redwoods, told through stories.

“It’s a gorgeous representation of a gorgeous and important tree. Perhaps it will give readers and viewers of the pictures a greater sense of urgency to love and protect these trees,” he said.

Logging threat

The 20th century challenge was logging, a threat that diminished in 1999 when the state and federal governments pulled together $460 million to purchase The Headwaters Forest. The 7,472 acres at the headwaters of Salmon Creek and the South Fork Elk River near Fortuna, were targeted for a frenzied level of cutting by financier and Pacific Lumber owner Charles Hurwitz. It contained the last unprotected and intact old growth redwood forest ecosystem , comprising 3,088 acres.

But California’s state tree is not out of the woods. More than a million acres of redwood forests remain unprotected, managed for timber. And even the protected forests’ health is threatened by the degraded land surrounding them, Hodder said. Some forests have been logged multiple times. Among the league’s current initiatives is to help existing forests regenerate, a difficult task considering the complexity of the old growth ecosystems that developed over millennia.

Climate change is potentially an even more formidable foe than loggers.

“This type of research is absolutely in its infant state but it’s so critical,” said Meg Lowman, a senior scientist with the California Academy of Sciences who contributed an essay to the book. “Everyone is asking the questions, ‘How will the redwoods survive when fog becomes more intermittent or when rainfall patterns change or when drought is more commonplace?”

Known as “Canopy Meg” for her pioneering work in the study of the mysterious frontier of forest canopies — more people have been to the top of Mt. Everest than to the tops of the world’s tallest trees — Lowman marvels at the buzz of activity and life in the upper reaches of redwoods.

“It’s another world. It’s extraordinary,” she said. “The forest floor is very dark and quiet. The real activity is at the top where the flora and fauna and leafing is all going on because that is where the sunlight is...Nothing is quiet. You have millions of species up there. It’s a cacophony.”

‘Eighth continent’

Lowman cited the observations of Professor E.O. Wilson at Harvard University, who refers to the treetops as “the eighth continent,” and noted it is home to a staggering biodiversity of species, including more than 8,000 species of arthropods, which includes insects, spiders and crustaceans. In 2007 botanist Steve Sillett, who has been working with The League’s “Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative,” found 282 species of plants growing on redwoods — also known as epiphytes — in just nine redwood canopies, more than any other temperate forest on the continent.

New creatures continued to be discovered, including the wandering salamander in 1998 and just two years ago, the Humboldt flying squirrel.

The difficulty in reaching the canopy makes it a surprisingly unexplored world that could yield valuable information about climate change and species extinction, by serving as the “proverbial canary in the coal mine,” Lowman said. And now technology from hot air balloons to inflatable canopy rafts is allowing easier access to a heretofore uncharted world with the forest equivalent of spaceships and submarines.

She said scientists have just scratched the surface in understanding redwoods and their complex ecosystems.

“It’s hard to believe we have gone to the moon and yet we know almost nothing about our redwoods that are literally a few miles from most people’s homes in San Francisco.”

The League was founded in 1918, sparked by a road trip the year before to Bull Creek Flats (now part of Humboldt Redwoods State Park) by three men with a common passion for science: attorney Madison Grant, who helped found the New York Zoological Society and paleontologists Henry Fairfield Osborn and John C. Merriam.

The three were moved by the magnificence of the forest cathedral and dismayed by the frantic buzz of logging around it, fueled by a post-World War I development boom. Their first goal to secure a national park would take 50 years, but they also sought to secure trees along the new Redwood Highway and to acquire land through private gifts. Within 10 years it had raised $500,000 to preserve 3,000 acres in four parks. Three years later, thanks to a donation by the Rockefeller family, the stunning Bull Creek grove was saved. Over the last century their efforts have resulted in the establishment of 66 parts and reserves.

New acquisition

The League, with 20,000 members nationwide, continues to seek out redwoods for protection. Last year it secured the 730-acre Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve near Cazadero, home to the tallest and biggest ancient redwoods on private land in Sonoma County, including the county’s oldest known tree, a 1,640-year-old titan with a girth as wide as a two-lane country road. It hopes to open the land, home to the threatened northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, as a park within three years.

“We do have a number of acquisitions we’re negotiating for. We’re in the final stage of acquiring a conservation easement in Anderson Valley near Boonville for a 15,000 acre ranch at the headwaters of the Garcia River,” Hodder said. He added the League is also engaged in a major forest restoration project in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, restoring 10,000 acres through forest thinning and removing 70 miles of logging roads.

The forests have a value that can’t be measured by height, board feet or acres.

“The forests have such a high therapeutic value for people to spend time in them and admire the beauty,” said Max Forster, a Trinidad-based photographer who donated 25 images for the book. He often place humans among the trees to underscore the vast scale of the sequoias.

“Being with the big, old fat ones that have been through 1,000 years of history is like standing in the presence of a living god to me.”

‘The Last Stand’

Marin writer David Harris in 1995 published a definitive account of the North Coast timber wars in “The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street over California’s Ancient Redwoods.” But when tapped to contribute an essay he decided not to return to politics of environmentalism and lumber.

“I tried to figure out what different kind of approach I could take,” Harris said. “I looked out my window and there was my redwood tree, and that set me in motion.”

He writes about the 100-year-old redwood he simply calls “Tree” — the solace he has taken at its trunk and the healing physical and spiritual energy it exudes.

“This sempervirens was so big, with such incredible purchase on the earth, that it spoke to me and my need in a primal language of place,” he writes.

He hopes people who take a walk in the forest through the pages of the book come away with an appreciation for the primordial strength of the redwoods.

“It’s really a special plant and it’s extraordinary and particular to a very special place,” he said. “We don’t have to remember it just as decking. That misses the whole point. I hope people will feel that they have been given some permission to love vegetable matter, to treat trees and forests as beings that are part of a much larger symbiosis with everything else, including us. I don’t think our natural world survives if we don’t start valuing the other species as much as our own.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-520

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