The Big League: Saving Redwoods for 100 Years

Like hiking? State parks? How about trees 300 feet tall? You can thank San Francisco’s Save the Redwoods League, founded 100 years ago.

Humboldt Redwoods by Scrubhiker/Creative Commons.

We Californians love our redwood trees. So do tourists. The standard must-do list for visitors on holiday in San Francisco looks something like this:

Muir Woods makes the cut because just about every guidebook, guidebok, gaidobukku, and guía to San Francisco references the national monument as the closest place to see exceptionally tall, not-to-be-missed old-growth coast redwoods. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods is San Francisco’s own Island of Ancient Trees.

There are quite a few such islands in the state, mostly protected, some much larger than Muir Woods and home to older, taller trees, including the tallest living tree on Earth, the 380-foot Hyperion Tree in distant Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The tallest tree in Muir Woods tops out at about 260 feet.

“Tall Tree,” once considered the world’s tallest. Photo: Redwood Coast/CC.

Until the early 20th century, ancient, supertall trees were found throughout the 450-mile range of the species botanists know as Sequoia sempervirens, or “always-alive” sequoia, from southern Oregon to the Santa Lucia Mountains in Monterey County. Just about every coast redwood forest was an old-growth coast redwood forest.

While pre-European San Francisco proper — before the Spaniards arrived in 1776 — was not a prominent venue for the trees, the East Bay hills and other nearby sites were lousy with massive specimens. Early 19th-century navigators in San Francisco Bay relied on a grove of ridgeline giants called The Blossom Rock Trees above Oakland to steer clear of treacherous underwater rocks in the bay.

Alas, those living beacons were cut down in 1851 to fuel the growth of the burgeoning new city: San Francisco exploded from a population of under 1,000 in 1849 to over 25,000 two years later. As demand for redwood lumber and shingles, fence posts, vineyard stakes, and other wood products soared, more — and more distant — virgin coast redwood forests fell to ax and saw. Eventually, labor-intensive, time-consuming felling with hand tools gave way to mechanization and new techniques like clear-cutting, which removes every tree from the logging zone, old-growth and adolescent, a practice whose environmental costs, while often disastrously high, were routinely ignored.

A century and a half of logging has dramatically fragmented the once sprawling territory of old-growth coast redwoods. Today, while second-, third-, and even fourth-growth trees cover much of the original range, only five percent of the old-growth forest remains, an archipelago of ancient trees found mostly in the far northwest of the state, in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, which are, not coincidentally, the redwood forests most remote from population centers. Evidence of what was once here abounds: It’s almost routine in younger forests and in many pastures and yards within the original range to come across massive stumps of giants that may have lived a thousand years or more before being severed from their base and roots.

No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. — John Steinbeck

A common view prevailing into the twentieth century was that old-growth coast redwood forests were so extensive they could never all be cut down. Paralleling this faith was the widely held conviction that it didn’t matter: Big trees were put on Earth not to inspire sentimental wonder and reverence, but for the material benefit of mankind. Shingles and vineyard stakes were God’s plan for ancient redwoods.

But early on, a few Californians and outsiders, humbled and enlarged when they walked in an ancient coast redwood forest, perceived the threat and mobilized to save whatever they could, along with their even more massive — though not taller — Sierra cousins, the giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum. John Steinbeck, the native Californian author of The Grapes of Wrath, captured the transport of wonder that inspired early redwood activists and draws the millions to Muir Woods today:

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.” (Travels with Charley: In Search of America)

Soon after the turn of the twentieth century, though nearly 90 percent of the ancient coast redwood forest remained intact, the growing threat prompted official action. California established its first state park, Big Basin in Santa Cruz County, in 1902, protecting the largest continuous stand of virgin redwood forest south of San Francisco. In 1905 the state passed its first Forest Protection Act. In 1908 wealthy conservationists William and Elizabeth Kent donated a parcel of ancient coast redwoods in Marin County to the federal government to protect it from plans by a local water district to build a dam. In his letter to President Theodore Roosevelt offering the land, William Kent requested that it be named for his famous naturalist friend, John Muir.

In 1917 the federal government founded the National Park Service. Its first director, Stephen Mather, persuaded three friends and prominent conservationists, John C. Merriam, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Madison Grant, to drive up the new Redwood Highway — today’s Highway 101 — to assess the threat to old-growth coast redwood forests. Alarmed by extensive and ever-widening devastation from unregulated logging, the three agreed to work together, and a year later, in 1918, they and others founded the Save the Redwoods League.

Initially, the league concentrated on big trees near the Redwood Highway, but soon branched out to forests farther afield in California’s northwest corner at Bull Creek and the Dyerville Flats, Prairie Creek and the Humboldt Lagoons, the Del Norte Coast, and the Mill Creek/Smith River redwoods.

The Dyerville Giant, possibly the world’s tallest tree when it fell in 1991. (Malcolm Manners/Creative Commons.)

California women’s clubs and garden clubs came together to form the Women’s Save-the-Redwoods League, which raised awareness and money, mobilized the public, and lobbied politicians. The parent organization arranged for America’s most famous tycoon, John D. Rockefeller, to camp with his family in an untouched redwood forest, inspiring him to donate the astronomical sum of a million dollars to the cause of old-growth redwood conservation. And it promoted memorial groves, prompting many others to contribute in memory of loved ones or to honor prominent citizens. Today, there are more than a thousand memorial redwood groves in the state. Many organizations have borrowed this concept, sometimes with brilliant results, as a walk through the hauntingly lovely, beautifully maintained National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, including its quiet, shadowy redwood section, will confirm.

From its San Francisco headquarters, Save the Redwoods also spearheaded creation of the the California parks system, which the state established in 1927. In the early thirties the league acquired nearly eighteen thousand acres of old-growth forest for Humboldt Redwoods and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. In the Sierra, it helped fund acquisition of the North Grove of giant sequoias for Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Twenty years later, in 1954, the league acquired the equally magnificent South Grove for the park.

These are a few highlights. The Save the Redwoods League has also saved a number of smaller, isolated virgin redwood groves like Montgomery Redwoods State Reserve in Mendocino County and Purisima Creek Open Space Preserve on the Peninsula. And it has added significant parcels to existing parks and preserves throughout its history. In 1968 the league realized a half-century-old dream, the founding of Redwood National Park in Del Norte and Humboldt counties, at 58,000 acres, nearly twice the size of San Francisco. (With adjacent state parks, the protected area encompasses 132,000 acres, of which nearly 40,000 are old-growth forest.)

Like any person, company, or organization celebrating its 100th birthday, the history of Save the Redwoods is not without shadows and setbacks. As prescient and effective as the key founders proved to be, their contributions are marred by the fact that all three — Merriam, Osborn, and Grant — were, to varying degrees, advocates of eugenics, the science of improving human populations through controlled breeding. Grant’s book on the subject, The Passing of the Great Race, was the first non-German book ordered to be reprinted by the Nazis when they took power. Adolf Hitler was an admirer, writing to Grant: “The book is my Bible.” The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould described it as “the most influential tract of American scientific racism.”

Tree sitters in Berkeley. Photo: Ingrid Taylar/Creative Commons.

Beyond the cloudy reputation of its founders, Save the Redwoods has been criticized for its steady, nonconfronational approach to conservation, which emphasizes cooperation over conflict with the establishment: lumber companies and workers, property owners, government agencies and politicians. Saving five percent of the original primeval coast redwood forest in California over 100 years is hardly something to brag about, some argue. Indeed, young activists in the eighties and nineties rejected — or more fairly perhaps, augmented — old-school conservation activism by taking the fight directly to the headquarters of lumber companies and into the ancient forests themselves, holding noisy protests, locking arms across logging roads, chaining themselves to equipment, and most creatively, tree-sitting: camping high up in ancient trees marked for destruction for months at a time to prevent loggers from cutting them down. The most famous tree sitter was a young woman named Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who ascended a 1,500-year old tree she called Luna in December 1997 and lived there for 738 days.

In-your-face front-line protesters have been vital to the success of most social movements, from the Pullman Strike in Chicago in 1896 (labor) to Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 (black civil rights), to the Stonewall Riots by drag queens in New York City in 1969 (gay rights). Tree sitters and logging road blockers are part of a long, worthy, necessary tradition. There’s no question, though, that by starting early and leading the effort to save redwoods statewide for the last century, the Save the Redwoods League and its allies deserve credit for rescuing a living wonder of the natural world. All told, they have set aside 214,000 acres of redwood forest in California and helped establish 66 redwood parks and preserves. The league’s audacious goal for the next 100 years is to merge the preserved islands of old-growth coast redwoods into a continuous forest with the potential to replicate the one that thrived in California for millions of years before the arrival of human beings.

It’s no miracle that in this age of artificial intelligence and virtual reality we can still make physical pilgrimages to wonder and enchantment in ancient coast redwood forests, including the one right across the Golden Gate Bridge. Rather, it’s the result of a sustained effort by enlightened and determined men and women over the decades to inform, persuade, prevent, and prevail — and to keep going despite indifference, hostility, and repeated setbacks. As a lifelong Californian who experienced his first transformative encounter with an old-growth redwood in a stroller, I am eternally grateful.

The author (right), wearing an expression of awe and joy, with his twin brother, on the first of many visits to an old-growth redwood forest, probably the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, ca. 1953.

Barry Owen is the outdoors editor of The Frisc. He likes to brag that he knows more than a hundred trails within an hour of his front door across from Alamo Square Park.