On a cutover California hillside thick with scrubby redwoods, Scotch broom, and poison oak, Mike Fay missed a step, started to slide, and felt a stiletto jab the top of his left foot. After bushwhacking hundreds of miles in sandals, he was used to such insults to his 52-year-old feet. But this was the mother of all splinters. It bounced off a bone, lodged in a tendon, and refused to come out. Finally his hiking partner, Lindsey Holm, grabbed it with a pair of pliers and after several sharp tugs, yanked it free.
"You could hear me yelling from mountaintop to mountaintop," Fay says. "It was one of the most painful things I've ever experienced." Which is something coming from a man who was once gored 16 times by an elephant. He taped up the wound, shouldered his pack, and as he had for the past three months, kept walking.
After three decades of helping save African forests, Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, now has redwoods in his blood. His obsession with the iconic American trees began a few years ago after he completed the Megatransect—his Livingstone-like exploration of the largest intact jungle remaining in Africa. (See the October 2000, March 2001, and August 2001 issues.) One day while driving along the northern California coast, he found himself gazing at swaths of clear-cuts and spindly second-growth forests. Another time in a state park, a six-foot-tall slice of an old redwood log on display caught his attention. Near the burgundy center a label read: "1492 Columbus."
"The one that got me was about three inches from the edge," Fay says. "'Gold Rush, 1849.' And I realized that within the last few inches of that tree's life, we'd very nearly liquidated a 2,000-year-old forest."
In the fall of 2007 he resolved to see for himself how Earth's tallest forest had been exploited in the past and is being treated today. By walking the length of California's mythic range, from Big Sur to just beyond the Oregon border, he wanted to find out if there was a way to maximize both timber production and the many ecological and social benefits standing forests provide. If it could be done in the redwoods, he believed, it could be done anywhere on the planet where forests are being leveled for short-term gain. As he'd done on the Megatransect, he and Holm—a self-taught naturalist born and raised in the redwood country of northern California—took pictures and detailed notes on their 11-month trek, exhaustively recording wildlife, plant life, and the condition of the forest and streams. They talked to the people of the redwoods as well: loggers, foresters, biologists, environmentalists, café owners, and timber company executives—all dependent on the forest.
It was an auspicious year to be walking the redwoods. After more than two decades battling environmentalists and state and federal regulators over its aggressive cutting practices, the oft vilified Pacific Lumber Company was bankrupt and up for grabs. Even with most of the remaining old growth protected, the emblematic species of the great forests—northern spotted owls, elusive little seabirds called marbled murrelets, and coho salmon—continued their dangerous decline, while the reeling economy and housing bust were shuttering sawmills throughout the redwood range. Fires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the worst fire season in memory. Tourism was down.
But something else was taking root among the trees Woody Guthrie lionized in "This Land Is Your Land." The buzz among environmental groups, consulting foresters, and even a few timber companies and communities was that the redwoods were at a historic crossroads—a time when society could move beyond the log/don't log debates of decades past and embrace a different kind of forestry that could benefit people, wildlife, and perhaps even the planet. The more Fay walked, the more convinced he became.
"California revolutionized the world with the silicon chip," Fay says, his voice deceptively soft. "They could do the same with forest management."
Fay and Holm started their walk at the southern end of the forest, where the trees grow in scattered holdings and groves in the Santa Lucia Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Except in small parks like Muir Woods outside San Francisco and Big Basin near Santa Cruz, where they encountered a few rare patches of ancient trees, they zigzagged 1,800 miles through stands that had been cut at least once and many that had been cut three times since 1850, leaving islands of larger second-growth forest in a sea of mostly small trees.
But on a glorious May day, nearly three-quarters of the way into the transect, they arrived at the southern end of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the largest contiguous block of old-growth redwood forest left on the planet—some 10,000 acres. The alluvial flats along its creeks and rivers are prime redwood habitat, where the mix of rich soils, water, and fog rolling in from the ocean have produced the planet's tallest forest. Of the 180 known redwoods greater than 350 feet, more than 130 grow right here.
Fording a vein of emerald water known as the South Fork of the Eel, they climbed the far bank and entered the translucent shade of the most magnificent grove they'd seen yet. Redwoods the size of Saturn rockets sprouted from the ground like giant beanstalks, their butts blackened by fire. Some bore thick, ropy bark that spiraled skyward in candy-cane swirls. Others had huge cavities known as goose pens—after the use early pioneers put them to—big enough to hold 20 people. Treetops the size of VW buses lay half-buried among the sorrel and sword ferns, where they'd plummeted from 30 stories up—the casualties of titanic wars with the wind, which even now coursed through the tops with panpipe-like creaks and groans. It's no wonder Steven Spielberg and George Lucas filmed scenes for the Jurassic Park sequel and Return of the Jedi among the redwood giants: It felt as if a T. rex or a furry Ewok could poke its head out at any minute.
Redwoods are no less magical for foresters. Because their bark and heartwood are rich in compounds called polyphenols, bugs and decay-causing fungi don't like them. And since there's not a lot of resin in their stringy bark, larger redwoods are highly resistant to fire.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about redwoods is their ability to produce sprouts whenever the cambium—the living tissue just beneath the bark—is exposed to light. If the top breaks off or a limb gets sheared or the tree gets cut by a logger, a new branch will sprout from the wound and grow like crazy. Throughout the forest you can find tremendous stumps with a cluster of second-generation trees, often called fairy rings, around their bases. These trees are all clones of the parent, and their DNA could be thousands of years old. Redwood cones, oddly enough, are tiny—the size of an olive—and may produce seeds only sporadically. As a result, stump sprouting has been key to the survival of the redwoods throughout the logging era.
The trees have another trick foresters love. With their high tolerance for shade and ability to sprout, some redwoods can sit almost dormant in the shade of their elders for decades. Yet as soon as a dominant tree falls or is cut down, breaking the canopy and allowing new light to enter the forest, the suppressed redwood springs up with new growth—a phenomenon known as release.
"Redwoods are what's known in biology as a very plastic species," says Evan Smith, vice president of forestland for the Conservation Fund. "It's like a machine. Once you get it going, you can't stop it."
It could be said that the history—and split personality—of modern America is carved in redwood, with the calls to save the trees reverberating almost as soon as we began cutting them down. For millennia the Tolowa, Yurok, and Chilula tribes, among others, lived behind an almost impenetrable redwood wall more than 300 feet high, eating salmon, elk, and tan oak acorns and carving long canoes from the logs that fell to the ground.
That way of life ended violently in 1848 when the U.S. wrested California away from Mexico and gold was discovered there. Businessmen from the East thought they saw an easier source of riches: the reddish, straight-grained, rot-resistant wood already in high demand in a state that would quadruple its population in a decade. In time the great forests near San Francisco were virtually leveled. Farther north, timber barons used fair means and foul to acquire thousands of acres of federal lands in the redwoods for $2.50 an acre, beginning an era of corporate lumbering that continues to this day. (Of the 1.6 million acres of redwood forest, 34 percent is owned by three companies, 21 percent by the state of California and the federal government, and the rest by smallholders.) By the 1880s some 400 sawmills north of San Francisco were churning out a mother lode of "sequoia gold," which for nearly the next century would become an inextricable part of every Californian's life—from the redwood cradles they were rocked in to the redwood coffins they were laid to rest in.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires kicked the cutting into overdrive. To meet demand for timber to rebuild the city, logging towns sprang up throughout the redwood range, and companies such as Pacific Lumber and Union Lumber flexed newfound industrial muscles. In place of teams of oxen, portable engines called steam donkeys dragged the massive logs, and narrow-gauge locomotives hauled them from the woods. Grainy photos from the "golden age" of logging show grinning timbermen with mustaches and suspenders standing atop felled trunks the size of Boeing 747s.
The felling of the great trees also helped spark the modern conservation movement. In 1900 concerned citizens formed the Sempervirens Club, whose advocacy led to the creation of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in 1902. In the 1920s the Save the Redwoods League began purchasing the groves that would become the backbone of California's redwoods parks, and it continues adding them to this day.
The last, and most intensive, burst of logging began after World War II, when the housing boom and a glut of cheap military-surplus equipment unleashed an army of bulldozers, log trucks, and chain-saw-wielding loggers onto the steep, unstable soils of the redwood forests. By the early 1950s mills were sawing more than a billion board feet of lumber a year, a level maintained until the mid-1970s. (A board foot is the equivalent of a slab of wood one foot square and one inch thick.) Clear-cutting and Cat logging, named after the yellow Caterpillar tractors that became the workhorses of the timber industry, unleashed a torrent of soil into streams from a latticework of logging roads and skid trails. Salmon runs dwindled, and so did other species that had existed in the redwoods for millennia. Today less than 5 percent of the roughly two million acres of virgin forest remains, mostly in parks and reserves throughout the range.
"The battle to save the redwoods has already been fought, and look, we're left with table scraps," says Steve Sillett, a forest scientist at Humboldt State University. "The challenge now is understanding how to improve management on the 95 percent of the redwood landscape that's just starting to grow."
Salmon and spotted owls aren't the only things to have suffered with the felling of the forest. Harvest rates in the redwoods have plummeted since the 1990s, when they were already half what they were in the 1970s. Though Fay and Holm spent nearly every night under the stars, every two weeks they'd hit little logging towns to recharge computer and camera batteries and download their data on portable hard drives—places like Korbel and Orick that once boasted several sawmills but are now lucky to have one still limping along. Rio Dell, a town of 3,200, has been luckier than most. It sits across the Eel River from Scotia, home to what was once a venerable timber enterprise: Pacific Lumber Company.
Last year more than the typical thick, gray clouds were hovering over Rio Dell's Wildwood Days, the annual street festival replete with logging contests, boccie tournaments, and bucket brigade races between local volunteer fire departments. Days earlier, after a protracted fight in federal bankruptcy court, PL (as the company is known here), employer of generations of the two towns' mill workers and woodsmen, had been sold. The future was now in the hands of Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), owned by the Fisher family of San Francisco, who had made their fortune with the Gap and Banana Republic clothing chains. The only thing most people in Rio Dell knew was MRC's new incarnation of the old Pacific Lumber operation: Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC). No one knew who would have jobs when the dust cleared.
Down at the logging contest—featuring an event in which two men see who can cut a log faster with chain saws—Len Nielson of Fortuna just beat out Chris Hall of Rio Dell, a big man with a shaved head, a neat, red goatee, and a tattoo that read "HOSS" across his Popeye-like forearm. All told—grandfather, dad, uncles, and cousins—Hall's family had spent 142 years working for PL. He'd been felling trees, driving Cats, skidding logs since he was 15. Now he works in the power plant.
"We're definitely glad to see Hurwitz go," Hall says, as he puts away his chain saw, with his five-year-old daughter dancing at his feet.
It's hard to have a conversation about forestry practices in the redwoods without hearing the name of Charles Hurwitz, CEO of Houston-based Maxxam, Inc. In 1985 Hurwitz orchestrated the hostile takeover—underwritten by junk bonds provided by the financier Michael Milken—of Pacific Lumber, which had been run conservatively by the Murphy family since 1905. By leaving some of their old growth standing, the Murphys, men who learned the lumber business from the chain saw up, had planned to sustain their timber harvest and jobs well into the 21st century. "When the Murphys owned PL, they cared for their employees," Hall says.
With Pacific Lumber, Hurwitz inherited roughly 70 percent of the remaining old redwoods in private hands. In his first meeting with the employees, the dark-suited businessman told them—in a now famous quote—that he believed in the golden rule: "He who has the gold, rules." Hurwitz then proceeded to break up the company and sell its assets. He sold Pacific Lumber's office building in downtown San Francisco and a profitable welding division, and he cashed out the workers' pension fund, replacing it with an annuity from a poorly rated insurance carrier.
Most important for the redwoods, Hurwitz adopted a business model of clear-cutting, doubling—and some years even tripling—the annual amount of timber harvested from the company's holdings, which eventually reached 210,000 acres. His attempts to cut the largest remaining block of old growth on private land, known as the Headwaters Forest, launched an army of young protesters into the streets and up the trees and drew increased scrutiny from state timber regulators and federal wildlife agencies. For forest defenders, as the protesters call themselves, it was a dangerous time. Tree sitters were extracted by force from their platforms hundreds of feet in the air. The late Judi Bari, one of the organizers of a series of protests in 1990, a time known as "redwood summer," had her pelvis shattered by a pipe bomb placed in her car. No one was ever charged in the crime.
In 1998 David "Gypsy" Chain and some other protesters hiked out to a PL tract where they believed loggers were building roads before the end of the marbled murrelet nesting season, when logging is illegal. One logger, caught on videotape, cursed them, saying he wished he'd brought his gun. Then he felled a redwood in their direction. The tree struck Chain in the head, killing him instantly. The logger was never charged. In 1999 the state and federal governments purchased part of the Headwaters Forest, putting it under permanent protection.
The days of violent confrontations seem to be over now. A week after MRC's acquisition of Pacific Lumber, Mike Jani, the company's president and chief forester, asked Fay and Holm to join him and local activists at the foot of a redwood giant just across the Eel River from Rio Dell. Protesters had occupied part of an old-growth grove here for years to keep PL from logging. Jani told the activists that under the new company's policies the trees would not be taken, and "Do Not Cut" flagging was put up around the survivors.
"Fighting for old growth is easy," Lindsey Holm told me. "It's a moral issue, black-and-white. Save the old trees—the endangered species. It's a no-brainer." Trying to rally people around sound second-growth forestry is more challenging—more about keeping the ecosystem intact by minimizing erosion and maintaining wildlife while maximizing timber production. For most Californians, clear-cuts are bad forestry because they're ugly. That misses the point, said Holm, who isn't necessarily averse to clear-cuts. "This is about good forestry, not about what you can see out your kitchen window."
The notion that you can log a forest without leveling it isn't new. As early as the 1930s Emanuel Fritz, a forestry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that if timber companies wanted to be in business in 40 to 50 years—the time he estimated it would take to cut all the remaining old-growth forest—they'd better start leaving some trees for the future. In line with this thinking, Albert Stanwood Murphy decreed that Pacific Lumber would never cut more than 70 percent of a stand of timber or cut more from its forests than would grow in a year—policies the company held for more than half a century until Charles Hurwitz tossed them out.
Now Jani promises that the new Humboldt Redwood Company will bring selective cutting back to the old Pacific Lumber lands. Its parent company, MRC, has already implemented the approach on 230,000 acres of heavily logged redwood forest in Mendocino County it purchased from Louisiana Pacific a decade ago. MRC stabilized logging roads, reestablished stands, and made a practice of cutting a third to a half of the overall volume of timber grown on its property each year through a variety of selection techniques. By doing this, the company has sacrificed greater short-term profits for long-term investment in the forest.
Scott Greacen, executive director of a local group called the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), is watching closely to see how HRC manages its new holdings. However, when Fay and Holm visited Greacen at the EPIC office in downtown Arcata, the maps of PL timber-harvest plans had been replaced by those of another large industrial landowner: Green Diamond Resource Company.
Green Diamond is now the largest clear-cutter in the redwoods, with more than 70 percent of its 430,000 acres given over to uniform stands that are logged roughly every 50 years. When asked if the company was EPIC's next target, Greacen says, "I think we're going to have something to say about short-term, even-age forestry."
"Here we love even-age forests," says Greg Templeton, one of Green Diamond's veteran foresters. "Both redwoods and Doug fir grow faster in full sunlight." He was standing on a hot, sunny hillside, watching with pride as a logging crew reduced a 70-year-old stand of 150- to 200-foot redwoods into an organized tangle of slash, limbs, and logs.
In the 1990s California reduced the maximum allowable size for a clear-cut from 80 acres to between 20 and 40. The heavy tractors that caused so much erosion have largely been replaced by smaller, lighter shovel loaders—tracked machines that look like old-fashioned steam shovels with an articulated grapple on the end. By picking up entire logs instead of dragging them on the ground, shovel loaders eliminate the erodible skid trails that were the hallmark of Cat logging and the bane of salmon-spawning creeks. For target trees on steep hillsides, foresters use a cable yarder, a setup that hoists cut logs along a cable running from a tall tower placed at the top of the hill to a massive stump on the opposite slope. According to Templeton, the switch to such machinery, along with fewer, better-built logging roads and mandated buffer zones along streams (where some selective cutting is allowed), significantly reduces sediment going into salmon-spawning waters.
Green Diamond's puzzle-piece forests, with blocks of tightly packed small trees up to 20 years old separated by slivers of older trees in the 150-foot buffer zones around fish-bearing streams, will ultimately provide good wildlife habitat, says Neal Ewald, the company's vice president and general manager. "Fifty years from now 20 percent of this landscape will stick up like veins on a maple leaf, with a network of old trees around the streams," he explains. "We're on target to create the same kind of trees you see in Redwood National Park in a hundred years," to the benefit, he says, of salmon and northern spotted owls.
In the early 1990s Green Diamond's senior biologist, Lowell Diller, was among the first to find high densities of spotted owls in second-growth forests. His research indicated that the owls can survive in the smaller forests as long as they have enough old snags and large trees with cavities and platforms for nesting. And the mix of young forest blocks of various ages created by clear-cuts provides good habitat for dusky-footed wood rats—the owls' favorite prey in California.
Diller's findings helped Green Diamond secure the first Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for spotted owls from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992, which allowed the company to continue logging in spotted owl territory as long as they had a plan to maintain a minimum amount of owl habitat. Yet owls have been declining by about 3 percent a year on Green Diamond lands since 2001, Diller says, as they have over much of their range.
Part of the problem is a mysterious drop in the wood rat population, as well as increased competition from the more aggressive and adaptable barred owl, which has muscled into the spotted owls' territory from the east.
Young forests have shown other unintended wildlife consequences. In spring, before berries and acorns come in, black bears depend in part on the sap just under the bark of redwoods and other conifers. They prefer the young, fastest growing trees and have done so much damage to commercial stands that some foresters call them the biggest "pest" in the redwoods. But bears became a problem only when companies began growing trees like a crop.
After walking through every kind of managed forest and talking to foresters on all sides of the issue, Mike Fay is convinced there's a better way: Grow bigger trees, which can maximize wood production while providing good habitat. "You've got to start thinking about this as an ecosystem," he says. "All these plantations might as well be growing corn. But if you want clean water, salmon, wildlife, and high-quality lumber, you've got to have a forest."
Fay is not alone. "My idea is to cut less trees and make more money per tree," says Jim Able, a former industrial forester for Louisiana Pacific who now manages small private timberlands, most fewer than a thousand acres. Wearing his trademark straw hat, Able leads Fay through the Howe Creek tract, a timber plot he's managed for nearly three decades and is thinning for the third time. Douglas firs and large second-generation redwoods, three or more feet thick and up to 200 feet tall, rise from the steep hillside straight as arrows. Here and there a few trees lie on the ground, waiting to be yarded, creating a mosaic of shadow and sun. The key, Able says, is form. He and his foresters mark every tree they want cut, aiming never to exceed 30 to 35 percent of the volume of the stand. Unlike high-grading, a form of selective logging that Able considers worse than clear-cutting because it takes the best and leaves the rest, Able cuts weak and poorly formed trees, leaving the straightest and strongest to thrive in the newly available light. And unlike timbermen who harvest clear-cuts every few decades, Able comes back once a decade to evaluate whether to cut again. He never takes more wood than the forest has grown over that time, which means that the remaining trees—what he calls his principal—continue to increase in height, volume, and quality.
"What I'm doing is growing old trees and taking the interest in the interim," he says. "I firmly believe I can keep doing this over a hundred years."
More landowners are following in Able's footsteps, growing their redwoods older and cutting them more sparingly. Some call this ecological forestry, in which the forest is managed to provide wildlife habitat and clean rivers as well as forestry jobs and wood products. The 2,200-acre van Eck Forest near Arcata, managed by the Pacific Forest Trust, serves an additional purpose: It earns some of its keep by providing greenhouse gas reductions, which can be used to offset emissions. Thanks to their phenomenal growth, resistance to disease, insects, and rot, and their incredibly long lives, redwood forests are the best of all forests at capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking away the carbon in their wood. California's voluntary market for forest landowners is among the most rigorous in the world. The market allows owners to sell credits for the carbon stored in each year's grown wood as long as they guarantee to maintain that growth for a century.
Money for carbon stored in living trees could help landowners make the transition from short-term clear-cuts to long-term rotations where bigger, higher quality trees could once again dominate the landscape. So far, based on the amount of carbon the van Eck is estimated to sequester over a hundred years, the Pacific Forest Trust has sold more than two million dollars' worth of emissions-reduction credits.
Another group practicing ecological forestry, Evan Smith's Conservation Fund, bought 40,000 acres of industrial timberlands in the Garcia River, Big River, and Salmon Creek watersheds to keep the trees from becoming vineyards and subdivisions. The organization plans to use uneven-age selection forestry to restore aquatic habitat by reducing erosion into the streams. To help with financing, it is selling millions of dollars' worth of carbon-reduction credits to Pacific Gas and Electric Company as well as to several investment firms.
California's Air Resources Board now plans to adopt an updated carbon protocol for forestry, hoping to attract the industrial timber owners. "If we can get the carbon incentives right, we can double or even triple our inventory in the redwoods," Mike Fay says.
On a day when the early morning sun is filling the mist-shrouded canopy of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park with an iridescent glow, Mike Fay hooks his ascender to a climbing rope and "jugs" up a truly massive redwood to talk to one scientist who is convinced of the value of letting redwoods grow big. Steve Sillett has made a name for himself by finding, climbing, and studying the tallest trees on the planet. He has meticulously measured hundreds, from their mighty bases right up to the individual needles at the top. At 138 feet up, Fay passes a fire cave big enough for two grown men to stand in amid a thicket of reiterated trunks and branches—battle scars from centuries of skirmishing with fire and wind. Higher still, epiphytic ferns and huckleberry bushes grow in deep canopy soils, while a myriad of mosses, liverworts, and lichens cover the bark. This tree, at 301 feet, isn't even close to the world's tallest, at 379.1, but according to Sillett, who is waiting for Fay at an opening in the canopy right at the very top, it is "super juicy"—loaded with canopy soils and biodiversity. From there the two men peer out upon a nearly unbroken expanse of huge redwoods, with one clear-cut barely visible to the south.
The mantra of industrial foresters has long been to grow trees as fast as possible to maximize the return on investment and provide a steady flow of wood products to market. For them, the most profitable time to cut redwoods is at 40 to 50 years, even though such young trees contain mostly soft, low-quality sapwood, with little of the redwoods' legendary resistance to rot. But after coring and measuring two dozen trees—95 feet to 370 feet tall—from canopy to base in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Sillett discovered that a tree's annual rate of wood production increases with age for at least 1,500 years. More important, the older it gets, the more high-quality, rot-resistant heartwood it puts on. The bottom line: Redwoods produce more wood, and better wood, as they age. Sillett says this is true for the tallest eucalyptus trees in Australia too, and he thinks it may be true for other trees around the world.
"If it's all about short-term yield, there's not an effective argument for big trees," Sillett says. "But if it's about long-term yield, carbon sequestration, and ecosystem services, then you've got an effective argument for old trees. What do we need to remove and keep lots of carbon out of the atmosphere? Massive amounts of decay-resistant wood."
On the last day of their transect, as they hunted for the northernmost redwood near Oregon's Chetco River, Mike Fay and Lindsey Holm talked about the characters they'd met in the forest. There were Lud and Bud McCrary, octogenarian brothers who pioneered uneven-age forestry in the Santa Cruz Mountains—Lud's family even built a redwood bomb shelter after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. And there was the story of Tim Renner, a veteran logger with a hearty dislike for forest activists. Renner told about the time he had been hired to cut some trees in the Arcata Community Forest, a selectively logged tract near town that also serves as a community park. He was putting away his chain saw at the end of a day's work when a young man came walking down the trail with long hair, a long beard, and dirty clothes. And Renner thought, This kid is going to chew me up.
The young man stopped and looked at the freshly cut forest, and to the logger's astonishment, he said, "This looks great! There's so much more light coming in. I really like the way this looks."
Which means that along with high-quality wood, carbon storage, clean water, and wildlife habitat, ecological forestry can bring back another benefit for which redwoods are justly famous: utter awe.