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National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay emerges from a hellish hike down Little Lost Man Creek in Redwood National Park. In 2008 Fay and hiking partner Lindsey Holm finished the first comprehensive transect of the redwood range, covering 1,800 miles of Pacific coastal forest.

The Redwoods Point the Way

A conservationist sees a new wave of enlightened forestry as a model for wiser stewardship of nature.

On day 323 of the transect, in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, I dropped over a log 18 feet in diameter into an abyss of giant botanical pickup sticks, deadfall that had piled up amid the living trees over thousands of years. Another fallen monster loomed. Grabbing huckleberry roots and clumps of sword ferns, I hauled myself and my 60-pound pack up its organic wall onto a trunk as long as a football field. Filthy and exhausted, surrounded by hundreds of towering redwood columns that were raining their captured fog on my head, I stood there overwhelmed by a scene straight out of the Jurassic.

I’ve been walking in forests for 40 years; never could I have imagined a woods as grand as this.

Staring skyward through the somber silhou­ettes, I thought about the timberman who had described his company’s patchwork of clear-cuts, with their sun-drenched mix of tiny trees interspersed with strips of older redwoods, as functionally the same as an old-growth forest. No amount of persuasive conversation or data will ever convince me of that. This isn’t about loving big trees. It’s about the fact that I spent 333 days walking 1,800 miles through the entire range of the redwoods with a notebook in my hand, documenting details about this ecosystem—and witnessing the aftermath of the cutting of at least 95 percent of the most wood-laden forest on Earth.

Timber folks know the history—most I met in redwood country used words like nuked, hammered, blitzed, wasted, and raped to describe the logging of the past. The landscape bears them out. I spent too many days on the transect pushing past gigantic stumps, through weedy stands of small trees amid crumbling road systems, over eroded hillsides, and across rivers choked with gravel and silt, whose fisheries had collapsed. It was a landscape shaped by greed and waste.

The time to argue about the wisdom of liquidating the resource base of the planet is over.

In the redwoods I found many who agree. Dave Lewers, whom I joined on the 12,000-acre Flat Ridge Ranch he meticulously manages in Sonoma County, said it best: “They might think I’m a gun-toting, right-wing redneck, but what they have to understand is, they’ve got our attention.” The “they” are environmentalists and state regulators, and what Lewers meant was that he is a frontline participant in efforts to restore the redwood forest.

All along the transect I met foresters, owners, and loggers who talk as if they’ve discovered the holy grail of redwood management. People like Jim Able, Jim Greig, and Ed Tunheim who have found a way to bring vigor back to this ecosystem—and stay in business at the same time. What they’re learning, and how they’re applying that knowledge, can serve as a blue­print for the entire redwood range. Their ability to supply large amounts of lumber for humanity and improve ecosystem function is an approach that should be adopted around the world.

In brief: These veteran foresters are carrying out a form of single-tree selection that is more productive in the long term than clear-cutting. Every 10 to 15 years they take about a third of the timber in a stand, going for the least robust trees—the runts, as Jim Able calls them. This creates more open space, allowing the remain­ing trees to get a greater share of the sunlight, which speeds their growth. Every year the amount and quality of the standing wood increase, and because regeneration happens gradually, the process can proceed for centuries. The advan­tages are twofold: short-term income and a larger payback over the long term. “You can’t be greedy or in a rush,” Ed Tunheim says.

This isn’t just about wood. Past damage to ecosystems is being repaired. Sediment is being excavated from streams to restore their original beds, and culverts enlarged to permit natural stream flow. Thousands of logs are being placed in creeks to create fish habitat. Roads are being recontoured and reinforced or simply erased from the landscape. Along rivers and in slide-prone areas, timber harvests are being reduced. Trees identified as crucial for wildlife habitat—and remnant old growth—are being preserved.

The next quantum leap is the idea that we can, and should, put a dollar value on the environmental assets of the forest. Already, some timber owners, helped by grants from voter-approved initiatives, are going above and beyond what state regulations require in rehabilitating watersheds, decommissioning roads, and stopping erosion. These investments reduce their maintenance costs and help the bottom line while guaranteeing benefits such as cleaner water and healthier fish populations.

Especially promising is the idea that because forests absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, timber owners should be paid for the carbon accumulated in their trees. The redwood forest, with its vast carbon-storage capacity, is where many of the first carbon sales have occurred. As new state and federal climate regulations take effect, this market will grow, along with the incentive for timber owners to maximize the stand­ing volume and the productivity of their forests, which produce higher quality lumber the older they get.

The time is right to embrace a systematic plan of recovery for the entire redwood forest—all the pieces are now in place.

The redwoods hold a broader lesson. In 1908 President Teddy Roosevelt brought together the governors of 39 states and territories, the Supreme Court justices, virtually his entire Cabinet, and members of Congress and 68 professional societies. Never before or since has such a powerful group been assembled in the White House. Opening the conference, Roosevelt said, “You have come hither at my request ... to consider the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation ... It is the chief material question that confronts us.”

The President tallied the toll on America’s resources, including the loss of half our original timber. He made an eloquent call to rebuild the nation’s natural capital, or face hardship. He implored those in a position to exploit nature for excessive profit to take the moral high ground instead of robbing future generations.

At that time, a century ago, there were only about 300,000 white-tailed deer left in the entire United States. Today, even though the human footprint has increased exponentially, there are perhaps 30 million. This rehabilitation, in which states managed hunting, reintroduced the animals in hundreds of places, and restored habitat, has been so successful that many now consider whitetails a pest. The deer story Roosevelt helped inspire is a clear and simple demonstration that conservation can vastly increase the renewable resources we’ve hammered and wasted since Europeans arrived in North America.

Here is my message: President Obama, convene your own White House conference. The objective would be to build on what’s being done in the redwoods and design a Marshall Plan for the proper use of all the natural assets in the United States. People will try to dissuade you, saying we can’t possibly afford to think about saving nature when the world is mired in an economic crisis, confronting wars and the threat of nuclear terrorism. President Roosevelt, too, had his challenges—Japan and Russia at war, monopolists to control, the Panama Canal to build—but he understood that conservation was the principal material question facing humanity.

In the 21st century, as we face the consequences of global warming, this is even more vitally true. We need to generalize this simple notion: Rebuild our natural capital thoughtfully and reap the benefits. With increased production for humanity also come healthy ecosystems and global balance. We can—and must—do this not just with our forests and wildlife but also with the fish in our oceans and streams, the soils on our farms, and the grass in our pastures. The redwoods can show us the way.