A Century of Efforts to Save Redwoods

Redwoods and rhododendrons in Redwood National Park. Photo: Martin Swett.
Redwoods and rhododendrons in Redwood National Park. Photo: Martin Swett.

• 100th Anniversary of Save the Redwoods League 

• 50th Anniversary of Redwood National Park

For those who love redwood forests, with their towering trunks and carpets of ferns and redwood sorrel, 2018 has been a year of celebrations.  The Save-the-Redwoods League is celebrating its 100th anniversary; Redwood National Park was established 50 years ago, and 40 years ago the Redwoods Expansion Act enlarged the park by another 48,000 acres.

The efforts to protect impressive groves of coast redwoods started as soon as settlers laid eyes on them, these forests that were so crucial to the lives of Native Americans.

The concept for the Save-the-Redwoods League was simple—donations were used to purchase important groves or tracts of land threatened by logging and donate those forests to the state of California. These areas then became parks for protection.  The iconic large wooden signs, with yellow routed lettering identifying memorial groves, sprung up quickly. Redwood forests saved in this manner became the crown jewels of the state park system we know today: Richardson Grove, Humboldt Redwoods, Prairie Creek, Del Norte Redwoods and Jedediah Smith State Parks.

Aerial photo of a clearcut region above Tall Trees Grove that was added to the national park in the Redwoods Expansion Act in 1978. Photo: Dave Van de Mark.
Aerial photo of a clearcut region above Tall Trees Grove that was added to the national park in the Redwoods Expansion Act in 1978. Photo: Dave Van de Mark.

In the 1950s, redwood logging was still a major economic driver for coastal northern California and the saved groves were becoming isolated pockets of forests.  In 1955, winter storms toppled 500 towering giants in Rockefeller Forest on Bull Creek, exposing the results of logging the upper reaches of watersheds.  State parks were too small to fully protect the groves. As fewer old-growth trees remained, logging became more intense. Tourists driving along the Redwood Highway were shocked not only to see huge redwoods on trucks barreling through the state parks, but also the endless barren, treeless landscape along roads to popular destinations like Fern Canyon.

Many conservation organizations locally and nationally backed the creation of a national park to protect sustainable watersheds of forests, not just isolated groves. Timber companies were determined to remove all commercial trees, and logging was the primary source of employment for the region’s labor force. Most conservationists understood that the pressure to clear-cut was created by timber company corporate goals, rather than by loggers who were trying to make a living. Regardless, the region’s community became fractured and threats were made on both sides
of the issue.

At the same time, the California Transportation Department (CalTrans) began a long-term plan to push a modern freeway connecting San Francisco to Oregon right through the heart of the redwoods—including through groves citizens had worked to protect.  The freeway began in the parks of southern Humboldt now collectively known as the Avenue of the Giants. Forests were fragmented by roads, and the river was left surrounded by upper slopes where trees had been harvested.  In the summer of 1960, with no irony at all,  California Governor Edward Brown, father of today’s Gov. Jerry Brown,  stood along the new multi-lane 101 freeway that cut through Humboldt Redwoods and proudly proclaimed: “…What we have done here will be done elsewhere in the redwoods—at Prairie Creek, Jedediah Smith and Richardson Grove!”

This plan caught the League in the crosshairs. “Thousands of Americans who contributed to the League did not intend the acres purchased with their donations to be assured to speed traveling salesmen and logging trucks,” wrote Sierra Club President Ed Wayburn.

One league donor wrote: “I am sorry not to contribute again to you but the State of California has welched on the understanding that existed when contributions have been made to preserve inviable for all time as natural areas.”

The push for a Redwood National Park was lit like a fire. In 1963, the National Geographic Society along with the Sierra Cub measured a tree in what is now called Tall Trees Grove along Redwood Creek. This was the tallest known tree at the time and became a rallying point for those who wanted to protect redwoods.

There was not complete agreement among conservationists  regarding where to focus the effort to save a large, relatively intact watershed. The League preferred Mill Creek in Del Norte County adjacent to Jedediah Smith State Park while the Sierra Club thought the public could not save both Mill Creek and Redwood Creek and focused their efforts on Redwood Creek in Humboldt County.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating Redwood National Park—an effort his wife Lady Bird Johnson had championed. The new park still did not encompass full watersheds and, as clear-cuts on unstable soils came right to the border of the park, conservationists fought to fix the watershed problem. In 1978, Congress passed the Redwoods Expansion Act, which included most of the Redwood Creek watershed. In the meantime, the League continued to use donated funds to purchase parts of Mill Creek watershed in Del Norte County. Today Redwood National and State Parks contain 131,983 acres (federal: 71,715; state: 60,268). Old-growth forests cover 38,982 acres (federal: 19,640; state: 19,342).

Many of the acres added after 1968 had previously been clear-cut. The parks have been actively working to restore the forests and remove logging roads that choke creeks with soil and debris.

This year, the League launched the Redwoods Rising partnership (www.savetheredwoods.org/project/redwoods-rising/) with Redwood National and State Parks to provide much-needed funds and focus to restoration efforts.

In July, Congressman Jared Huffman introduced the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act. The Act would add Redwood Creek and several other tributaries to the Wild & Scenic River program and add thousands of acres of potential wilderness to assure these forests are preserved for this and future generations to wander in and find inspiration.