article and photos by Dave Van de Mark
Late in 1968, Redwood National Park became a reality! It was clearly a last chance act to save some large blocks of virgin forest that were being rapidly lost to big caterpillar tractor-based logging right up to the very moment of its enactment. While certainly better than nothing, the new park protected only about half of the old growth remaining in Redwood Creek and lower Prairie Creek that would have been protected by the largest Sierra Club proposal.
The largest intact, unprotected area belonged to Arcata Redwood Company (ARCO), which owned most of the east side of Redwood Creek for about a dozen river miles from Highway 101, most of which was pristine. Georgia-Pacific (G-P) owned most of the west side for about the same distance and had logged scattered areas since the late 50’s. Simpson Timber Company owned much of both sides further upstream. Between those three companies, they remained in control of over 20,000 acres of old growth forest in Redwood Creek.
The boundary of the original park was a total ecological and scenic disaster from the get go. The only significant protection was given to a few miles of lower Redwood Creek near Orick, encompassing several small drainages on ARCO’s east slope but, tragically, only the lower portions of two exquisite watersheds on G-P’s west side: Elam and McArthur creeks. Left out completely were some of the finest upper slope and ridge top forests located anywhere.
The remainder of protection afforded Redwood Creek was in the form of the infamous “Worm” – a mere quarter mile wide strip on either side of the river, snaking up to the Tallest Trees, located eight miles up from 101 and continuing six more miles to include the Emerald Mile. Such a narrow strip of land offered no hope of protecting the original park from sights and sounds of timber activities and certainly not from direct impacts like erosion and land sliding. Furthermore, too much of the entire watershed remained out of park control.
All of the east side of Redwood Creek upslope from the worm was intact when the park was created and a significant amount of the west side was too. Other fine old growth parcels found in lower Prairie Creek and upper Mill Creek adjacent to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park also sadly remained unsaved and vulnerable to what would follow.
The Evolving Disaster
Those of us local activists who remained involved had the unenviable task of now dealing with two “enemies” – the timber companies, out to take down what remained as quickly as they could, and the National Park Service itself. During the first few years that Lucille Vinyard, myself and others tried to interact with the park, we were met with almost outright hostility. “Go away” was the impression we received.
About the only significant “safeguard” the park engineered for its own land was to negotiate an 800 foot buffer adjoining the “worm”. This buffer was not a permanent addition to the park – merely a means to reduce the amount of timber harvesting to the park’s boundary at any given time. Eventually, forest between the patch cuts would also be cut.
The only other benefit the buffer provided to the park was that it called for a better form of logging, using cables to haul logs up to a landing rather than tractors. Above that buffer, ARCO was opening up a contiguous expanse of thousands of acres of tractor-logged land – destroying almost all living vegetation, gouging out wide swaths of soil, and often slicing far into underlying unstable bedrock. Original water flow throughout was being severely disrupted and rerouted, resulting in landslides and massive amounts of road and tractor trail erosion.
There were other land use “agreements” being painstakingly negotiated privately between the park and adjacent landowners, but these were not publically well known and became time-wasting exercises by the timber industry.
Meanwhile, the public wasn’t hearing much from Redwood National Park until the cumulative sum of damage was too much to ignore. The outside world was already exceedingly alarmed, often because of pictures that I and others were distributing to the media. The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council sued over what was happening. Geologists Richard Janda and Robert Curry produced excellent reports demonstrating that upslope and upstream erosion was threatening the very existence of the tallest trees and other park features. Each year more sediment was reaching the river and raising the channel to levels that were threatening the integrity of the groves. Fine silt from occasional high water flows is excellent for the redwoods, but not large rocks and debris.
Clear-cutting was ruining the once intact and beautiful vistas that visitors enjoyed while visiting Redwood Creek.
Another significant development occurring between 1968 and 1978 was the formation of a new group of activists and researchers who were known as the Emerald Creek Committee, led by John Amodio. Of course, I and others worked with them, but they were clearly a highly self-motivated bunch – fresh blood, so to speak – who worked hard to prevent some key timber sales from being approved in Emerald Creek, their label for the sizeable east slope tributary named for Harry Weir, the logging boss of ARCO.
Emerald Creek enters Redwood Creek just downstream from the Emerald Mile and was being hit hard by clear-cutting on its upper slopes. The new sales would have brutally impacted the inner gorge of this, still beautiful, canyon. At least two big sales were halted as a result of their efforts to get the State of California more involved. Bravo!
Finally, finally, finally – even Redwood National Park had seen and heard enough and their many scientists began to speak out openly regarding the impacts they were observing and measuring. Then, to everyone’s total surprise in late 1976, the National Park Service proposed expanding the park – a historic break from all previous management goals they had been pursuing.
New Hopes: Park Expansion, Restoration and Father Time
By the end of 1976, public outcry for a stop to the cutting, plus clear revelations that the original park boundaries were failing to protect park resources and also could not remotely provide visitors a truly excellent experience, eventually led to its significant expansion (mostly in Redwood Creek) in 1978. By adding 48,000 acres, centered around the existing worm, the whole of lower Redwood Creek from ridgeline to ridgeline was protected. Upstream from the park, a Park Protection Zone of 30,000 acres was created to help manage future timber practices. An additional 9,000 acres of old-growth were now protected.
Over a short period of time, the administration of the park really matured and many fine personnel came on board that greatly valued their responsibilities. Because of all the previous damage to upper watershed areas, channel aggradation continued in Redwood Creek into the early 80’s, putting the Tall Trees briefly in great danger of being breached by gravels during high water levels.
But counter measures were also underway in the form of some extraordinary rehabilitation work – original slope contours were being restored (especially in the prairies), roads were being removed, and erosion control measures were being implemented. It was historically remarkable work that earned praise the world over. My only criticism would be that I wish more effort had been given to creating additional trails out of restored old roadbeds as was done on part of the Dolason Prairie Trail and with horse trails on the west side of Redwood Creek.
Even today, there is ongoing work to restore some logged over lands in Prairie Creek and Mill Creek to old-growth like conditions (which, of course, will take centuries). Some of the logged areas are so densely packed with small trees, that it will take longer to evolve to an old growth “look”. However, by carefully thinning out some of these small tree “weeds” and leaving behind a better spacing, perhaps the evolution to old-growth conditions can be hastened. The experiment is real and ongoing and is being called “Redwoods Rising”.