Story and photos by Dave Van de Mark
In this day and age, there are few “pioneers” out there discovering new landscapes or exploring places for the first time. Early mountain men of the Yellowstone region, though not the first to see it, were among the first to recognize the region’s beauty, unique character, and potential fragileness, and spoke strongly of a need for special protection. In that way, they were certainly pioneers of an idea that helped establish the National Park System.
So, if I may be permitted to draw upon the concept of pioneering an idea, the highlight of my personal involvement in establishing the Redwood National Park should be considered the “Emerald Mile” – an idea and a place that profoundly influenced the final 1968 boundaries along Redwood Creek.
While definitely not its first visitor, I certainly was one of its great advocates. The Emerald Mile later became part of the rallying cry of the Emerald Creek Committee, a group of mostly younger activists formed during the “park expansion era” who were determined to save Emerald Creek from clear cutting. How many folks know where Emerald Creek got its name?
How It All Started 55 Years Ago
A locally based group, Citizens for a Redwoods National Park (CRNP), was formed not long after the National Park Service & National Geographic announced discovery of (then) the 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 6th tallest trees on Redwood Creek – three of them in a grove on a horseshoe bend of the river. I soon joined in and by 1967 became the organization’s president.
I was fortunate to participate on a special winter float trip in February 1966 down Redwood Creek, which gave me a very early glimpse of 22 miles of the river – the same area soon to be proposed for protection by the Sierra Club, CRNP and other national conservation groups. The oarsman was Paul Geerlings, an old hand at running Redwood Creek – he and friend Maynard Munger had kayaked the watershed at least twice before.
The first day was spent negotiating much of the rapids and rocky gorge sections of Redwood Creek downstream of Coyote Creek. The canyon was scenic, wild, inviting – and obviously rarely visited by anyone.
On the second day, we experienced a remarkable transition in the river’s character – the rapids diminished and the pace of the river slowed; denser stands of trees lined the ever-widening channel. After rounding a sharp river bend we were confronted by an incredible wall of trees, the first major grove along the river. Stopping both to rest and explore, Paul recounted to me how much Maynard had reacted a year earlier to this stunning yet tranquil setting and dramatic change in the river’s character – think of having just fought your way through difficult rapids for a few hours, then suddenly finding yourself floating slowly and easily past large trees with sunlight glancing off the river, giving it a touch of an emerald hue – it was so beautiful to Maynard, he declared this peaceful stretch the “Emerald Mile.”
As Paul recited this story I, too, was being taken in by the same emotions that had affected Maynard. As far as I know, he never expressed these feelings, not publically anyway (I spent two days with him on another trip). But I took a different course – I knew this beautiful, wild, yet peaceful place just had to be on the radar for protection! So I would soon expand the idea of it to include the gorge and transition to peaceful waters – it was now a two-mile stretch of river, including its adjacent unspoiled slopes and forest!
Even though the Redwood Creek valley becomes increasingly impressive with broad views of intact forests lining both banks (especially downstream of the Tall Trees Grove), there is something altogether special imparted by the river’s character in the Emerald Mile as it transforms from a rocky gorge with powerful rapids and deep pools to milder hints of sound and flow. Every river bend rewarded the rare visitor with lovely views of intact forests and more likely a chance of seeing a bear or mountain lion than a fellow human being!
The Evolving Political Landscape
The existence of the world’s tallest trees eight miles up Redwood Creek made it clear they would be included in any future park. But that also posed a significant problem for features located further upstream that were receiving almost no attention. Ironically, the fact that many sections of the Sierra Club’s proposal were pristine and virtually inaccessible meant significant parts of the large proposal were seldom seen by the media and members of Congress. There was no internet to help spread the word.
The very tallest living things, however, rising right up there before your eyes – tangible, measurable and magnificent – were a different story. The timber industry even argued that nothing more needed saving – pointing to just across the river, where logging had gone on for years and had (they said) caused no harm. Industry kept pressing the point that acquiring land beyond the tallest trees – both upstream and even upslope of them – was unnecessary. Protect the lower part of the valley and lower part of Prairie Creek and “snake” a narrow corridor of protection (and access) up to and around the tallest trees and you have a park even industry-supporting members of Congress would come to accept.
Throughout 1966, 1967 and early 1968, as the scenarios outlined above were evolving, I agonized over the possibility that so much significant beauty and ecological value located far upstream from the tallest trees would go unprotected simply for lack of publicity. So I put a storyline together to promote the Emerald Mile to anyone willing to listen – even leaders of the national conservation organizations had yet to see it for themselves. (Note: I was also talking up Bridge Creek, that major tributary entering Redwood Creek at the downstream end of what I would define the Emerald Mile to be – it was an incredibly beautiful place that also “no one knew”).
This effort culminated in Citizens for a Redwoods National Park’s twelve-page August 1967 brochure with photos, titled The Special Reasons – Scientific and Aesthetic – That Indicate a Redwoods National Park Should Be On Redwood Creek. It was sent to all members of Congress and news organizations throughout the nation.
The Attributes of the Emerald Mile
- As indicated earlier, it’s really about a two-mile stretch of river that was the least impacted part of Redwood Creek – the sights and sounds of commercial activity had not affected the remote groves and river experiences found there 50+ years ago. These two miles were the only place on Redwood Creek where the whole canyon – from Bald Hills Road down to the river and back up to opposite ridge top – was essentially intact!
- The Emerald Mile (and the river further upstream) added a rich diversity to the ecosystem of Redwood Creek: Open grassland prairies on the east upper slopes which were historically used by Native Americans; warmer spring and summer temperatures and soil variations resulting in various mixed conifer & hardwood tree associations.
- Redwood Creek here was making a remarkable physical and aesthetic transition from a narrow, rugged “gorge” with rapids – with the river flowing along the Grogan fault, separating two geologic formations – to a more placid river meandering through denser forests and past occasionally flooded flats where very large trees grew.
- The Emerald mile has the first really significant sized redwood flat and grove of redwoods. There are small flats further upstream too, but this one gets your attention! It remains a beautiful and unspoiled wilderness grove.
- In short, Redwood Creek was “growing up” in the Emerald Mile and becoming the river system that produced a perfect environment for the tallest trees located further downstream.
- The Emerald Mile ends where Bridge Creek joins Redwood Creek from the west side (Emerald Creek comes in shortly downstream from the east side). Even though most of the largest redwoods made home further down the valley, the Emerald Mile and Bridge Creek were a duo unmatched to visit.
- The Emerald Mile thus was never just about the river – all the slope forests & prairies from Bald Hills Road down to the river and up to the opposite ridge were part of the concept – it was the least spoiled part of Redwood Creek being proposed for protection. And what remains of it intact today is still quite remote & lovely and worthy of your efforts to explore.
- Despite appearing virtually inaccessible, the Emerald Mile was actually easier to access fifty years ago for a full day’s activity by anyone in reasonable shape. So many times I and folks I guided – including a 64-year-old I would later learn was being awarded a share of the Nobel Peace Prize – would walk down one of the prairies (quite an experience in itself) and relax by a pool in the gorge, then visit the wilderness grove, and then hike the lower reaches of Bridge Creek. Toward day’s end, we’d say “hello” to the tall trees and slowly work our way back up to Bald Hills by way of the “Hermit Trail” – 10 miles of fairly strenuous travel I partially relived just last summer (getting old ☹).
The Emerald Mile at Field Hearings
The Emerald Mile received premier attention when the House Subcommittee on Parks & Recreation held hearings in Eureka, CA (1967) and visited the proposed parklands in Redwood Creek the day before.
During the field trip’s extended stopover to the tall trees, Edgar Wayburn of the Sierra Club and I had planned a “hijack” in advance, with several committee members cooperating (one was Morris Udall, brother of Stewart Udall, Interior Secretary under president Kennedy). As Committee Chairman Wayne Aspinall angrily watched, a small helicopter picked up the Congressmen – one at a time – and flew them upstream into the Emerald Mile where I greeted them and escorted them into the wilderness grove.
At the hearing, a majority of participants demanded the Emerald Mile be included in the park. Toward the end of the day, an exasperated Aspinall threw his arms up and exclaimed, “Where is this miracle mile?” Had he been willing to go there the day before, he would have known! No friend of either parks or wilderness, he threatened all who went with loss of travel funding.
The 90th Congress finally passed legislation to establish the original park, but the Senate and House bills differed, most importantly on how far upstream the narrow “worm” corridor would go. The House version originally included the Emerald Mile, but was treacherously re-drafted by the scoundrel Aspinall at the last minute to exclude it, so upper boundaries were set not far beyond the tall trees; the Senate version protected the Emerald Mile. This difference had to be resolved in a Conference Committee before going for the president’s signature. One House conference member was “Bizz” Johnson, long time 2nd District Congressman and not considered pro-park. It was summer and it was hot (!) but the Sierra Club kept my car full of gas and paid my expenses as I drove 1,800 miles around his District, getting folks in various towns to contact him. In those days, if he got a letter from three people regarding the same subject, “stuff” hit the fan so to speak! Well he got hundreds if not thousands of letters and calls, enough to convince him to vote for the Senate version of the bill, rebuffing Aspinall and including the Emerald Mile, thus saving six more miles of the Redwood Creek channel.
The Emerald Mile was now protected within the new park – but only as a fraction of what should have been and not as it was meant to be – a semi-sweet victory at best.
In reality, the Emerald Mile was always “shouting” for attention on behalf of all of upper Redwood Creek and the impressive array of features found there. When combined with the more well-known and equally impressive character of lower Redwood Creek, the results would have been a superb Redwood National Park. The world will forever regret it didn’t listen soon enough.
Next: Assaults on the integrity of the original park boundaries and drastic need for expansion to save the park.