Save the Redwoods

Corporate logging has destroyed much of California’s once vast and majestic redwood forests. As environmental crises collide, the imperative to save the remaining trees is stronger than ever. That means challenging those who profit from the trees’ destruction.

Coastal redwood forests are the most effective carbon sinks on Earth. (Adam Nemeroff/Unsplash)

“Greasy Pete” (his tree-sitter name) went up the Mamma Tree on April 8, 2021; “Bugs” followed, climbing the next closest big tree on April 11.  They climbed platforms 75 feet up the 200-foot-tall redwood trees, well-equipped to survive indefinitely.

The expectation was that there would be a confrontation on the morning of April 12 — the date set for the Anderson Logging Company of Fort Bragg to begin cutting. Several dozen supporters joined the tree sitters early that morning, prepared to form a human chain to cross the logging road and stop the trucks. It didn’t happen. This delay has provided some breathing space for Greasy and Bugs, but no one doubts that the confrontation is coming.

The tree sit is on the far western edge of the Jackson State Forest, 48,000 acres of publicly owned redwood forest in Mendocino County in Northern California. The sit is intended to stop the first of several timber harvest plans (THPs) now in the works for the forest, all of which will involve logging within two or three miles of the county’s famed coastline, not to mention its villages and coastal neighborhoods — Caspar on the coast is literally a stone’s throw away from this one.

Cal Fire (formally the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), the massive state bureaucracy which has managed Jackson State since it was purchased in 1948 with a mandate to demonstrate the best forest practices), does no logging itself. Still, this bit of its business, Jackson State, has always been about logging.

Rather, Cal Fire contracts out, in this case to Anderson Logging. In “good” times this brings in millions. Cal Fire has a budget of some $2.3 billion. It employs 10,000 people in a variety of capacities, chiefly related to firefighting but also to managing California’s eight demonstration forests, of which Jackson State is easily the largest. It also relies on 3,500 inmates: young men, mostly black and brown, identifiable in their orange jumpsuits.

Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Cal Fire’s current director, Thom Porter, whose background is chiefly in firefighting, but also includes a BA in forestry (logging) from the University of California, Berkeley. Anderson Logging is a garden variety logging outfit; it can be judged with the many other bandits that have been cutting in these woods for 150 years. There is virtually no old growth in Jackson State; there will be no second or third growth if these loggers have their way.

Commercial Logging’s Satanic Mills

The tree sitters are not the first to stand up to the loggers. In 1946, the liberal US representative Helen Gahagan Douglas proposed to nationalize the entire redwood forest. The back-to-the-landers of Albion Ridge have been a thorn in the logger’s side since the 1970s. Mendocino County was the late Judi Bari’s base for Redwood Summer in the 1990s. Tree sitters have been the pride of Northern California environmentalists for several decades now, above all in Humboldt, the county north of here, though Julia Butterfly Hill, the best-known of sitters, was widely known and highly regarded here in Mendocino. In this century, the campaign to save Jackson State Forest slowed the lumbermen down. Now, with Mendocino Trail Stewards leading the way, saving this forest is becoming a movement again. (The Stewards have been joined by EPIC (the Environmental Protection Information Center of Humboldt County), Redwood Nation Earth First, and a host of local groups — most importantly, surely, several Pomo tribes).

A tree sitter in Jackson State Forest, Northern California. (Courtesy of the author)

Mendocino County is the heart of what ironically is still referred to as the Redwood Empire. Once one of the great natural wonders of the world, redwood trees were the dominant flora on the coast from the Oregon border south as far as Big Sur. It was (and what’s left of it is) a band of woodland 450 miles in length, reaching inland usually no more than twenty miles from the sea. Since the time of dinosaurs, it has flourished through wet winters, cool ocean breezes, and the fog of summer. These trees, some 2500 years old or more, grow to 350 feet, making them, with the sequoia of the Sierra, the largest creatures on earth.

The first peoples of this coast lived with the forests; that’s another story, but, to our great benefit, we now increasingly hear their voices, in spite of a history of grotesque pillage and plunder by settlers past and the racists of today. Commercial loggers first came to Mendocino with the gold rush; lumber was needed for the mines and railroads, and for California’s fast-growing cities. The mills in Mendocino were established in the 1860s. The loggers attacked the coastal forests first; timber was taken out by ship. The steep, rugged coastal mountains were insurmountable barriers to inland alternatives. By the end of the century, there was a mill in virtually every estuary and cove along this rocky coast — satanic mills by any standard — belching fire and smoke, surrounded by instant slums, a coastal chain of oozing sores.

By the end of the century, 40 percent of the old growth was gone. The devastation left behind was clear for all to see. The land, wrote a founder of the Save the Redwoods League in 1919, was devastated; it reminded him of the “war ravaged districts of France.” US Highway 101, the “Redwood Highway,” built in part with convict labor, opened the rest of the forest from the inland valleys; chainsaws, bulldozers, and trucks took out the trees of every last nook and cranny of the forest. Today one is as likely to see a big tree in Berkeley as here in Mendocino County. Less than 3 percent of the entire forest is old growth.

Action for Our Future

All this, however, has brought with it new perspectives on the forest. The Save the Redwood League once focused entirely on old growth; now it champions preservation of second and even third growth. The tree sitters are in second growth trees, big trees in a forest dominated by small and smaller trees. They inhabit a lovely grove well worth saving, but typically one surrounded by thick undergrowth and the slash of past logging. Visitors to the coast are often awestruck by the Navarro Redwoods State Park, a strip of second growth along the Navarro River, often not knowing just how narrow — and young in redwood time — this state park is. Second growth can be stunning.

Still there is the magic: “no thoughtful person,” wrote the naturalist Reed Noss, “could stand beneath one of these immense trees, gaze up into its canopy, and not help but think that here is a remarkable organism — so much more than all the board feet of lumber that men might cleave from it.” Conservationists as well as ordinary visitors have long been overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of these groves, together with, less tangibly, the inspiration gained from walking amongst them. We are not alone in thinking this. In our age of COVID, Japanese therapists recommend shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” as having psychological benefits in the face of the pandemic. Good advice. Of course, there are the more mundane pleasures of these woodlands for those who live in our coastal neighborhoods — the hikers and dog walkers, bird watchers and mushroom hunters, the trail bikers, the ordinary citizens now joining this fight.

We live today, however, in an age of multiple crises, including one of extinction – what is to become of our lions and bears and bobcats and deer, of the owls and other birds and of all the creatures that we cannot see, yet make up this extraordinary ecology? Surely, habitat restoration is called for, not more destruction, lest this silent slaughter continue.

And now, of course, there is climate change. Our political leaders seem to be all in on this. Carbon sequestration is acknowledged to be key to rescuing a threatened planet. They say they have the science on their side. And why not? My friend Will Russell, professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University and the foremost proponent of natural restoration, puts it this way: “The essential story here is that coastal redwood forests are the best terrestrial carbon sinks on Earth, approximately twice that of their nearest competitors.”

And we learn that that’s an understatement. We all know about the Amazon. The expansive Amazon tropical rainforest of South America is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. But on a per-acre basis, the Amazon is not nearly as efficient at absorbing carbon as the coastal temperate rainforests. The Douglas fir forests of Oregon and the hemlock and cedar forests of Alaska store about twice as much carbon per acre as the Amazon. The giant redwoods of Northern California, which store seven times as much, form the most-carbon-dense forests in the world.

So the response is easy: save these trees. But, in truth, huge challenges remain: corporate greed, private profit, and compliant politicians. Almost all of the forest land of Mendocino County is in private, corporate hands. The Mendocino Redwood Corporation (owned by San Francisco’s Fisher family) alone owns 228,000 acres. And, alas, Cal Fire, a public institution, acts like a corporation. With redwood timber now selling at an all-time high, there are millions to be made from just one harvest of Jackson State’s yield. Never mind that California remains awash in cash, and Cal Fire, in the aftermath of the wildfires, is the darling of the state and can get as much of that as it wants. There is never enough when it comes to cash. Anyway, why let the Mendocino Redwood Company run away with all that money? These, then, are powerful opponents with powerful impulses. Common sense aside, the forest remains contested terrain, irrationality endures, and, as of now, the loggers rule.

Nevertheless, people are changing, and the old guard here is giving way to a new generation. “We need these trees,” Greasy told me (before returning to high school in Mendocino — replaced by another youngster), “for my generation, for our future. I hope our action here will inspire others, future generations.”

So, here’s to Greasy and Bugs and the tree sitters on call, courageous and farsighted, faces of the future today.