Ancient Redwood Stump Covered in Moss

The Last Stands

Once 2,000,000 acres of majestic old-growth coast redwood forests dominated California’s northern Coast Range. In addition to nurturing a complex, interwoven habitat for countless plants and animals, they were also home to many Native Americans who had deep, spiritual connections to their rich environment.

Then the Europeans arrived.

To these shores they brought their restless ambition and abiding belief that they and their claims on the land were superior to those who preceded them. Once gold was discovered here, what these entitlements lacked in validity was more than made up for by the urgency of greed.

In the lusty rush for prosperity and profit, those who did not prospect mines developed sprawling farmsteads, sought every kind of fur and meat, or harvested timber.

In the course of this frenzy, native peoples were displaced and murdered – actively with weapons and passively with pathogens. Beaver, otter, elk, and other animals were exploited to near extinction. Overwhelmed in the end, each of these groups were at least able to resist the onslaught to some degree.

The trees didn’t stand a chance.

Literally employing cutting edge technology of the times, men clear-cut whole forests with a newfound mechanized fervor. Cedars that took root when the Roman Empire was in its prime were felled in mere moments. These venerable trees were unceremoniously sectioned-up and rolled off by the thousands on the burgeoning rail system to be chewed up by hungry sawmills and spit out as fodder for America’s building craze. No sooner had one grove been cleared than the lumbermen moved to the next hillside, clapping each other on the back for a job well done.

Less than a century after the first Europeans arrived in 1800, only 5% of those 2 million coast redwood acres remained.

A marvel of industrial progress.

“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. And few destroyers of trees ever plant any; nor can planting avail much toward restoring our grand aboriginal giants.”

― John Muir, “Save the Redwoods”

In the late 1800s and early 1900’s, having seen so many natural places steamrolled by need and greed, America developed a belated preservationist sensibility.

It was in this era that naturalist John Muir famously lobbied presidents, congress, and all who would listen to his inspiring words to take action and protect what was left of this land’s natural treasures from further wanton destruction.

Following Muir’s lead in founding the Sierra Club, the Save the Redwoods League formed as concerned citizens realized all the remaining acres of coast redwood forests were owned by lumber companies. They endeavored, and succeeded, in putting a halt to the harvesting of these last stands. Eventually, they purchased the land, preserving it for future generations.

Today, the league partners with Yurok and other Native American tribes, interagency park systems, ecologists, and wild animal advocates to help to restore the woods’ health and former vigor. 

Having spent the last four weeks living under the towering canopy of these precious groves, I am so grateful for all these people’s inspired and tireless efforts.

In my next post, I share some of what we experienced here.

Old-growth redwoods stands in Jedediah Smith State Park, CA

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