Goliaths from Another Age

9/25/2014

Fall 2014

When the silent morning fog rolls in, this primeval forest becomes a mystical maze of tree trunks and tangled root systems. The tops of the colossal coast redwoods are somewhere aloft, hidden from view. On the forest floor, few clues exist as to the truly massive size of these trees. But when the fog burns off, and you can see the first limbs some 200 feet overhead, the majesty of the largest trees on earth is revealed.

These coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) call a thin strip of land from central California to Oregon home. Here the climate, soil, rain, fog, and temperature create the ideal environment for these trees to grow impossibly tall. This is the only place in the world you’ll find the coast redwood, and, standing in the middle of a grove, it’s hard to imagine a world outside.

WALKING AMONG SKYSCRAPERS

Of the tallest trees on earth, a Sequoia named Hyperion is the tallest, standing at 379 feet. That’s approximately 37 stories, taller than the Statue of Liberty. Seven more trees rival Hyperion’s height, each one more than 370 feet tall. Another 40 or so stand at least 360 feet and 169 trees break the 350-foot barrier. Estimates of the tallest trees across the parks and reserves indicate more than 600 trees are 340 feet or taller.

In today’s disposable world with our ravenous appetite for consuming natural resources, these remaining silent sentinels stand tall, having witnessed thousands of years of history, and enduring myriad natural and man-made incursions. How many redwoods lined the coast just 200 years ago? Then, in the days before men armed with saws and axes began to fell the giants, the coast redwoods’ territory was 2 million acres (that’s three times the size of Rhode Island); today, only 5 percent of the original forest still stands.

When gold was discovered in 1849, California’s population exploded. Hundreds of thousands of gold-fevered dreamers flocked here, driving the demand for lumber sky-high. The answer: redwoods. Thousands of board feet of beautiful, straight-grained lumber lay locked within one trunk. So massive logging operations began, and entire mountains were clear-cut as coast redwoods were felled to the last tree.

The surviving stands of ancient coast redwoods are found in Redwood National and State Parks, and Big Basin Redwoods and Humboldt Redwoods State Parks. To walk among these sky-scraping trees is humbling, awesome and overpowering – you crane your neck to see the tops, but they remain hidden, literally out of sight. These trees give the forest a sense of peace, which permeates the soil, and hangs in the air. It arrives each morning with the fog and leaves behind a residue of hope – if we can preserve these trees, this ancient forest, what else can we accomplish?

CONNECTING PAST AND PRESENT

If you were to walk among this same redwood stand 2,000 years ago, the trees that today tower more than 30 stories overhead would be little more than seedlings sprouting from the earth or reaching up from the trunk of a fallen tree.

It’s hard to imagine that trees like this could grow from tiny seeds, but they do. The coast redwood is a conifer and, as such, produces a cone full of seeds. Each cone is the size of a large olive, each seed no larger than a tomato seed. 

Very few seeds from a redwood germinate, but those that do grow rapidly, casting a wide net of roots and achieving 1 to 3 feet of height each year. More often than not, young trees sprout from boles – hard, knotty growths formed from dormant seedlings on the trunk of a living tree – around the base of the “parent” tree. These sprouts are actually clones, genetic twins to the larger tree from which they take nourishment.

During their lifetimes, redwoods will face drought and fire, but few pests (thanks to a thick bark – up to a foot in mature trees – that’s rich in tannins), and stand as silent witness to countless historic events thanks to their incredible longevity. The oldest coast redwoods still standing are estimated to be 2,200 years old, meaning they were saplings when the roots of early Christianity were just being sown.

ALL IN A LIFETIME – TIMELINE

The average coast redwood is between 500 and 700 years old. These are so-called second- or third-growth forests. But the oldest are estimated to be more than 2,200 years old. 

The longevity of these trees is impressive. Countless historic events have occurred during their lifetimes. Conservation and preservation efforts will help ensure that the youngest trees in the grove stand for a millennia or more.

It’s difficult to imagine something so old living today. If we looked at a cross-cut section of the oldest coast redwoods and counted the rings, we’d find events like the Civil War, the French Revolution, and the invention of the printing press only a few inches from the outermost rings of the tree. And in those outermost rings, all of our lifetimes: World War II, The Beatles, disco, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Internet, 9/11, and the election of Barak Obama on the very edge of a huge wheel of time.

PRESERVATION EFFORTS

Though Californians have long appreciated the grandeur of the redwood groves, conservation and preservation efforts didn’t begin in earnest until 1900. That’s when citizens concerned about the clear-cutting of redwood forests formed the Sempervirens Club, now known as the Sempervirens Fund.

In 1902, the Sempervirens Club’s lobbying efforts were successful, and California’s first State Park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County, was formed. 

In 1918, Save the Redwoods League was created and began a campaign to develop a state or national park specifically for the redwoods. By 1923, they’d acquired land through purchases and donations, and successfully lobbied the California government to create Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park followed in 1925 and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in 1929.

From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Save the Redwoods, the Sempervirens Club, and other groups launched similar efforts, lobbying legislators to regulate logging and set aside funds and lands for parks. Then, in 1961, Save the Redwoods, the Sierra Club, and the National Geographic Society resurrected an idea from 1919 for a national park, and they began to study possible sites. After seven years of studies and ongoing conversations, Congress established Redwood National Park. It didn’t take long for it to expand, and, by 1978, the park had added 48,000 acres. 

Since the late 1970s, conservation groups have continued to battle logging companies, fight for endangered animals (such as the northern spotted owl) that inhabit the old-growth redwood groves, and acquire land for new and existing parks. California’s legislature slashed the maximum allowable size of a clear-cut by half in the 1990s, and, today, advocates for more responsible logging practices are helping to balance ecological and industrial concerns.

In addition, continued efforts on the part of the National Park Service and numerous environmental groups to reduce light pollution and the impact of artificial lights has resulted in a return to the natural in Redwood National Park and other parks and forests across the United States. In addition to helping to provide unreal views of the Milky Way, reduced artificial light helps many animal species return to their natural nocturnal or diurnal rhythms, reducing stress and returning their environments to more natural states.

FOREST IN THE SKY

From the forest floor, you’d never suspect that high above your head a second forest grows and thrives in the mighty redwoods’ canopy.

As leaves fall, many collect in the branches and crotches of limbs 200 feet or more from the ground. Here, much like in the soil below, microbes, mosses, and fungi help decompose the leaves, converting them into soil. Over the seasons, this arboreal soil mat grows thicker, eventually thick enough to support larger and larger plants. Researchers have found soil mats as thick as 3 feet, with everything from huckleberry bushes (with huckleberries!) to California rhododendron to wildflowers and thick bunches of ferns growing in them. One of the most unusual discoveries was a 40-foot western hemlock growing on a branch high above the forest floor.

It’s not all flora in this arboreal ecosystem. Birds, such as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, hunt, nest, and raise their young in the boughs of coast redwoods and in the crowns of smaller redwoods and Douglas firs. Spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and 85 species of mites live here. Even aquatic creatures like the wandering salamander and copepods, a tiny aquatic crustacean that usually lives in forest streams, call this place home. 

CROWN JEWELS

Of the eight tallest coast redwoods, five are found in Redwood National Park. Hyperion, the tallest, at 379 feet (it would’ve broken 380 feet if not for woodpecker damage in the tree’s crown); Helios, at 376 feet; Icarus and Nugget at 371 feet; and Orion, at 370 feet. The others – Stratosphere, at 372 feet and Paradox and Lauralyn, at 370 feet – are in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. 

The exact locations of these crown jewels of old-growth coast redwoods are closely guarded secrets because vandalism – both intentional and accidental – is a concern to park rangers and redwood lovers alike. 

But no matter where you go or which tree you see, the moment you stand beneath one of these gentle giants, lean against its massive trunk, tilt your head back, and stare up into the canopy, you will be forever changed. The roots of the redwood will find their way into your heart and leave a lasting impression.

COAST REDWOOD ECOSYSTEMS

California’s northern coastline provides the only environment in the world where the coast redwoods can grow to skyscraper size. But what makes this area, and these trees, so unusual and so perfect for one another? 

Jason Frye is a travel writer and the author of two travel guides: Moon North Carolina and Moon North Carolina Coast. He’s currently driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, researching a third. Follow his adventures on Twitter.