All posts by Ruskin K Hartley

Experienced conservation professional recognized for collaborative approach, thoughtful leadership and innovative programs. Influential thought leader in forest conservation and state park reform. Successful fundraiser with extensive individual, foundation and public fundraising experience. Proven communicator experienced with traditional and social media.

It’s the moments

On friday afternoon I met Steve Chaney, the superintendent of Redwood National Park, in the small visitor center at Hiouchi in Del Norte county.  After 39 years with the National Park Service and five years at Redwood National Park, Steve is retiring and we’d arranged to go on one last walk through the redwoods before he heads to Colorado to spend more time with his grandchildren.

Steve Cheney and I enjoy a break on the Lawrence Merriam Memorial Grove bench on the Little Bald Hills Trail.
Steve Cheney and I enjoy a break on the Lawrence Merriam Memorial Grove bench on the Little Bald Hills Trail.

Steve chose the Little Bald Hills trail for our adventure. The trail takes off from Howland Hills Road on the eastern edge of the park and climbs up through the gnarly old redwoods of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park — part of the national park. After a few miles we crested a ridge that divides Mill Creek to the west from the South Fork of the Smith River to the east.  Up on the ridge, redwood give way to knobcone pine and wind beaten Douglas-fir covered with moss and lichen.  We even scared a rough grouse that beat and flapped off down the ridge. This little visited corner of the park feels remote and so very different from the primordial groves that envelop the trails further west near the coast. We turned around at a remote horse camp and swatted mosquitoes while we chatted.

As we walked back down the hill I asked Steve what his favorite places in the park were. He chose not to speak of places, but rather moments. He described walking along the fog-shrouded coast earlier this year. Leaving the forest behind and coming across an elk on the beach while off in the distance the fog lifted to reveal an off-shore rock with a golden eagle perched — commanding the scene and drawing the eye. Listening to Steve sent shivers down my spine and reminded me of similar experiences I have been fortunate to have in my 15 years among the redwoods. It was a good reminder to me that although the League’s day-to-day work is about saving land, promoting research, and supporting educators, our higher goal is about enabling these types of moments and memories.  Its those moments that make it all worth while.  I’d love to hear a few of yours.

[originally posted on Save the Redwoods League “Giant Thoughts” Blog, 8/26/2012]

25 years of controversy amid the monarchs

I just got back from a trip to see the cinnamon-colored giants of Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest in the southern Sierra. It was a real treat to explore a giant sequoia grove for the first time, especially when accompanied by members of the Save the Redwoods League research committee and the forest manager.
Giant Sequoia
Research Committee members exam a giant sequoia

Mountain Home is owned by Cal Fire, and its 4,800 acres are surrounded by the Giant Sequoia National Monument(same landscape, different ownership). In addition to many great campgrounds, Mountain Home is unique in that part of its mission is to provide a location for forest research and demonstration.  And research and demonstration are sorely needed for the giant sequoia groves.  Nowhere is this truer than in the 33 groves of the Giant Sequoia National Monument.

One of our Councillors told me the story of his trips to see these groves in 1987 ascontroversial logging was underway within the grove boundaries. To put it simply, in the name of reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire, the forest service leased contracts to log everything but the giant sequoias in a number of these groves.  The impact on the groves was catastrophic and the repercussions are with us today.  In the 1990 the League was party to a mediated settlement agreement that halted further logging and established protocols for managing the groves.  And in 2000, in the last days of the Clinton administration the groves were established as part of the Giant Sequoia National Monument.  In the 25 years since that logging, the forest has continued to grow, and in many places the groves are now choked with dense stands of young fir and pine. In fact, many of these stands are so dense that there is a significantly increased risk of catastrophic wildfire that threatens the very existence of the groves.

Fire clears out the base of giant sequoia trees
Prescribed fire clears out the base of giant sequoia trees

Everyone agrees this is a problem – the fire hazard is real, but there are contrasting views of how to manage the forest to reduce it. But for 25 years well-meaning individuals have fought about how to address this issue through multiple lawsuits.  The Forest Service is about to release its latest attempt at a management plan that would pave the way toward managing the groves. I would not be surprised if another round of lawsuits ensued.  Unfortunately every year that passes means another year that we have to hold our breath and hope that fires don’t wreak havoc with these irreplaceable groves. While we will never know definitively what the “best” management strategy is, waiting and doing nothing continues to imperil these monarchs.

The League’s focus is simple: ensuring that we bring the best science possible to protecting and managing these groves in the long-term. And that’s where places like Mountain Home come in – we can go into the field and look at the effect that fuel reduction, restoration, or logging within the groves has had and make informed decisions about the future.  We’ll keep you posted over the coming months as the latest chapter in the history of the monument unfolds. In the meantime, get out there and enjoy the sight of these wonderful sequoias that have stood tall for thousands of years.

[originally posted on, “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, August 21, 2012]

The marathon to reform state parks

I’ve enjoyed watching the Olympics these past three weeks — and not just because it’s hosted in London with a British squad that has surpassed all expectations.  It’s just plain fun to get into obscure sports and watch people at the top of their game run, jump, shoot, dive, cycle, or row their way into the history books. One thing has become clear to me over these weeks, that regardless of whether it is a 10 second sprint or a 2 hour (wow!!) marathon, they are all really marathons in their own rights if you consider the four years worth of work that goes on out of the spotlight to get prepared.

Montgomery Woods State Park. Photo by Peter Buranzon
Montgomery Woods State Park. Photo by Peter Buranzon

The current “event” in the state park crisis has been unfolding as I have watched the Olympics.  Much like the spotlight that shines bright during the gold medal event, all eyes have been focused on the “hidden funds” and other allegations.  The rush is now on to understand what happened, and why, and fix it.   We applaud the Governor’s intention to invest every dollar of the $23 million raised in parks back in the parks to support the partnerships that have been formed, to start to chip away at the deferred maintenance backlog, and to invest in revenue generating projects.  We call on both houses of the legislature to act rapidly and appropriate these funds that were paid by park users.

But once the spotlight moves on, the hard work will really start. If you like, we need to start training for the marathon. The additional $23 million will help around the margins, but still leaves parks vulnerable in the next year’s budget which is just 11 months off.  And beyond that, the underlying problems of parks — chronic underfunding, deferred maintenance, and a leadership and management approach that fails to meet the current challenges  — have taken a generation to build and cannot be fixed overnight.   If it does one thing, the current crisis underscores the need for reform and creates a platform for it to be pursued. I am confident that by the time the world’s attention turns to Rio and the 2016 Olympics, our state parks will look significantly better because of the work the park community is embarking on.  The League will continue to be a leader in this because of our longstanding history with the state park system and because the redwoods we have protected need a strong and vibrant state park system.

I welcome your thoughts about the types of changes you feel are needed to ensure that the future of the redwood state parks.  Also, what event did you get hooked on during the Olympics? For me, it was the hurdles — how they do that so fast I just will never know!

[originally posted on Save the Redwood League “Giant Thoughts” blog, 8/14/2012]

The Redwoods in Prehistory

One of the things I enjoy when I’m in England is playing “spot the redwood tree.” It’s really pretty easy. I once read that if you ascend any church steeple in England and scan the horizon, the tallest tree is likely to be a Sequoia wellingtoniagiant sequoia as we know them in the states.

Giant sequoias near Long Meg and her Daughters
Giant sequoia near Long Meg and her Daughters

While I have not been up a church steeple in many years, barely a day goes by when I’m in England that I don’t spot at least one towering giant sequoia. Now these are not the thousand-year-old monarchs you find in California’s great sequoia parks, but many are decent-sized trees that are pushing into their second century. I have a run I like to do from my parents’ house in northern England that passes a beautiful specimen by a Victorian house. I always stop to say hello.

But the most interesting sighting this time was of two decent-sized sequoias in a small copse by Long Meg and her Daughters. Long Meg is an ancient standing stone, and her daughters are ancient stones in a circle. William Wordsworth described them as second only to Stonehenge. They are in open country with views of the Lakeland Fells (high, barren fields) and Pennines mountains in the distance. Even today it feels like a power spot with deep roots.

Close up of Long Meg and her Daughters
Close up of Long Meg’s Daughters

Do you have a favorite redwood tree? Perhaps one that is outside the natural range of redwoods, maybe even one you have planted. Share your stories and photos with us here, or help us by loading their location into our Redwood Watch program so we can better understand where these remarkable trees grow today. Thank you!

[first published, “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, August 8, 2012]

Redwoods and Remembrance

I have spent the past week in England, not to attend the opening of the Olympics, but rather to attend my 90-year-old granny’s memorial service. As with all such occasions, the sadness of loss is mixed with the happiness of being with family and sharing memories.

Honor tree in Butano Redwoods State Park
I left England about 20 years ago, so really have only seen granny during family events and Christmas gatherings. She did visit me in California on several occasions—and each time we went to the redwoods. To Montgomery Woods, the Grove of Old Trees andButano State Park. These groves of towering giants—unlike any other places on Earth—left a lasting impression. One of her favorite photos was of her amid the redwoods at the Grove of Old Trees in Sonoma County.My oldest son who came with me cannot imagine anyone older than his “GG.” And even to me, she is my only real link to a Britain that went to war, survived bombs and rationing, and emerged into a bleak 1950s while America boomed. I choose to mark her memory and that of her husband Dick who died 21 years ago, by dedicating a tree at Butano Redwoods State Park in their memory through the League’s memorial program. It’s a place we went together. It’s a place that I have helped protect over my 15 years at the League through various land acquisitions. And it’s now a place I can take my sons to talk about their very English relatives. To me, being in the presence of these timeless giants and remembering past happy timesgrounds me and makes me feel alive, part of a larger world, and at peace.I’d love to know how the redwoods have helped you honor the memory of a loved one or cope with a loss. Please feel free to share your thoughts and memories below. Thanks for sharing.[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 7, 2012]

Can we halt animal extinction by restoring forests?

An article on the London-based Guardian website caught my eye last week. Having completed an exhaustive study in the Brazilian Amazon, scientists have determined that even if deforestation halted across the region overnight, dozens of species are doomed to disappear. To put it simply, when their homes are removed, the species can hang on for a while, but over time competition for food increases, breeding rates fall and a slow death sentence lingers over them. It makes for grim reading. But the story does end on a positive note: “to prevent species extinctions it is necessary to take advantage of the window of opportunity for forest regeneration. Restored forests . . . gradually recover species richness.”

Selection harvest in Mendocino County.
Selection harvest in Mendocino County. Photo by Suzette Cook

Nowhere is this truer than in the redwood forests, some of the most productive forests in the world. I also feel we are at a turning point in the history of the redwoods.

The story of the redwoods is a familiar one. In a little more than a century, 95 percent of the ancient forest was logged at least once. The places that survived were either too difficult to get to, beloved by some family who made sure they were not logged, or purchased by groups like Save the Redwoods League. The extinction threat in the redwoods is very real, and species including the endangered marbled murreletnorthern spotted owl and wild coho salmon live with it daily.

Today across much of the landscape, the redwood forest is slowly recovering. This is happening in parks and reserves – places set aside for their natural qualities. For instance, atMill Creek the League and our conservation partners are 10 years into an ambitious program torestore wildness to this 25,000-acre former tree farm by removing roads and giving young forests a helping hand. And recovery is also underway on lands owned by the timber companies. Yes they still log – after all, most of us love wood, and personally I prefer to know that it comes from a responsibly managed forest that I can go and see, rather than some unknown far-off land. But California’s timber companies have fundamentally changed the way they log – for the better – and are also working to remove the scars from former bad practices, for instance by restoring salmon spawning habitat formerly blocked by culverts.

If we are to provide a lifeboat for these species to make it through the coming extinction threat, it is critical that we work together across whole landscapes. We can no longer separate the parks from the timberlands and think of them separately. After all, birds and fish can’t read our maps and make little distinction between a young forest in park and a young forest in timberland. If the past 100 years of redwood conservation have been defined by conflict and forest degradation, I am optimistic that the next 100 years will be defined by collaboration andrecovery. You can learn more about my outlook by reading the keynote I gave last year at the League-sponsored science symposium, The Coast Redwood Forests in a Changing California.

[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 7, 2012]

The Redwood Forest: A prescription for kids, adults


Last week up in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park I overheard two young boys: “Daddy, can I take a photo of the creek?” His older brother commented, “I don’t need a camera, I’m going to take a photo with my eyes.” Pretty profound for a conversation between two brothers under 7. And something I will remember next time I reach for my camera as a crutch for memories.

Headed down the trail

The parks, particularly the redwood parks, can capture kids’ attention. I camped with friends over July 4th (unfortunately not in the redwoods, but up at Plumas-Eureka in the Northern Sierra). After four days, my two boys were filthy. Rowan has a memory of his first fish to get away, and Emerson hasn’t asked to watch a movie on his mother’s iPhone for days. It’s just fun and discovery from dawn to dusk. Questions abound, “Is there less oxygen on the freeway because there are no trees?” About bugs, “Is a leach an insect even though it has no legs?”

A lot has been written recently about the importance of kids’ and adults’ connection to nature. The book, The Nature Principle, is an example. Physical and mental health are just the start. Some enlightened doctors are even starting to write “prescriptions for visiting parks.” Spend a few days watching six kids under 5 play around camp, and you know it’s all true.

So as the summer grips us, I hope you find the time to get away and have fun in the redwoods and parks. I’d love to hear about your summer plans and memories of fun times past. Oh, and please forgive me for writing this on my iPhone while I was swinging in my hammock between two Sierra trees. Not a good role model, I know.

[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 10, 2012]

Redwoods’s Magic Shines amid Crisis

After a year of anguish, hard work and some heartbreak, the headlines scream “no parks will close.” Well,except for the five that will. And the ones that will be closed during the week, or off-season. And some haveno ranger patrols and locked bathrooms. Oh, and it’sonly for a year, and then we’re back to square one. What’s that all about?

"Big Tree" in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

At the 11th hour, the California Legislature cobbled together $10 million in fund transfers that — when combined with the operating and donor agreements developed by local nonprofits—will ensure most parks stay open. The League and our members are helping in three of these parks. Our approach speaks to our long history with these parks and the long-term perspective that we take from the redwoods themselves. We’re looking past the next 12 months to identify park enhancements and new modes of working that can help turn the downward trajectory we’ve been on for a generation.

I visited one simple example of an enhancement last weekend at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. For years, the aptly named “Big Tree” has drawn visitors. But all those visitors were trampling the roots and damaging the bark. There’s now a new viewing platform, courtesy of one generous family. It both protects the tree and provides a focal point for visitors. Last Saturday I sat and listened to the families and friends visiting and taking pictures by this iconic tree as the ranger prepared to give an interpretive talk. I spoke with two men on Harleys from Ohio who rode across the country to see these giants.

“Oh man, wait until we tell our buddies about this place—they just won’t believe it,” they said. Amidst the doom and gloom of parks, it was refreshing to see the redwoods being appreciated for what they are: world-class icons that take your breath away.

[first published, “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 3, 2012]