Category Archives: Conservation

What’s up with conservation?

For the past 15 years I have immersed myself in the conservation of the redwoods – those magnificent trees that have graced the Earth for millenia and continue to inspire visitors today. For six years as executive director of Save the Redwoods League, I was privileged to lead the movement to protect these natural wonders. Along the way I helped raise $100 million for redwood conservation, protected tens of thousands of acres of forests and open-space, forged new conservation partnerships, introduced thousands of kids to the redwoods — many for the first time, and helped advance our understanding of these forests. Despite these successes, the challenges ahead are significant.

For me, one of the most significant challenges is defining the relationship of people to place. For too long the conservation community has separated people from place. To put it crudely, many conservationists love places more than they love people.  And when we protect a place its all too common to exclude people.  This is where parks come in — in America, parks are the people’s places. Owned by no one individual, we’re all invited to use them. But even here, the pendulum has swung a long way in the direction of strict protection to the exclusion of people’s enjoyment.  Clearly we need to ensure the natural resources are protected for the future, but its time to let people back in to define how they want to use and enjoy the parks that are protected by and for them. With a growing population, a rapidly changing climate, and increased pressures on land, this is no easy task!  But for conservation to succeed long-term we need to succeed at this.

I plan to take my experience in the redwoods and elsewhere to explore this area and answer the question, “what’s up with conservation today?”

Drilling for park land

What do offshore oil drilling and Zion National Park have in common with the redwoods?  On first pass, not much – but as a recent story on CBS news shows, they are linked through a nearly 50-year-old program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Established with bipartisan congressional support in 1965, the idea was simple: use revenue from the depletion of one natural resource – offshore oil and gas – to support conservation of another precious resource – our land and water. Over the years this fund has built our national, state and local parks – including the redwood parks here in California.

Every year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies for drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf are deposited into this fund. Yet despite the multi-billion dollar needs of our National Parks, every year this fund is raided for other purposes. This year Congress is proposing to allocate a scant $160 million of the $900 million to conservation. And every year it does that, precious opportunities to protect priority inholdings and additions to parks are lost to development –  and as we know, development is hard to undo.

I am joined by Ruth Coleman and Jon Jarvis to celebrate acquisition of the Sandhill property from League to state parks.
I am joined by Ruth Coleman and Jon Jarvis to celebrate acquisition of the Sandhill property from League to state parks.

I am joined by Ruth Coleman and Jon Jarvis to celebrate acquisition of the Sandhill property from League to state parks.

Through our members’ support, the League is often able to bridge the gap when a landowner wants to sell but the Government does not yet have the funds to acquire the land. This was the case five years ago when we acquired a critical addition to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The League moved quickly to purchase the land and then worked closely with the California State Parks and National Park Service to secure LWCF funding enabling the state to acquire the land for addition to the park. This partnership was celebrated with a hike for our members from the unusual Sandhill community on the ridge to the towering redwoods below. We were honored to be joined by Ruth Coleman, former director of State Parks, and Jon Jarvis, now the director of National Parks, to mark this important project. But that was five years ago, and we now face real and pressing needs.

The lack of strong bipartisan support threatens funding for this program and means that options to protect critical park land are being lost every year.  I for one am grateful for the private donors who stepped up with our colleagues at the Trust for Public Land to protect land within Zion National Park for all to enjoy – it’s one of my favorite parks. And I am grateful for all that our members do to ensure we are ready when we need to act here in the redwoods.

[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, October 16, 2012]

Oaks and Ashes and Chestnuts, oh my!

A recent article in the Observer, “Die-back kills off 90% of Denmark’s ash trees,” had me both remembering my childhood and thinking ahead to the future of the redwood forest.  Growing up in Britain, I remember the scourge of Dutch elm disease that killed more than 25 million trees after a virulent new strain of the disease arrived from North America in the late 1960s.  The Elm was one of the most distinctive  English countryside trees –  immortalized in great paintings – as well as a widely planted city tree. It was sad to watch the elm disease take hold, but this somehow seemed inevitable once it was loosed in the environment.   Of course, here in the states, the American chestnut was similarly blighted and mature trees are now rare.  The ash, elm and chestnut all succumbed to exotic pathogens harking from Asia.  When introduced into new territory the pathogens took off and have had a devastating effect on individual trees and the forests in which that tree species is a key element. Countless hours and millions of dollars have been spent to first control and then breed resistant trees, with mixed success.

Sudden oak death in Marin County, California. Photo by USFS Region 5, Flickr Creative Commons
Sudden oak death in Marin County, California. Photo by USFS Region 5, Flickr Creative Commons

Here in the coast redwoods of California, a similar story is unfolding with tanoak, which is one of the species most seriously affected by sudden oak death.  While the redwoods steal the spotlight, the tanoak is a critical part of many redwood forests.  Native Americans sought out its acorns; it was a mainstay of the early tanning industry; and its nuts are a key part of the food base for many species that inhabit the redwood forest. Its loss will have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Sudden oak death started in a few isolated spots and is now spreading widely – recently being found in the Mattole and Grizzly Creek watersheds in Humboldt County.

So what are we to do?  We can all play a part in slowing the spread of the pathogen, for instance by not taking mud from infected areas to new areas on our boots or car (simple bleach does the trick). For the League’s part we’re promoting research to better understand theimpacts it has on the forest.  But ultimately a water and air-borne pathogen doesn’t need us to get about in these fog-bathed forests.  Probably the most important thing we can do is to make sure that the spaces vacated by any dying oak, are taken up with native trees and shrubs rather than other invasive plants like broom, pampas, or Eucalyptus.  At some point, we’ll have to accept this new invader and the change that it is bringing to the forest. As we know, the only constant in nature is change.

[originally published on Save the Redwood League, “Giant Thoughts” blog, 10/9/2012]

80 degrees of separation

If you leave Redwood National Park and journey 80 degrees south you will arrive at the coastal town of Valdivia, Chile.  These two areas—equidistant from the equator, north and south—are about to be united through a sister park relationship that the League is helping to forge.   Separated by 6400 miles, they have much in common, starting with two remarkable tree species.  We are all familiar with the coast redwood –Sequoia sempervirens.  Its southern relative is the Fitzroya cupressoidecommonly called the alerce or occasionally the “southern redwood.”  Both are members of the cypress family and both anchor iconic temperate rainforests that have been subject to extensive logging and are now protected in a series of parks and reserves.  If you squint while looking at a photo taken in an ancient alerce forest you could imagine yourself transported to the redwoods.

Alerce. Photo by andrea ugarte, Flickr Creative Commons
Alerce. Photo by andrea ugarte, Flickr Creative Commons

In addition to learning more about park operation and management (I will never look at a trail in the same way having now walked it with a woman who built it!), we learnt about conservationand the park movement in Chile. For instance, since 1976 it has been illegal to cut any alerce tree or any forest in which alerce is a component.  It was also clear that there is a lot we can learn from the Chileans about making parks relevant to the regions they are a part of – a significant part of the funding to build the infrastructure of the new park is coming from the region – Los Rios – which sees a vibrant park as key part of their economy.  They are also working hard to involve local communities in the park – Marcelo, their only park ranger, is the third generation from his family to work as a ranger protecting these forests.

Although separated by 80 degrees, I felt at home with the Chileans talking about the challenges we are facing and the opportunities that lie ahead. There’s a lot we can learn from each other as we work to protect these iconic forests.

[originally posted on “Giant Thoughts”, Save the Redwood League blog. October 2, 2012]

Redwoods Witness Shuttle Flight for First Time in 166 Million Years

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No – it’s the space shuttle Endeavour flying low over the redwoods as it catches a ride south to Los Angeles! That was the sight that greeted me on Friday afternoon as I drove with colleagues from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. We’d left the bay and lamented the fact that we had missed seeing the shuttle on its farewell tour. And then there it was – its unmistakable silhouette low over the redwood spires of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The space shuttle Endeavour passing the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Galileo55, Flickr Creative Commons
The space shuttle Endeavour passing the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Galileo55, Flickr Creative Commons

It took me back 31 years to being a young boy in England. Our school set up a television so we could watch the launch, though as I recall, in the end it launched at the weekend – with my family taking a break from painting the living room to marvel at this modern wonder.  That had me hooked on space exploration. But now it’s no more – resigned to a museum.  And while the shuttle will continue to inspire young children with the wonders of space exploration, it’s going to be a story of the past.

The League’s work to safeguard the redwoods is ongoing and while many of the places we protect end up in another of our great public institutions – national and state parks – these arefar from being museums of the past. These are living institutions that continue to inspire countless young boys and girls as they walk among the majestic giants. With your ongoing support, we’ll ensure that our work continues and that one day we won’t lament the fact that they “used to” save the redwoods.

[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, September 25, 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]

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]

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]