Tag Archives: Redwoods

16 years, 1 dairy, and a village

It’s an old cliche to say that some things are worth waiting for. But it can also be true.

One of the first projects I worked on when I first joined Save the Redwoods League was the acquisition of the Coast Dairies property.  In 1998 it was one of the largest private unprotected coastal properties on the  west coast of the United States. Seven miles of coast line and about 5,500 acres.  All that an hours drive from Silicon Valley. Redwood canyons gave way to grasslands and ultimately the coast. The raised coastal bluffs were a favorite with naturalists. The beaches with naturists, but that’s another story.

My colleague, Kate Anderton, then general counsel of Save the Redwoods, had negotiated the purchase of the land for a cool $44.5 million. The lions share of the funding came from the Packard Foundation. David Packard had died in 1996 and his foundation had seen an influx of assets making the deal possible. The deal was done and late in 1998, Save the Redwoods League assigned its option to the Trust for Public Lands to exercise the option and get the land into public ownership for permanent protection. Countless public meetings, extensive negotiations, and the odd IRS tax-letter ruling and the land is finally in the public estate.

So why did it take 16 years?

People love to argue about land. Coast Dairies was no exception. It had been a dairy. It was almost a nuclear power plant. And then 139 trophy home sites. But now it belongs to all of us when the Bureau of Land Management took title to much of the property earlier this week. (State Parks took title to the beaches a number of years ago, but the vast majority of the property remained in limbo)

I have a lot of respect for TPL for staying the course. Managing land is never easy. Land is a precious resource and fine minds can differ as to its future use. Bring that debate into the public forum and add in a healthy dose of politics and that’s where 16 years come in.

In the course of 16 years we have had 4 Governors and 3 Presidents. We’ve had an economic boom, and bust. And countless local officials.  Every change required re-education and a reminder as to what was at stake. What has been constant is the beauty of the land and the possibility it holds as an undeveloped part of California.

Of course, this is not the end. The drum beat has started to get the land designated as a National Monument. We have two years with the current administration to get the President to take that step. Then it’s back to educating the next crew. Time to finish the job.

Places I Love: Big Sur Coast

Places I Love: Big Sur
Yuccas, Redwoods and the Ocean

Where else can you stand with a blooming yucca at your feet and look down on the coast redwoods and blue of the Pacific Ocean? Probably no place other than the rugged Big Sur coast. Rising thousands of feet from a rocky shoreline it has to be one of the most spectacular coasts on Earth.

And to me it’s where the redwoods of wet northern California start to blend with the Yuccas of the dry south. In a way it’s a transition zone between my old work for the redwoods and my new work for southern California’s beaches and ocean. I can’t wait to go back.

As the world turns

As a geographer and long-time GIS user, I have used removed sensing imagery for decades.  I just love looking at remotely sensed images of the world — especially when you can compare how things have changed with time. Various satellites have been collecting this data for decades — and while much of it is public available it can be a pain to assemble tile after tile of data and massage it until you have something presentable.

Fortunately, at a Bay Area Open Space Council meeting this morning, a Google Earth product manager showed me that there is an easier way. It’s called Google Earth Engine. They’ve collected terabytes of Landsat imagery and spent two million hours developing a seamless image map for the Earth that can take you back to 1984 (that’s when Frankie was encouraging us to “Relax” and Cyndi Lauper was having “fun’.)

I took a quick look at some places I know well. First, it’s an era that spans the timber wars centered around the Headwaters Forest Reserve. Scroll time forward and you can watch the mosaic of cuts getting closer and closer to what is now a remarkable upland ancient redwood forest protected by BLM.

HRSP Earth Engine
Landuse changes around Headwaters Reserve (clink for live slideshow)

I then got curious if you could similarly see changes in and around Santa Monica and southern California over the same period. Here the changes on the surface are subtler. Look carefully you can see development in the mountains as hillsides give way to large areas of bare soil and then homes. And perhaps I am imagining it, but it looks to me that some of the parks along the river channels are starting to green up!

Santa Monica City and Bay in Earth Engine (click for slideshow)
Santa Monica City and Bay in Earth Engine (click for slideshow)

It’s pretty exciting to have this level of data at our fingertips now. And it just keeps getting better and more powerful with multi-spectral data coming along that will enable us to move beyond looking at pictures of change, to conducting sophisticated analysis — all right in our browser.

Why don’t you jump on the Earth Explorer website and see how places you care about have changed — either for the worse, or just perhaps for the better? Let me know what you discover!


[p.s. couldn’t figure out how to embed the Google maps directly in this post…..sorry!]

Happy Birthday Endangered Species Act: time to grow up?

For many of us turning 40 is a milestone. Time to throw a big party and celebrate? Or time to our head under the pillow and hope it will go away?  What about the Endangered Species Act? Time to celebrate or time to reform?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on this landmark act, but I have worked around its edges for 15 years. Passed in 1973 by a Democratic Congress and signed into Law by a Republic President, it aims to protect and promote the recovery of the nation’s threatened, rare and otherwise endangered species. It’s had some notable successes — the wolf and condor are back from the brink. But for every success there are countless species that are barely hanging on.

While it has its supporters, in private many  grumble about its ineffectiveness whether on the side of industry or the side of an eco-group. My perspective is that while it has set an effective floor for conservation, it has done little to provide incentives to promote recovery and restoration. Quite the opposite — the specter of attracting endangered species onto their land makes many savvy landowners think twice. Why do anything to attract an endangered critter when not far behind will come the heavy hand of the regulator? (yes, there are ways around this through safe harbor agreements, habitat conservation plans, etc. but they take require an inordinate amount of money and time)

Biologists from Save the Redwoods League meet with foresters in the field to discuss restoration
Biologists from Save the Redwoods League meet with foresters in the field to discuss restoration

What’s happened in the redwoods is perhaps a classic case-study. Two of the biggest fights of the environmental movement over the past 40 years have played out in the redwoods. The listing of the northern spotted owl led to the adoption of the NorthWest Forest Plan, and the listing of the marbled murrelet was intrinsically linked with the decade long battle over the Headwaters Forest.  In the process additional land was set aside for protection, but the fate of both species that caused the fight remain in the balance. And for very different reasons.

Ancient redwood forest provides habitat for the marbled murrelet
Ancient redwood forest provides habitat for the marbled murrelet

Talk to any forester in the northern redwoods and they’ll have a story about the northern spotted owl. The biologists at Green Diamond are some of the leading experts on their ecology. They also work closely with the foresters and have been able to effectively promote recover of the species on their land — in fact they likely have more owls on their land now than historically because of this single-species focus. They also know each by name or number and regularly feed them white mice, but that’s another story. Today the biggest threat for these owls is predation and interbreeding with the barred owl — an aggressive  invader from the east coast.  Green Diamond is working cooperatively with the regulatory agencies to see if killing the barred owls is an effective way to promote recovery. How crazy is that? We’re killing one species to save another? It just shows that things are out of balance and that a continued focus on single species management is akin to chasing our own tail.

The marbled murrelet — an elusive seabird that builds its nest in large branches found in ancient redwood and Douglas-fir forests — has been the focus of much of the protest and activism in the redwoods. Simply put, when you cut down its nest tree it will take hundreds of years to restore the large branches it needs to survive. Over the past 100 years we have harvested so much of the ancient forest so fast that its habitat is now remnant patches and its numbers are teetering on the edge. Predation by crows and ravens is a problem, yes. But the real problem is it simply does’t have enough habitat left to build a thriving population. If it is extirpated from the redwoods does that mean those ancient groves should now be available for harvest simply because the bird is gone? Seems crazy but its entirely possible. Again, a focus on single species is at fault. (As an aside, its why wherever feasible providing permanent protection through purchase is preferable to relying on the vagaries of regulation.)

After 40 years it is certainly time to celebrate the role of the endangered species act in halting extinctions, but it is also past time to reform the act to promote recovery. We need to both maintain a strong floor for conservation, and establish incentives for landowners large and small to participate in the protection and recovery of species. We need to move beyond single species management to looking at landscapes and natural processes. And we need to move beyond seeing landowners as the threat to be regulated to being partners in recovery. Doing this would benefit not only the endangered animals that the act focuses on today, but would promote healthy landscapes that provide us clean air to breathe, clear water to drink, and beautiful vistas to enjoy.

Reforming something that has been part of the conservation landscape for a lifetime is not without risk. It will take guts and work on all sides, but after 40 years it is time the act grew up.

Could we recreate a famous redwood navigation beacon?

The front cover of today’s Chronicle has a fascinating story about the once mighty redwood forests that cloaked the hills of the East Bay.  Imagine redwoods with the girth of a small house rising about the hills. Some were of such stature that early mariners used them to take bearings and avoid dangerous rocks. But by the 1860s they were gone. And a few years later the US Navy had to blast one submerged rock — Blossom Rock — out of the water as the redwoods used to avoid them had been cut down and turned to lumber.

Spot the Last Ancient Redwood in the East Bay (E.Burns)
Spot the Grandfather Tree — the last ancient redwood in the East Bay (E.Burns)
Peter Fimrite and Todd Keeler-Wolfe at the base of the tree (E.Burns)
Peter Fimrite and Todd Keeler-Wolfe at the base of the tree (E.Burns)

The stumps still stand, as does one remnant giant. And that reawakened an idea I have had for a while. The eyes of the  world will look towards San Francisco this summer as the America’s Cup comes to town. What better way to celebrate the natural heritage of the Bay Area than by creating a temporary memorial to these trees. Imagine a beacon at the sight of the stump — a tower rising 300 feet above the East Bay hills, lit up at night, so it can once again guide the sailors navigating the Bay.

It would also serve as a reminder of what used to be here — and perhaps what could be here once more if we nurture the remaining redwoods of the East Bay hills.

I challenge Oracle to make this happen, working with the good folks at the East Bay Regional Park District. I am more than happy to help out!