Tag Archives: Save the Redwoods League

Remembering Martin Litton’s passionate and indomitable spirit

I was saddened to learn earlier today that Marin Litton, a passionate conservationist, passed away yesterday. I met Martin during my time at Save the Redwoods League. We connected on the redwoods (of course) and over his time in England during World War II fly gliders from airbases likely built by my grandfather.

I will never forget the first time we met.  It perfectly exemplifies his fierce independence and passion.  We were hosting a memorial tree planting for Martin’s former boss at Sunset Magazine, Ambassador Bill Lane. Given that many of the guests were getting on in years, we’d arranged for a bus to bring people up to the redwoods from the Bay Area.  The bus was running late. Very late. And Martin was the reason.

Martin stepped out of the bus with a bloodied and bruised face. In the early morning light, Martin had slipped in his driveway and landed heavily on his head. He’d laid there until his wife found him.  Undaunted they dusted hims off and he and his wife drove to meet the bus.  Our staff encouraged (implored!) him to go to the local hospital to be checked out.  But that would mean missing the event to honor his long-time fellow champion of the Sierra. Martin was getting on that bus if it was the last thing he was going to do.  Finally a compromise was reached and he agreed to visit the Garberville emergency room to be checked out when he arrived.  Anyone who has done that drive in a car knows its a long and slow drive. Imagine doing that with a bloodied, bruised head? I can’t!

It didn’t end there.  Between checking in to the hotel and getting Martin in the car to the hospital, his wife slipped. So we took them both to be checked out.  Fortunately both were fine, if bruised. Martin joined everyone the next day for breakfast, complete with a massive bandage and incipient black eye.   I can tell from reading his obituary, that this was the real Martin. He was an unstoppable force and the mountains and the forests of the West are better today for it.

Rest in Peace, Martin.

Bruised, but unstoppable, Martin Litton talks about his friend Bill Lane.
Bruised, but unstoppable, Martin Litton talks about his friend Bill Lane.

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.

What’s up with Archangel?

This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood
This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood

David Milarch is at it again: evangelizing about the need to clone super trees to save the world from climate change. This time he has taken his message across the atlantic and touched down in Britain. According to an article in the Observer, he’s backed by Richard Branson,  the founder of the Eden project, and is even meeting with Prince Charles’ forestry advisors. I hope these luminaries see Mr. Milarch and his Archangel project for what it is: a distraction from the real issues facing forests around the world.

Mr. Milarch came and met with me a number of years ago while I was running Save the Redwoods League. His offer was simple: join him in saving the redwoods through cloning.  As an aside, he went on to say if we didn’t join him he’d make the League irrelevant as he would be the savior of the redwoods.  Despite the fact I don’t like veiled threats, I listened and we talked. Then as now, I had concerns about his approach and ultimately  declined to join his project.

Since then, Archangel has been racing to clone super trees that plant in groves around the world. They theorize that because these champion trees have survived for so long they are our best bet to reforest the Earth and soak up all the excess carbon dioxide we continue to emit.  For me, that is taking the science a step too far.  Forest conservation and management have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. But putting all our eggs in the cloning basket is just too risky. Clones are, by definition, genetically identical. A disease that takes out one will take out them all. And just because an individual tree has survived what nature has thrown at if for the past 1,000 years doesn’t mean its best adapted for the novel conditions coming in the next 100 years, let alone next 1,000 years.  Much better to protect the rich genetic diversity of all forests, rather than focus on a few superlatives.

12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare
12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare

Without a doubt Archangel has done some interesting work. Take the example of the Fieldbrook stump. Perhaps the largest redwood ever to live, and now a decaying stump in farmland near Arcata California. Archangel has resurrected this tree and plans to plant clonal copies around the world. It would be a talking point to have a copy in your garden for sure! The cloning work itself is interesting, but by no means ground-breaking — gardeners have been cloning plants and trees with cuttings for centuries after all.

So by all means support the work of Mr. Millarch and Archangel, but please don’t lose sight of what it really is:  Creating museum copies of a small handful of nature’s wonders. If you really want to help the Earth’s forests and battle climate change there are much better places to invest your money.

Read my previous post on cloning here: http://wp.me/p2V0ap-8Q

Controversy (and wedding bells) amid the redwoods

For anyone who follows technology, conservation, or celebrities it was hard not to miss the stories about Facebook co-founder, Sean Parker’s, wedding. After all it had it all — the glitz and glamor of a star wedding, a theme straight out of “Game of Thrones”, and of course controversy among California’s beloved redwoods.

First came the accusatory stories completed with tales of wanton destruction of the redwoods. Then the rebuttal from the Internet-guru cum conservation, Mr. Parker. No doubt the truth is in their somewhere. Since I did not attend the wedding there’s little I can say about what actually happened. But I do know Post Creek and I have struggled myself to obtain permits to do work there. Let me back up.

A number of years ago, Save the Redwoods League purchase a parcel of forested land from the Ventana Inn. The League bought it to add the land to the adjacent Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The land is forested and had Post Creek running through a beautiful redwood canyon. Unfortunately as is often the case, the land had problems. In this case, an old road was threatening to fail and dump thousands of cubic feet of sediment directly into the creek. Most pressing was the replacement of an old creek crossing with a modern natural-bottomed culvert that would allow fish passage and prevent the road from failing.

Everyone agreed that the restoration project was a good idea. And that was a good thing as we’d need to get permits from the County (for grading), the Department of Fish and Game (to work in the creek), and the Coastal Commission (as it constituted “development” in the coastal zone.) Mr. Parker raced to get permits under the pressure of a walk down nature’s aisle. We were racing against the onset of winter. If winter hit before we were ready, not only would we lose time, but we’d all have to cross our fingers that the creek crossing would survive another winter.

Despite the fact everyone wanted the project to go ahead, we struggled mightily. Public servants more used to dealing with “housing development” didn’t know how to approach a pure restoration project. I remember visiting with the County with a colleague and having the bureaucrat across the desk roll her eyes and snort, “so you just want to go out there and throw dirt around….” We lacked the all-important “construction drawings.” Construction drawings? We were simply re-contouring an existing road! But we complied and the road was surveyed and the drawing produced –adding time and expense and not changing the outcome one bit.

In the end, we squeaked in under the October 15th deadline and the work was completed. A good job too as a year later the area was ravaged by a massive wildfire. Who knows what damaged would have been wrought if we had no upgraded the road and stream crossing when we had.

So Mr. Parker, I have sympathies for you trying to secure permits under the press of time. It’s just tough, especially if your project is our of the ordinary as both of ours were. I also know the area has seen heavy use for many years and is far from the pristine grove the public might imagine. I trust that the Coastal Commission will see fit to use the funds you have paid to continue the work to restore Post Creek and expand the network of trails so more of the public can come to know and love this place that will always be special to you.  That’s a great contribution to the future.

[I had hoped to find my pictures of the creek restoration — but they appear to be lost in Aperture. When they show-up, I will update this post!]


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.

Cold beer, clean water and natural capital

Barely a day goes by that I don’t read a news article about the economic values of the natural world. The most recent one was the Forest Service’s estimate that the economic worth of all the urban trees in the United States could be as much as $50 billion based upon their capacity to store carbon. Although I understand it in principal, I find much of it abstract. The numbers are so large and the concepts far removed from my everyday life.

But this weekend down on the Big Sur Coast I finally got it. My beer had got warm. And even though I am from England I really don’t like warm beer (that’s another story in itself). Like you, I like it cold. Especially on a hot sunny day. What to do when the nearest refrigerator was miles away? Simple: plunk the warm beer down in the cold river and let nature do the rest. After half an hour the beer was the cold and delicious. I’d have paid good money for a cold beer — and that in essence is the concept behind “ecosystem services” or “natural capital.” If we take care of nature, it will take care of us and provide us valuable services that we’d otherwise have to pay for.

Warm beer cooling in Big Creek
Warm beer cooling in Big Creek

The constant flow of cold, clear water cooled the beer down as effectively as any refrigerator. If it didn’t require electricity to cool, what did it require? In this instance, all of the water flowing past my beer originated in the Big Creek watershed. This watershed, located south of the town of Big Sur, is part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve system. Between the Reserve and the adjacent Los Padres National Forest all of the land that surrounding the creek — from 3,000 foot plus ridge to rocky Pacific Shore — is protected from development, logging and conversion thanks to a purchase completed in the 1970s by The Nature Conservancy and Save the Redwoods League.

The Big Creek watershed reaches back to the Los Padres National Forest
The Big Creek watershed reaches back to the Los Padres National Forest

In addition to cooling my beer, the cold clear water provides a home for native steelhead trout; the surrounding land is home to condor, ring tailed cats, bob cats, rubber boa snakes, and a myriad of plants and animals — some common, others rare; the trees capture and store carbon; and the Reserve as a whole provides an important place for scientists studying redwoods, chaparral, geology, marine life and river life and other facets of coastal California.

I am sure an economist could calculate the economic value of all these services and assign a net value to the Reserve. That would certainly be interesting. But so what? Could you ever really realize that value?   To me it was simpler than that. For a few hours on a warm sunday afternoon it was cooling my beer: for free. And that was priceless.

Questing at Muir Woods

Day two of spring break — and we moved the adventure from Cal Academy and Golden Gate Park to Muir Woods. A place I have spent many hours and never tire of. Each time I go I discover something new. It constantly amazes me that a place essentially surrounded by the hubbub of the Bay Area can feel so quiet and peaceful — even with tour buses disgorging countless visitors each hour.

Muir Woods
Muir Woods — a sanctuary by the bay
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Questing underway!

What you may not know is that Save the Redwoods League worked with staff at Muir Woods to create a fun Quest that guides you around the woods — essentially a poetic treasure hunt that has you counting posts, looking for different plants, exploring goose pens and even skipping through the woods all while learning about the redwoods that tower above you.  It was a perfect way to distract two boisterous boys — with the promise of treasure hidden at the end of the trail!

We paused by the creek right by the parking lot — a place few people visit and where even fewer stay — while we hunted for life in the creek. It was wonderful to see the tiny fish dart around us. And for once the kids went beyond just picking up rocks and throwing them in the water, to examining each rock for aquatic bugs before they threw them in the water!  They found countless creepy crawlies and were only disappointed that the water skater remained aloof and refused to be caught and placed in our bucket.   Next time we’ll bring a dipping net — so watch out bugs!

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Don’t hit your brother!
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Bug skeletons
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Lunch pails double as dipping pails
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Perhaps a dragon fly nymph?