State of the Redwoods – Remembering the Past, Envisioning the Future

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Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

RNP RDWhat did Jedediah Smith think when he came here as the first-known European-American to explore the majestic coastal redwood forest, back in 1828? Did he know, or care about the Pandora’s Box that he’d opened by leading European settlers into this remote region? When Smith first arrived in Northern California, an estimated two million acres of native old-growth coast redwood forest spanned from Big Sur to the Oregon border, and these were certainly no ordinary forests. The coastal redwood forest is home to the tallest living organisms on earth, reaching over 300 feet tall at their peak. These giant trees live an average of 500-700 years-of-age, and some have been documented to live in excess of 2,000-years-old. These massive trees can grow as large as 25 feet in diameter or more, sequestering huge masses of carbon, while, at the same time, providing essential habitat for innumerable species of plants, animals, birds, lichens, and others species.

The coastal redwood forests are considered part of the larger temperate rainforest system that once blanketed the coast of the Pacific Northwest states. However, European exploration, combined with the gold rush of the 1850’s, ushered in the era of old-growth logging in the redwoods that continues to this day. By the time Redwood National Park was created in 1968, an estimated ten percent of the original forest remained. Today, approximately five percent of the original old-growth temperate coastal redwood forests remain. About 23 percent of the original range of the redwoods is preserved in parks and reserves, while a whopping 77 percent of the redwood region land base is still privately owned and managed. In Humboldt County today, the two largest timberland owners, Green Diamond Resource Company and Humboldt Redwood Company, own a combined 600,000-acres of forestland, much of which constitutes the original range of the coast redwood forest.

After a century-and-a-half of logging, road-building, and urban and agricultural development, the original coast redwoods are a shadow of their former selves. Of the five percent or so that remains of the original forest, the largest chunks are preserved in Big Basin State Park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and the Redwood National and State Parks system. Much of what remains in the Redwood National and State Parks system is fragmented and disjointed.

On private lands, the largest remaining patches of old-growth redwood forest are found on the former Pacific Lumber Company lands, now owned and managed by Humboldt Redwood Company, most of which are “set-aside” and protected from logging for a period of 50 years as a result of the 1999 Headwaters Forest Agreement. However, these “set-asides” are not protected into perpetuity.

Following the signing of the Headwaters Forest Agreement in 1999, the commonly-heard narrative was that the redwoods had, at long last been “saved.” However, this is much more myth than fact. Logging, agricultural and urban development, human recreation, and of course, climate change, all remain as stressor on the redwood ecosystem.

The advent of global as well as localized climate change now poses a significant threat to the survival of the coastal redwood forest, and the people, plants and animals that depend upon them. The signs of localized climate change are readily apparent. Fog levels on the north coast have decreased by as much as one-third since the early 20th century, while temperatures continue to rise, and rainfall declines in the face of California’s unprecedented drought. A recent study published by the global research journal Global Change Biology notes that increasing temperatures will likely significantly alter the climate in the southern extent of the redwood region in the coming decades, putting the survival of the redwoods in those regions at-risk. In the northern part of the redwood range, research conducted by Dr. Steve Sillett suggests that old-growth redwoods are currently growing at an unprecedented rate, likely as a result of decreased fog and increased sunlight. However, research on the fate of large, old trees on a global level suggests that climate change, particularly the effects of drought and disease, are an increasing threat to these ancient ecosystems.

The redwoods region’s temperate rainforest is globally significant for its biodiversity, as well as for its potential capacity to resist, adapt to, and become resilient to, the progress of climate change. Here in Humboldt County, we occupy the northern extents of the redwood range, where the opportunities for restoration and connectivity for the redwoods remain strongest.

In 2013, EPIC, along with the Geos Institute and others sponsored and participated in the very first Redwood Climate Symposium, which brought together stakeholders and land managers to discuss possible strategies for steeling the redwood region against the progress of climate change. Symposium participants from diverse backgrounds identified four primary strategies to increasing the resilience of redwood ecosystems in the face of climate change. These included:

  1. restoring old-growth characteristics that protect stands from many stressors;
  2. improving connectivity among intact redwood forest patches throughout the range of redwoods;
  3. reducing stressors that exacerbate the impacts of climate change, such as roads, fragmentation, development, and fire exclusion; and
  4. coordinating management across the redwood range, and across land ownership, allowing for conservation and/or restoration of climate change refuges and areas of connectivity.

These four strategies form the basis of a collective way forward for managing the redwoods into the future, and form the basis of EPIC’s Connecting Wild Places Campaign in the region, which largely focuses on existing parks and reserves, as well as privately-held forestlands with significant ecological, connective, and restorative value.

The coastal redwood forest of Northern California has been here for some 20 million years. If it is to persist into the future, a new holistic approach to ecosystem restoration and preservation must take hold. EPIC is dedicated to working towards this more holistic future for the benefit of the forest, the species that depend upon it, and for humanity itself.