Be Kind to These, the Last of the Tallest Trees
It is a sense akin to worshiping in a quiet church, filtered light passing through stained glass, incense burning, but defined at the same time by a complete freedom from the pretense of organized religion.
These magnificent trees, some of which have been drinking from the fog for millennia, welcome one and all. In return for your reverence, they will grant you a gift every creed promises, but few actually deliver: The bliss of profundity.
But a walk through the redwoods is an epiphanous experience in high demand. Soon after the publication of Wild Trees in 2007, an already steady stream of tourists making the pilgrimage to see the world’s tallest trees grew into a flood. A little more than a decade later, when Lonely Planet named California’s Redwood Coast its top American travel destination for 2018, the flood swelled into a deluge.
Now, campgrounds are full, trails are heavily trampled and once quiet forests are inundated with humans eager for a selfie framed perfectly by redwoods rising out of sight.
Can these trees, already nearly eradicated by humans hungry to turn their skeletons into timber, survive their newfound fame?
A Forest Felled
Fast-growing, abundant, resistant to rot and pliable, redwoods make exceptional lumber, and were harvested en masse to build much of frontier California. Our early relationship with these giant trees, beginning in the late 18th Century, was one-sided and exploitative. Advances in technology and housing booms in the 20th Century fueled even faster rates of deforestation. By the late 1990s, just about every old-growth redwood remaining on private property had been felled.
Today, less than 5 percent of the virgin forest that used to blanket the North Coast remains. Once viewed as a limitless resource we’d never be able to fully tap, old-growth redwoods were suddenly a resource no more. It took less than 250 years from the time they were discovered by Europeans.
Native Americans, it should be noted, treated the coast redwood with greater respect, opting to utilize downed and dead trees rather than toppling living ones.
Having harvested most of the ancient trees, including many that would have dwarfed the tallest trees growing today, our relationship has evolved to protecting the precious few that remain, as well as nurturing second-growth forests so that hundreds of years from now, they may become at least a semblance of what they once were.
But we may be facing a new challenge. Or perhaps it’s the same old one. Either way, our pernicious relationship with redwoods seems to be coming full circle, almost as if it was unavoidable, as though we’re destined to eradicate this great tree.
The problem is that the remaining groves of old-growth that survived the great genocide of the sequoia semperviren are scarce, well known, easily accessed and fragmented by roads and other development. Social media is only worsening the hype started by Wild Trees and exacerbated by the Lonely Planet ranking. Few things look sexier on Instagram than rays of sunlight flooding an old-growth forest, hulking trunks vanishing into the mist. Just add a hiker in a colorful jacket for scale and you have a reliable formula for likes and engagement.
More than ever before, photographers are revealing the once hidden charms of the Redwood Coast to millions of followers, which in and of itself is not a bad or unethical act. These trees have the power to inspire a deep reverence of nature that can be transformative. Their magic should be shared. The issue is that some of the influencers doing the sharing have such massive audiences, their work is likely to attract van loads of additional visitors, who will attract even more tourists themselves, and somewhere along the line, a lot of those folks are going to leave more than just a trace.
That unprecedented level of attention may be too much, even for thousand-year-old titans that are quite literally the tallest-known living things in the universe.
Not So Tough After All
Redwoods have wide but remarkably shallow root beds no more than 12 feet deep. When visitors trample the rich, aerated soil near the base of the tree into hardpan, life-giving rootlets die, handicapping the redwood’s ability to draw water to its crown. Surrounding fauna like ferns, wildflowers, saplings and sorrell are usually stomped into oblivion with all the flourish of an afterthought, even though they too are an important part of this ancient ecosystem.
Redwood photographer M.D. Vaden has documented some of the degradation. Take a look. You will be astounded at the difference even five years can make.
Now take a second to quantify the impact. Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a 51,000 acre area where many of the tallest trees on Earth grow, hosted more than 624,000 visitors during the 2015 to 2016 fiscal year, the last for which data is available.
Farther north, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which isn’t even a third the size of Humboldt Redwoods, hosted more than 416,000 people that same year.
And inching still closer toward Oregon and further into northern California’s outback, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, at just over 10,000 acres in size, endured nearly 210,000 tourists. Remember, all these attendance statistics are from two years ago.
Since then, social media has been implicated in the degradation of the Grove of Titans, a once secret wonderland of especially large redwoods first revealed in Wild Trees and eventually discovered by ambitious Instagrammers. People wandering off-trail to photograph some of the more famous trees in this grove, like the Del Norte Titan, have trampled vegetation and harmed the roots of these giants that once lived in peaceful isolation.
Hiking off-trail is now banned in that area of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and the Redwood Parks Conservancy is helping California State Parks raise money to build an elevated walkway so tourists can enjoy the Grove of Titans’ most impressive specimens — without slowly killing them. While this solution may save the trees, it will come at the expense of an untouched almost fairytale landscape that will now be marred by a manmade structure. Trees with boardwalks around them just aren’t the same. And the only way to prevent the boardwalks is to let the trees be — a tough prospect for many tourists who travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see them.
A Nearly Century-Old Conundrum
This concept, that we are loving old-growth redwoods to death, is not a new one. What we’re seeing today was predicted long ago, decades before smartphones, wireless internet and social media would complicate matters further.
Writing in 1929 — when annual attendance to these parks numbered in the hundreds and thousands, not hundreds of thousands — pathologist E.P. Meinecke described the plight of old-growth with the foresight of a prophet. Overseeing a study commissioned by the California Division of Parks titled “The Effect of Excessive Tourist Travel on the California Redwood Parks,” Meinecke concluded, after observing substantial impact from tourists, that the parks established to protect ancient redwood groves would ultimately fail in their mission to conserve these trees to their natural ends.
“The investigation of the Redwood Parks has brought out one point clearly, namely that the main object of the parks is likely to fail,” he wrote, “unless measures be taken to put a stop to those conditions which are likely to weaken and shorten the life of the old giant Redwoods.”
That was 90 years ago. Since then, other studies have followed suit in their determination that tourism is an existential threat to groves of old growth. One such study, commissioned in 2015 by the Save the Redwoods League in response to increased redwood park visitation inspired by social media, found that disturbance and damage was more pronounced around larger and more interesting trees — i.e. tall trees with big burls or goose pens (burned out, hollowed out portions of trunks). You know, the types of trees that photograph well on Instagram.
“Increasing visitor impact is by far the most serious threat facing the redwood community in Muir Woods today,” concluded another study… nearly 50 years ago. Another, conducted a decade later, noted significant impacts in redwood parks from foot and vehicle traffic, the building of roads and the manipulation of fire and flood events.
The data was already indisputable decades ago. Seemingly oblivious to our own destructive footsteps, our desire to find, photograph and share the magic of these trees is driving us to stomp them to death.
Saving the Tallest Trees that Ever Lived
So what should you do? Presumably, you love nature and you’d cherish a stroll in the company of these verdant giants. Is it better to stay home? Go elsewhere? And if you do go, should you holster your phone and keep your trip a secret? Maybe you and everyone else should just let the redwoods chill for a while?
No, no and no. The people will come, and they should. The redwoods welcome all. But when you do visit, you should focus on respecting your environment, minimizing your impact and considering how your social media posts may incite destructive activity.
Here are some suggestions:
- Stay on the trail. Old growth forests are sensitive ecosystems that cannot handle the widespread foot traffic that increased tourism brings. Both redwoods and other plants — like sword ferns and western azaleas — will suffer. Trails usually offer plenty of opportunity to see the most stunning parts of the groves they wind their way through.
- Resist climbing on or posing near trees. It’s easy to look at a 360-foot-tall tree and convince yourself you can do no harm to such a goliath, but you can. Walking and climbing along the base of redwoods, or on their burls, destroys their roots, eventually choking the tree of water, not to mention the damage it causes to other nearby fauna.
- Don’t carve things into trees. Mankind has already left enough of a mark on redwoods in the form of hundreds of thousands of acres of stumps where old-growth forest once thrived. Keep your pocket knife in your pocket and leave the trees alone, including the dead ones.
- Keep special trees secret. These days, it’s a bit too easy to find the location of famous trees. That being said, many are unmarked and still relatively undisturbed. Let’s keep it that way. I’ve already seen far too many Instagram Stories documenting the hike to Hyperion. Post pictures and videos of these trees if you like, but don’t mention their names or specific locations. That last little bit of effort needed to find an especially big tree will keep 99% of people away.
- Post thoughtfully on social media. Imagery that promotes illegal or disrespectful actions also perpetuates such behavior. Instead, use photos and videos to communicate your awe and respect for redwoods.
- Be quiet. Nothing cuts the sanctity of an ancient redwood forest like the shriek of siblings tussling, or friends shouting to one another back-and-forth across a grove. Talk, converse, have fun — but don’t yell. It can damper other visitors’ experiences
- Contemplate our relationship with redwoods. How could we have cut down 95% of these beautiful behemoths? What does this say about our relationship with nature, and the future of these trees as well as the rest of our natural world? Profound insights can blossom from these questions. Ask them of yourself, your family and your friends.
If you don’t like rules and bullet points, E.P. Meinecke laid it out a bit more bluntly:
“There is only one attitude which has no place in the Redwoods, that of levity and lack of reverence. To turn the austere temples we have inherited from past ages into cheap amusement resorts would constitute a wrong committed against the best there is in the American people,” he wrote. “The legitimate demands of those who desire to carry the pleasures of the city life into the country are best taken care of by the many summer resorts along the highway. They are out of place in the Parks themselves.”
It’s the simplest thing. When you walk into a grove of old-growth redwoods, remind yourself to be kind to these, the last of the tallest trees. If you can do that, you’ll always be a friend of these giant survivors, enlivened and inspired as you traipse in and out of their shadows.
Here’s to hoping future generations will be able to do the same.