WASHINGTON (Sept. 15, 2009)—The man who walked 2,000 miles through African wilderness has taken on a new challenge: the American redwoods. Mike Fay, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and a conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has completed the first comprehensive transect of the entire range of the coast redwood tree — from Big Sur in southern California north to the last known redwood, just over the Oregon border.
“I’ve been walking in forests for 40 years,” said Fay. “Never could I have imagined a woods as grand as this.”
Over the 1,800-mile, 333-day transect, Fay exhaustively documented the forests’ wildlife, plant life and the condition of forests and streams. He talked to loggers, foresters, biologists, environmentalists, local business owners and timber company executives, all of them dependent on the forests.
More importantly, he witnessed the aftermath of the cutting of at least 95 percent of the original growth in the most wood-laden forest on earth. Fay spent most days on the transect pushing past gigantic stumps, through weedy stands of small trees amid crumbling road systems, and across rivers choked with gravel and silt whose fisheries had collapsed.
“The devastation I’ve heard about was real,” Fay said. “You don’t fathom what clear-cutting means until you see it day after day. The thousands of ancient stumps are still there, so you can imagine the forest as it once was.”
The transect is featured in the cover story of the October 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine and in a film, “EXPLORER: Climbing Redwood Giants,” airing at 10 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday, Sept. 29, on the National Geographic Channel.
Nearly all of the nation’s original redwood growth has been cut down, victim of an industry that sprang up soon after the California Gold Rush, starting in 1848, when eastern businessmen saw gold in the reddish, straight-grained, rot-resistant wood. The San Francisco fire of 1906 further fueled the redwood industry, resulting from the urgent demand for timber to rebuild the devastated city.
In the years that followed, timber barons cheaply acquired thousands of acres of federal lands in the redwood range, beginning an era of corporate lumbering that continues today. By the early 1950s mills were cutting more than a billion board feet of redwood lumber a year.
Of the 1.6 million acres of remaining redwood forest today, 34 percent is owned by three companies, 21 percent by the state of California and the federal government, and the rest by smallholders. Less than 5 percent of the roughly 2 million acres of ancient forest remains. Besides logging, redwoods today face other threats: urban development, population growth and climate change.
“The battle to save the redwoods has already been fought, and look, we’re left with table scraps,” said Steve Sillett, a forest scientist at Humboldt State University, whose research is funded by National Geographic, Save the Redwoods League and the National Science Foundation. “The challenge now is understanding how to improve management on the 95 percent of the redwood landscape that’s just starting to grow.”
Sillett, who has spent more time high in the redwood canopy than anyone, has helped discover an entire ecosystem living there. At those lofty heights, thickets of berry bushes, ferns and other conifers rise from dense mats of soil that are perched on broad limbs or in trunk forks.
After coring and measuring two dozen trees — ranging from 95 feet to 370 feet tall — from the canopy down, Sillett has found that the redwood’s annual rate of wood production increases with age for at least 1,500 years. Sillett found that the older the trees get, the more high-quality, rot-resistant heartwood they put on.
Thanks to their phenomenal growth, resistance to disease, insects and rot, and incredibly long lives, redwood forests are the best of all forests at capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking away the carbon in their wood, scientists have found.
All along the redwood range, Fay met land owners, ranchers, foresters and loggers who had discovered a new way of managing the forests. Fay believes this system — which brings vigor back to the ecosystem while keeping people in business — can serve as a blueprint not only for the redwoods but for forests around the world. Their desire to make the forest a sustainable resource, not merely a supplier of lumber, is a principle that should be applied around the world, he says.
In brief, these veteran foresters are carrying out single-tree selection. Every 10 or 15 years, they take about a third of the timber in a stand, going for the least robust trees — for instance, ones that are deformed or have broken tops. This creates more open space, allowing the remaining trees to get a greater share of the sunlight, which speeds their growth. Every year the amount and quality of the standing wood increase, and because regeneration happens gradually, the process can proceed for centuries. The advantages are twofold: short-term income and a larger payback over the long term.
The redwood transect, supported by National Geographic, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Save the Redwoods League, represents renewal of a historic partnership. In 1917 a group of prominent and passionate conservationists traveled to northern California to inspect the fabled redwoods groves. The men were appalled at the vast destruction of redwood forests along the newly completed coastal Highway 101 running north of San Francisco into Oregon. The group included Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the New York Zoological Society (forerunner of the Wildlife Conservation Society); Franklin K. Lane, U.S. secretary of the interior; Stephen Mather, director of the National Park Service; and Gilbert H. Grosvenor, young editor of National Geographic magazine. As a result of this trip to the groves, Save the Redwoods League was founded in 1918 and formally incorporated in San Francisco in 1919. National Geographic went on to advocate for the redwoods in its pages.
In an essay in the October 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine, Fay calls for a White House conservation conference, a century after President Teddy Roosevelt brought together governors, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and members of professional societies for such an assembly. “We need to generalize this simple notion: Rebuild our natural capital thoughtfully and reap the benefits,” Fay writes. “… We can — and must — do this not just with our forests and wildlife but also with the fish in our oceans and streams, the soils on our farms, and the grass in our pastures. The redwoods can show us the way.”
National Geographic Adventure and National Geographic Traveler magazines will feature redwoods in their October 2009 issues. For more information: www.nationalgeographic.com/redwoods
For photographs or footage, contact Barbara Moffet, firstname.lastname@example.org.