Life And Death Of A Primeval Empire

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It has been called the Redwood Empire, and not many years ago it stretched unbroken for 450 miles along the wet northern coast of California. It is an empire the like of which exists nowhere else on earth, for its imperious inhabitants are Sequoia sempervirens , among the tallest trees in the world and among the oldest of living things. Left to its natural devices “the everliving Sequoia” should not die at all, since it is marvelously resistant to fire, impervious to rot and termites, and supple enough to bend to the fiercest storms. Yet ironically, this very prescription for endurance constitutes the redwood’s death sentence at the hands of man. Fractions of trees that were sprouting their leaves when Hannibal crossed the Alps now serve as durable shingles and siding, patio tables, and other amenities of our ephemeral culture. Within the next ten years there may be little left of California’s virgin redwood empire except a vast array of tree stumps, looking for all the world like tombstones in a large, unkempt cemetery.

Preservation is not an entirely simple matter. Of the 1,800,000 acres that comprised the primeval redwood forests of California, only a bare 250,000 acres remain intact. Some 200,000 acres rest in private hands, those of lumber companies, for the most part. It would take the loggers no more than fifteen years, at the present rate of cutting, to level the companies’ holdings. The remaining 50,000 acres have already been preserved in scattered state parks, largely through the tireless efforts of the Save-The-Redwoods League and the Garden Club of America. The lumber companies believe that 50,000 protected acres are quite sufficient. Conservationists, and indeed most people who cherish what remains of our natural heritage, do not.

To walk in a redwood forest, said the conservationist Duncan McDuffie, “is to step into the portals of a cathedral, dim, lofty, pillared, peaceful … its aisles are lit with a translucence more beautiful than that which filters through the stained glass of Chartres. …” The existing park acreage will not remain so sublimely cathedral-like for long. Fragmented as it is into twenty-eight separate parks, it is threatened by superhighways, decimated in places by erosion, and thronged with increasing crowds of visitors.

To add one final bitter complication, those who would save what remains of the primeval redwood forests are divided among themselves. The Johnson administration proposes to establish a 45,000-acre Redwood National Park; in essence, its bill (S. 2962) would merely take over two already-existing state parks and bring under protection less than 6,000 additional acres of virgin forest, most of it already damaged by logging. Another Redwood National Park proposal now before Congress would save the largest remaining expanse of virgin forest, along Redwood Creek in Humboldt County, which is owned mainly by two lumber companies. Representative Jeffery Cohelan of California, backed by several score congressmen and senators, has introduced a bill calling for the inclusion of this superb remnant—more scenic, more ecologically balanced, and with better recreational possibilities than the administration’s site—in a 90,000-acre park. The Cohelan bill (H.R. 11723)—embodied by its Senate supporters in Amendment 487 to S. 2962—would salvage 32,000 acres of pristine forest and add them to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Until Congress makes up its mind, the three major redwood lumber companies have agreed to a logging moratorium within the main areas in question. The issue will soon be decided: How much of a unique and irreplaceable marvel of life do we wish to preserve?

There was a time, 25,000,000 years ago, when the redwood empire extended from California to the Atlantic, from France to Japan. Eons passed, the earth’s climate grew harsher, and at last Sequoia sempervirens could find but one place that would sustain its life: a narrow coastal strip of what is now northern California. Nature has bequeathed us what certainly looks like a solemn trust. Of that trust, a man who spent his career turning redwoods into lumber had last rueful thoughts. His name was E. C. Williams, and at the end of his life he remarked sadly: “I cannot but regret the part which it seemed necessary for me to enact in what now looks like a desecration.” That was in 1912. Soon now, regrets will be futile.