I have begun to know some trees

March 1, 1998

by Janet Greene

I have begun to know some trees. Every morning I enter their home, a 27 acre ridge top grove on Fitzpatrick Lane, a few miles outside of Occidental, California. Sometimes I take off my shoes, letting my toes taste the cool spongy moss that covers the forest path. All around me are the tall tree, the old trees, the coastal redwoods. Their botanical name is Sequoia Sempervirens. They were given this name in 1874 by botanist Stephen Endlicher to honor Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian noted for creating an alphabet for his people. Sempervirens means evergreen. The redwoods remain green all year, even when the big leaf maples discard their chlorophyll coats and sail like yellow kites through the Fall days. Only the outer branches of redwoods show a bit of brown that will be sloughed off in the first rains.

With these rains come the winds that whip and tear at these trees, hurtling branches as thick as my body down to the ground. I find these spears piercing the earth or strewn among the ferns and huckleberry bushes. During the storms, I listen to the roar and watch the trees dancing with the wind. Their pliability is a strong adaptation for the wild coastal weather. They have learned the lesson of bending, of not resisting the wind currents. Trees do fall however, especially if they are on the outer edge of a stand or isolated by logging. Their vulnerability to wind is due to the shallowness of their root structure, from four to six feet deep, amazing for a tree that often exceeds three hundred feet in height! Redwood roots need to be close to the surface to collect the moisture from fog drip. When sediment from floods covers the root area, a tree will send up vertical roots to reach the optimal distance from the surface. To compensate for its shallow depth, redwood tree roots extend several hundred feet away from the tree. They also intertwine with the roots of their neighbors, giving them added support. Redwood trees are virtually “holding hands” in the earth.

I have become increasingly intertwined with these trees since their lives became endangered in 1994. One March morning I saw blue lines painted on many of these trees. I soon discovered that these marked trees were to be cut down and dragged by a tractor out of their home. Several neighbors and I formed Friends of the Old Trees, a citizens group committed to saving these trees. We discovered that approximately 100 truckloads of logs, about a half million board feet, would be taken out of the grove along our one lane, dead end road during this first logging. 25-30% of the trees would be removed. Successive loggings could occur in 10-14 year increments. The biological integrity of this remnant ridge top old growth grove would be destroyed along with the homes of the plants and animals that inhabited it.

Friends of the Old Trees held a meeting with the owners to listen to their concerns and express our wish that the trees be allowed to survive. Because the owners were adamant in their desire to cut the trees, we hired Paul Carroll, an attorney who had won several major environmental law cases. Paul Carroll and Friends of the Old Trees began a battle to save these trees.

At the urging of members of Friends of the Old Trees, the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District quietly approached the owners with several offers. Several appraisals were done, but the offers were rebuffed. Friends of the Old Trees also approached the California Coastal Conservancy and Save the Redwoods League. They could not help, they said, unless there was a willing seller.

Forest Unlimited, a Sonoma County forest protection non-profit organization, began educating Friends of the Old Trees about the process of fighting a logging plan. I soon found that the time lines established by the California Department of Forestry (CDF) were as shifting as an ocean beach. Meeting dates were often changed on the morning of the meeting. I also discovered that the language of the forest practice laws and the “Timber Harvest Plan” was full of nebulous, illogical and often erroneous phrases such as “Generally the stand will appear very much the same after logging.” (p. 2, Memorandum to Glen Newman, Deputy Director of Operations of the Department of Forestry, August 29 1997). This statement was ridiculous since the forester planned to remove more than one fourth of the timber.

But there was a deeper issue involved. Cutting 25-30% of 27 acres could have minimal impact if ancient redwoods forests were numerous. However, less than 4% of virgin redwood stands remains on the Earth. The rest of this vast ancient ecosystem that once stretched from Monterey County to Southern Oregon is gone, victim to the voracious appetite for wood to fuel the early trains, build the houses of San Francisco during the gold rush, and construct the decks and furniture of houses around the world. These few ancient trees are all we have left. However, there is no law to protect old growth redwood trees, some of them over 2000 years old. Their value is seen only in board feet.

Few people realize that the redwood is a relict species, our link back to the time of the dinosaurs, 135 million years ago. I wonder if these trees evolved into the tallest species on earth to evade the nibblings of these giant animals. Redwood forests once covered North America, Europe, Greenland and Asia as recently as twenty-five million years ago. The cooling and drying of the climate restricted their range to a tiny strip of land 400 miles long and a few miles wide. This is the last home of the redwoods. The mild Mediterranean climate provides warm wet winters and mild, dry summers. The Pacific ocean provides the summer moisture in the form of fog. It is the redwood’s amazing ability to utilize the fog that has assured it’s survival in the climate shifts of the earth.

Redwoods are amazing fog catchers. Some mornings the rolling white clouds drift from the ocean up the canyons. Other days the fog hangs among the trees like a pale, thin curtain. Through it, the sunlight splits into long milky shafts. Tiny water droplets collect on the flat green needles and fall in a shower of crystals. I stand entranced and drenched by this silent spectacle. The surrounding meadow is dry and sunlit, for fog does not precipitate so easily on thin grass stems. The water droplets also evaporate more quickly in the drier, warmer air. Redwoods humidify and cool the air. They make their own microclimate by transpiring water through their needles into the surrounding atmosphere. They also create their own water supply for the dry summer. Some of the fog drip is absorbed into the spongy earth where it is collected by the extensive root system. The rest of this moisture sinks lower into the ground and becomes part of the water table.

The ability of redwoods to capture water from fog has a great impact for those of us who live in this water scarce area. We depend on these trees for adding to our water supply. This understanding of the interplay between redwoods, fog drip and our water resources became one of the main issues during the Timber Harvest Plan review. Friends of the Old Trees contended that fog drip contributes significantly to our water supply, and that the the Timber Harvest Plan did not address the cumulative impact of logging on this effect.

The Timber Harvest Plan also dealt superficially with the species that co-exist with redwoods. Approximately 1,700 species of animals, birds and invertebrates depend on a live redwood . Another 4000 species live off of, or under a fallen redwood tree. The Department of Forestry’s response to the plight of these organisms was that some species would migrate out and return after the harvest. This response infuriated me. What would they do? Check into the local motel? What would happen to the great horned owls that nested in the grove? Many nights I hear them calling to each other. Several neighbors reported hearing the endangered northern spotted owl.

The grove is also home to bat colonies that roost in goose-pen trees, so called because early settlers kept their geese in these large, burned out hollows. Two of these trees are almost twelve feet in diameter. Four of these trees were marked for cutting. I have stood inside these chambers and listened to the small high pitched sounds of the hidden bats. The “expert” hired by the department of forestry to investigate these bats reported that his flashlight batteries were not working and therefore he could not identify them. After consulting several bat experts, I placed newspaper on the floor of the thirteen goose-pen trees, collected bat guano that fell on the paper and sent it to bat biologist Dr. William Rainey. He identified the guano as coming either from the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) or the pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus). The pallid bat is a species of special concern that was demoted from the threatened list with many other bat species. Perhaps this threatened status was “threatening” the extensive logging of forests. Dr. Rainey also stated that goose-pen trees are uncommon in most redwood stands and provide key roosting habitats for bats. He stated “It is hard to imagine a site in which cutting goose-pen trees does not permanently degrade a redwood stand as bat habitat.” (letter from Dr. William Rainey to Mr. Tom Osipowich, California Department of Forestry, September 11, 1997).

What is old growth? This term is not defined in the Forest Practice Act. Obviously, old growth or first growth refers to those trees that were standing before the European settlers began cutting the trees in the mid 1800’s. According to the 1880 History of Sonoma County , the first lumber mill in the Occidental area was built in 1859. By 1876, there were three sawmills in the Occidental area. The number increased to six in 1877. Much of the lumber was carried out of Occidental on the North Pacific Coast Railroad which reached Occidental in 1876. (p. 11, An Historical and Anecdotal Walking Tour of the small (But Fascinating)Village of Occidental, California, Amie Hill, 1997).

The early loggers did a thorough job of removing most of the the redwoods from the surrounding area. Logging continued into this century. The forests around Occidental are all second and third growth. Only the Grove contains a large number of first growth trees. Why is this? Perhaps in the earlier days these trees were too far away from the mills. But the forests adjacent to the Grove have all been heavily logged in recent years. The mystery of this island of ancient trees lies buried with the grandfather of the present owners. According to many Occidental residents, this gentleman who purchased the grove in 1940 wanted these trees never to be cut. And so they have remained to this day.

Despite hundreds of letters voicing deep concerns and public and scientific testimony at the review meetings, the Department of Forestry approved the logging plan in April of 1994. With logging imminent, we hired Paul Carroll, an attorney who had won several major environmental cases. Friends of the Old Trees filed a restraining order in Sonoma County Superior Court. The restraining order was granted on June 2,1995 preventing logging until our lawsuit was heard by the court. To raise money for lawyer’s fees, Friends of the Old Trees organized a series of benefit concerts. I gave the first concert, playing harpsichord with other musician friends. Other concerts included Scottish fiddlers, Irish harp music and Italian opera.

The strain and anxiety grew daily as we waited for the outcome of our lawsuit. Often I would stand among these trees and whisper “we will save you, and you will help us.” Finally on February 14, 1995, Judge Sawyer of the Sonoma County Superior Court ruled in favor of Friends of the Old Trees. Along with the fog drip issue, Judge Sawyer ruled that the Department of Forestry and the owners violated the California Environmental Quality Act. (CEQA) by not considering alternatives to the plan such as selling the grove to the Open Space District. However, the battle was just beginning.

The owners and the California Department of Forestry appealed the decision. Another hearing was held before the three judges of the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco. In early March of 1997, the court upheld the decision of Judge Sawyer. Undaunted, the CDF took the case to the California Supreme Court. In May, 1997, the court refused to hear the case. In effect, the Supreme Court let stand Judge Sawyer’s decision that the timber harvest plan was illegal. The court’s decision set major legal precedents that force the Department of Forestry to consider alternatives and cumulative environmental damage for all future timber harvest plans.

However, our time of celebration was short. The owners of the grove filed a second logging plan with CDF in early August of 1997. They increased the number of trees to be cut in the new plan!

In their earlier reports the Department of Forestry and related agency representatives made great effort to avoid the word “old growth” in describing the trees in the Grove. Instead they used the word “residual.”. What a difference a word makes! They described the Grove as second growth containing a few “residuals.” Later, the term “old growth” did creep into their vocabulary. But the reports contained many conflicting statements concerning the fate of these big trees. For example, page 1 of a preharvest inspection states that “The true old growth trees in the stand will not be harvested as part of this plan.” On page eight, however, the author changes his mind and says that “Only some of the old growth residuals in the stand are being harvested.” (Memorandum, to Glen Newman, Deputy Director of Operations of the Department of Forestry, August 29 1997).

The Department of Forestry also completely ignored the endangered marbled murrelet, a small and elusive bird that spends its days on the ocean and flies inland at dusk to roost on flat branches, or platforms of redwood trees. The Department of Forestry claimed repeatedly that the grove did not meet the protocol for “potential murrelet habitat.” The definition was rather simple: large trees with wide platform limbs within 60 miles of the coast. We could see the Pacific Ocean just five miles away from the edge of the grove.

Because there is no law in California to protect old growth redwoods trees, Friends of the Old Trees could not use the old growth issue in its lawsuit. But I was deeply disturbed by the Department of Forestry’s purposely unclear and erroneous description of the trees. With the help of several friends, I conducted a survey of tree diameters. We measured 153 trees. The results showed the following: 118 trees were five feet or more in diameter. Of these, 29 trees were six feet or more in diameter, 28 trees were between 7 and 8 feet, and 22 trees were between 8 and 11.5 feet in diameter. A retired logger and I also took bore samples of some trees and found them to be several hundred years old. One fallen trees was 375 years old. This information gave conclusive evidence that the grove contained a large number of old growth trees. I sent this information to the Department of Forestry. They ignored it. But I think it had some bearing on the Fish and Game Official’s hesitancy in approving the Timber Harvest Plan.

Desperate, A friend and I made several phone calls to Ken Hoffman of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency which oversees the Federal Endangered Species Act. I sent Mr. Hoffman photographs of what I considered possible murrelet nesting habitat along with my calculations of tree diameters. He visited the grove, determined that it did indeed contain suitable murrelet habitat, and recommended, over CDF’s objection, that a two year survey be conducted. This survey began in April, 1998. This second Timber Harvest Plan was now on hold.

In my struggle to save these trees I have begun to know them. In my attempts to measure their gigantic girths, I’ve reached, scrambled and walked around hundreds of trees. I have pressed my face, arms and body on their shaggy bark and tried to avoid the poison oak vines that grow up their trunks. In attempting to measure one of the largest trees I once stepped on a wild bee nest. In my haste to avoid being stung, I dropped my notebook containing the stand data near the nest. It took some courage and lots of protective clothing to venture back before daybreak to retrieve the book. During my video and photographic documentation I have become familiar with many of the trees, their shape and structure. During full moon nights I have followed the white glowing path into the Grove. This is the magic time, when the trees seem to reveal their inner secrets in great stillness. At sunsets the trees blaze loudly with an orange glow.

The Marbled Murrelet survey was completed in August, 1999. According to the report, no murrelets were found. The surveyor was the forester employed by the owners. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the survey was incomplete, not done according to protocol, and requested that another one year survey be done. That survey began in Spring, 2000, and was completed in August, 2000. But in May, before the survey was complete, Caryl Hart of Land Paths, a local land trust and trail advocacy organization, showed Todd Dawson, a researcher with UC Berkeley, the Grove. Dawson was so enthusiastic that he called the owners directly. Three-way conversations ensued and Land Paths offered to purchase an option to buy the Grove.

While the owners considered the offer, their liability for attorney’s fees in the lawsuit and the likelihood of a second lawsuit, the forester completed the murrelet survey. Again, he found no murrelets. At this point Friends of the Old Trees informed the owners that they intended to sue again because the second logging plan failed to correct the errors of the first. The owners wisely decided to accept Land Path’s offer and sold them an option. This bought us time. But we now had a deadline to raise $2.2 million to complete the sale.

I have learned some the redwood’s rhythms. In December and January the male flowers release their showers of golden pollen into the air. The female flowers ripen into small cones, less than 1.5 inches long. Each cone releases 90-150 seeds in the Fall. Of the millions of seeds produced by one tree, only a few will grow into a mature tree.

Fire is another rhythm in a redwood forest. The Grove contains veterans of many fires, their trunks darkened and their innards burned out. Redwood trees are highly resistant to fire due to the tannin content in their thick bark and their water based sap. If they are damaged by fire, new sprouts will grow from dormant buds in the burl, a large mass of meristematic cells which forms at the base of the young tree. Fire is also is an allay of redwoods, because it creates the bare mineral soils needed for seed germination.

There is a rhythm to calm and crisis, interminable legal delays and abrupt court decisions, patient waiting and frenzied fundraising. Land Paths, Friends of the Old Trees and Forest Unlimited scrambled to raise the money. The dominoes began to fall, one at a time. Forest Unlimited held a fund-raiser with Julia Butterfly Hill and Micky Hart raising both money and public awareness. Friends of the Old Trees generated contributions from private donors totaling $500,000. The Open Space Authority, impressed with the public support, recommended to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors the approval of $1.2 million for a forever-wild easement on the grove. On July 18, 2000, the Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the Open Space money! The Coastal Conservancy and Save the Redwood League then joined the party with sufficient money to reach $2.2 million. Land Paths now manages the grove for research, educational field trips, and limited public access.

In the end, the cooperation of many organizations and thousands of citizens weaving their musical themes to create a fugue then a symphony, saved the grove. For five years I have listened to the music of these trees. They sing with the wind. There are many different songs, some fierce, some gentle. I can almost understand the language of this music. It blends with the hammering of acorn woodpeckers housing their nuts in the upper trunks, the whistles and chortles of the ravens, and the sweet spring song of the thrush.

On warm summer nights I sleep on my porch breathing in the oxygen from these trees, and giving to them my exhalation of carbon dioxide. I wonder, where do these trees leave off and I begin? As there roots are intertwined with each other, so is my breath with theirs, so is my life with theirs.