National Geographic : 2009 Oct
of the great forests---northern spotted owls, elusive little seabirds called marbled murrelets, and coho salmon---continued their dangerous decline, while the reeling economy and hous- ing bust were shuttering sawmills throughout the redwood range. Fires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the worst re season in memory. Tourism was down. But something else was taking root among the trees Woody Guthrie lionized in " is Land Is Your Land." e buzz among environmental groups, consulting foresters, and even a few tim- ber companies and communities was that the redwoods were at a historic crossroads---a time when society could move beyond the log/don t log debates of decades past and embrace a dif- ferent kind of forestry that could bene t people, wildlife, and perhaps even the planet. e more Fay walked, the more convinced he became. "California revolutionized the world with the silicon chip," Fay says, his voice decep- tively so . " ey could do the same with forest management." FAY AND HOLM started their walk at the south- ern end of the forest, where the trees grow in scattered holdings and groves in the Santa Lucia Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Except in small parks like Muir Woods outside San Fran- cisco and Big Basin near Santa Cruz, where they encountered a few rare patches of ancient trees, they zigzagged 1,800 miles through stands that had been cut at least once and many that had been cut three times since 1850, leaving islands of larger second-growth forest in a sea of mostly small trees. But on a glorious May day, nearly three-quarters of the way into the transect, they arrived at the southern end of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the largest contiguous block of old- growth redwood forest le on the planet---some 10,000 acres. e alluvial ats along its creeks and rivers are prime redwood habitat, where the mix of rich soils, water, and fog rolling in from the ocean have produced the planet s tall- est forest. Of the 180 known redwoods greater than 350 feet, more than 130 grow right here. Fording a vein of emerald water known as the South Fork of the Eel, they climbed the far bank and entered the translucent shade of the most magni cent grove they d seen yet. Redwoods the size of Saturn rockets sprouted from the ground like giant beanstalks, their butts blackened by re. Some bore thick, ropy bark that spiraled sky- ward in candy-cane swirls. Others had huge cav- ities known as goose pens---after the use early pioneers put them to---big enough to hold 20 people. Treetops the size of VW buses lay half- buried among the sorrel and sword ferns, where they d plummeted from 30 stories up---the casu- alties of titanic wars with the wind, which even now coursed through the tops with panpipe-like creaks and groans. It s no wonder Steven Spiel- berg and George Lucas lmed scenes for the Jurassic Park sequel and Return of the Jedi among the redwood giants: It felt as if a T. rex or a furry Ewok could poke its head out at any minute. Redwoods are no less magical for foresters. Because their bark and heartwood are rich in compounds called polyphenols, bugs and decay- causing fungi don t like them. And since there s not a lot of resin in their stringy bark, larger redwoods are highly resistant to re. Perhaps the most amazing thing about redwoods is their ability to produce sprouts whenever the cambium---the living tissue just beneath the bark---is exposed to light. If the top breaks o or a limb gets sheared or the tree gets cut by a logger, a new branch will sprout from the wound and grow like crazy. roughout the forest you can nd tremendous stumps with a cluster of second-generation trees, o en called fairy rings, around their bases. ese trees are all clones of the parent, and their DNA could be thousands of years old. Redwood cones, oddly enough, are tiny---the size of an olive---and may produce seeds only sporadically. As a result, stump sprouting has been key to the survival of the redwoods throughout the logging era. e trees have another trick foresters love. Contributing Writer Joel Bourne reported on the global food situation in June. Photographer Michael Nichols is an editor at large for the magazine.