Redwood National Park / by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

In the northwestern corner of California, Alexis and I entered a land of

slumbering giants. Redwood National Park, encompassing 131,983 acres and three state

parks, was founded October 2 nd , 1968 and is home to the tallest living things on the

planet: redwood trees. While the tallest tree in the world used to grace the majority of the

Pacific Coast of North America, reaching heights of 380’ and ages of over 2000 years,

old growth forests can now only be found on the northern coast of California and along

the coasts of Oregon: only 5% of the original redwood forests.

In the morning, and occasionally into the afternoon on a cooler day, the fog that

rolls off the Pacific Ocean into the groves of redwoods gives them an unearthly feeling.

Beams of sunlight filter through branches hundreds of feet above the ground reflecting

off of the fine water droplets that hang suspended in the still air. Moss hangs in clumps

like damp green hair from the branches of smaller trees, and bugs that light up in golden

halos drift lazily between the plants.

As Alexis and I walked through these groves, it was hard to imagine these

massive trees covering huge tracts of land; they seemed surreal. Stout Grove is a

collection of old growth redwoods that stand near a creek that is prone to flooding. These

floods inhibit the growth of new trees in the grove and the result is a collection of

tremendous redwood trees standing tall together in solidarity. Silence grips you upon

entering the grove and is only broken by the occasional warning cry of seabirds that make

their nests in the high branches of the trees. The ground the redwoods ascend from is

covered in four-foot tall ferns that create a gently waving green carpet if viewed from

above, and a damp jungle of undergrowth if waded through on foot. The ferns grow in

the rich topsoil that the redwoods maintain. Much of it is comprised of needles fallen

from the high up branches, and the widespread roots of the trees also help keep the soil

moist year round.

When the giants themselves do tumble—which can happen naturally due to

lightning strikes or rot caused by fungal infections—the trees return tremendous amounts

of nutrients that they’ve kept suspended hundreds of feet above the ground back to the

soil as they decompose. These trees lay like massive elevated paths that crisscross

through the undergrowth of ferns and other small trees. As they slowly begin to break

down, plants begin to take root on their massive, nutrient rich bodies. The plants start

small—some moss here, a fern or six there—but soon saplings begin to sprout from the

logs, and not just redwoods. Oaks, Alders, Sumacs, and other pine trees can grow out of

these fallen behemoths as long as their seeds fall in the right place. These dead redwoods

become nurse logs that give life to newer generations of trees.

Ninety-five percent of American redwoods have been logged for the properties of

its wood: soft, termite and rot resistant, and non-warping. The scars the logging industry

left in the redwood groves can still be seen today, and will take at least fifty more years to

disappear completely, even with the park actively working to erase them. Massive

stumps, that still stand between five and ten feet from the ground—and sometimes more

than twelve feet wide—are scattered throughout the groves as aging reminders of

America’s early stances on environmental policies. Decaying logging roads crisscross

the lush slopes of the park where today you can find bulldozers and excavators working

to clear streams choked by road fill and logging debris, reestablish the natural watershed

of the slopes, and erase the patchwork connection of roads that zigzag across the land.

New redwood trees are also being planted in the prairies and clearings where they once

stood tall in what some are calling the Redwood Renaissance. It will take 250 years for

these trees to even reach a moderate size, but we have to begin somewhere.

To grow so large, Redwoods need an abundant source of water, and rely on

frequent rains year round to supply it; if they get an adequate amount, they can grow 2’-

3’ per year, making them the fastest growing conifer in the world. The massive

redwoods are able to manufacture their own rain, in a way, buy trapping the iconic fog

that rolls off of the Pacific Ocean and onto mainland California in their branches. This

accounts for 25%-40% of the moisture they absorb, because the redwoods are actually

able to absorb moisture through both their root systems and their leaves: the first plants

discovered to be able to do so. The fog also contains necessary nutrients such as nitrogen

and phosphorous that the tree’s shallow root systems can’t reach in the soil. In addition

to being a supplementary nutrient source, the fog regulates the temperature in the

redwood forests providing the temperate climate that is vital to the redwood’s survival; if

it gets too hot the trees can dehydrate, and if the temperature drops too far a frost snap

could kill the trees. That fog is beginning to disappear, however, and with it the

redwood’s water supply. In 2010, fog levels in the redwoods were down 30% from the

1950s. 385 miles south, Los Angeles’ coastal fog had dropped 63% since the 1950s. The

culprits, in addition to slowly warming temperatures worldwide, are the coastal cities

themselves.

The urban heat-island effect is a term that refers to a city’s ambient temperature

being much higher than surrounding rural temperatures due to the heat that is produced

and trapped by the asphalt, concrete, and metal that make up the majority of an urban

environment. This effect is particularly prevalent during night hours, as heat from the

sun is stored much longer in these materials than those of a more natural rural

environment. As urban centers continue to expand along the coast of California and

Oregon, they continue to reduce the amount of vital fog that is afforded to the redwood

forests.

While the effort to plant more redwoods and the work being done to restore

their forests to their natural state is valuable to the species’ survival, the work will

ultimately be in vain if the Pacific fog that keeps the trees alive disappears.

Redwoods are already beginning to die off in the southern reaches of their

territories, and while some surveys show that they may be beginning to extend their

territory northward, it won’t be in time to save the species from the habitat they’ll

have lost. City growth around the redwood’s habitat needs to be limited, or we

could lose the tallest living things on earth forever.