The coast redwood is endangered

Redwood forest in Oakland

tiny squeeworthy baby redwoods

You didn’t misread that title. In a groundbreaking reassessment of the world’s conifer species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, as Endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species. The redwood’s condition has thus been down-graded from its previous prognosis, “vulnerable,” which it was assigned in 2006.

That’s not the only bad news for California conifers in the IUCN’s conifer assessment. I wrote over at KCET today about another species that was added to the Endangered Species section of the Red List, the whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis. Also joining the list were the giant sequoia or big tree, Sequioadendron giganteum, similarly moved from “vulnerable” status, and the Monterey pine, Pinus radiata.

None of those other three were a huge surprise. Whitebark pines grow above 7,000 feet in an era of global warming. Big trees grow in a few scattered relict groves in the Sierra Nevada, and there aren’t enough young trees growing to replace the ancients as they slowly die off. Monterey pines may be the single most planted pine tree in the world, displacing native trees on tree farms in the Antipodes, but in its native range — a sliver of the California coast, and a couple islands off the Pacific coast of Baja California — the species is declining.

But redwoods? There are tens of millions of redwood trees in the world. Cut one down and a dozen new trees grow back from its stump like the hydra. In Oakland, the story famously goes, there were a pair of redwood trees in the hills so tall that mariners used them to align their ships 15 miles west to avoid the rocks in the Golden Gate. Sometime between 1850 and 1855 the Navigation Trees were cut down, and every other old-growth redwood tree in Oakland but one followed them in the next decades. (That one, in a steep canyon near Redwood Road, was too inaccessible for  loggers and still exists. It’s 500 years old and 26 feet wide at breast height.)

American settlers cut down the trees illegally in the 19th Century to build houses. Stump sprouts grew back, got to remarkable size in 30 or 40 years, and then were cut to rebuild cities after the 1906 quake and fire. We decided to protect them in 1934, and now the stump sprouts that grew after the second bout of logging are 150 feet tall or so. In Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, which now covers the site of much of that original forest, you can find good-sized trees growng in rings 25 feet in diameter. They are ghost assemblages of the massive tree from whose stump they sprouted.

Zeke and I used to walk among those ghosts, sit and nap among them.

Zeke is blurry

Zeke is blurry in the dappled redwood shade, with western sword fern

They were redwoods in training at best.

Entomologists have a term, imago, that technically means the last stage of the process of metamorphosis. The egg hatches into a caterpillar, the caterpillar pupates, the sexually mature adult — the imago — emerges from the pupa. Imago is, of course, Latin for “image.” The implication is that the final form into which the insect morphs is the proper image of the organism, that life stage that most fully represents what the organism really is.

The century-old redwoods in Oakland are already huge. Left to their own devices, they could reach a thousand years of age,  or two if they’re moderately lucky. Left to their own devices, they would spend at least 70 or 80 percent of their lives as old-growth redwoods. The scrawny saplings with trunks just two feet thick are but going through a phase. The redwoods you can still get your arms around are squee-worthy youngsters. The imago of Sequoia sempervirens is 26 feet across at breast height. It has side-branches as thick as oak trees a hundred twenty feet up. The imago of Sequoia sempervirens is so big it holds whole forests aloft on those branches, Sitka spruce and huckleberries that germinate in the moss and lichen, habitat for the marbled murrelets who lay their eggs in the moss atop those branches without fear they’ll ever roll off.

Three hundred years ago there were 2.1 million acres of that kind of redwood, the real redwood, the imago of the redwood, growing between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Chetco River. We used to say that five percent of it remained, but that was in the 1990s and there was an orgy of junk bond financed liquidation logging going on at the time. A quarter of the remaining old growth redwoods are unprotected: they could be cut at any time.

And yes, the sprouts grow back, and within a century they will start to have limbs big enough for salamanders and spotted owls to perch on, and they will start to call the rains out of passing fogs as their elders did before them. And then we will cut them down again. Logging once a century seems fair. It seems sustainable. The century-old redwoods get bigger than we are, and we are the only frame of reference that matters.

A fungus blight struck the American chestnut a century ago, and there are no more adult chestnuts in the forests of the East. Every now and then one will stump sprout, grow a spindly sapling a few feet high that puts out a few reluctant leaves, and that sapling does its best to become a tree for a couple of years. And then the fungus gets it, inexorably.

No one challenges the notion that the American chestnut is extinct, at least in an ecological sense.  Somewhere on the spectrum between 10 months and a hundred years, and somewhere on the spectrum between the fungus and the chainsaw, is the point at which our frame of reference betrays us.

Foresters will come and cut the sapling redwoods down as sure as fungus. They interplant Douglas fir among the redwoods, weakening the redwood stands. They try to suppress fires in the woods, saving those out-of-place Doug firs at the expense of the fire-tolerant redwoods. One by one the ancient redwoods in the private groves, the parks and the BLM snctuaries, will succumb. And like their cousins the Sierran big trees, there will be fewer and fewer worthy young saplings only 300 years old to replace them.

It is a stealth endangerment, to be sure, with all these young ephemeral redwoods a mere century old to mask it. But the coast redwood — the real coast redwood — is endangered, and its prognosis is getting worse, and it took the IUCN, a body relatively insulated from the politics of American resource extraction, to say so.

7 thoughts on “The coast redwood is endangered

  1. Joan Dunning

    This is stunning writing. Thank you for expressing what I feel is going on all around me up here on the North Coast….. but is unspoken. Beautiful.

  2. Joan Dunning

    Chris, have you, perhaps, read my book, From the Redwood Forest: Ancient Trees and the Bottom Line? I think you would enjoy it. It is available for pennies on line, used. I also have a new children’s picture book out, which I both wrote and illustrated: Seabird in the Forest about the marbled murrelet. Joan Dunning

  3. lukemcguff

    This is sad news. I was surprised at first, because up here (Seattle) the redwood can be kind of weedy. The Olmstead Brothers firm planted many in our parks. But as you say, the canopy ecologies are what make an old growth forest, not just the age of the trees. Your phrase “somewhere on the spectrum between 10 months and a hundred years…” reminds me of what ecologists call “the invisible present” to describe gradual processes that occur within or just beyond a human lifespan, but which might take decades of observation before you can make hypotheses.

  4. Helen Balcony (@CastIronBalcony)

    Sadly, this sounds all too familiar. There are two competitors for the world’s tallest flowering plant: Your redwood and our Mountain Ash, or Eucalyptus Regnans. Mountain Ash constitute the main element of our cool temperate rainforest in SE Australia. For the last few decades, the forestry arms of the various State Governments, together with private companies, have combined to clearfell and woodchip most of the old growth Cool Temperate rainforest. (In Victoria, where I live, we have – from memory – approximately 1.5% REMAINING.)
    Extravagant claims are made re. replanting and ‘regeneration’, but after the relatively fragile soil is bulldozed, a form of napalm is used to burn the whole area and then the coupes are re seeded, the logging coupes become a monoculture without the epiphytic ferns, myrtles, fungi and other things which make the ecosystem what it is. I don’t have to tell you what the result is for the wildlife.
    Your redwoods are currently winning the “tallest” comp, I believe, because of a lightning strike somewhere shortening one of ours which was previously ahead.

  5. irinelpetrescu

    These are sobering news. For those of us living in the coastal zones, the fact that coastal redwoods have been classified as endangered is startling. The beautiful, protected redwood-covered hillsides and many parks may give a false impression of forest health, but some may scoff at the IUCN assessment as yet another treehugger exageration. After all, coastal communities have enacted all kinds of logging restrictions, from large-scale logging to homeowners cutting down one tree. Property owners already struggling with an expensive and opaque permitting process will be frustrated if communities elect further restrictions on small and medium-size properties.

    Let’s hope that the IUCN doesn’t “cry wolf.” Let’s hope that their assessment will prompt everyone to take another look at the redwood status along the entire West Coast, the overall logging stats, and how well redwoods can withstand any new threats of disease and fungi.