Redwoods were integral to the practical and spiritual lives of many native tribes along the California coast. For example, the Yurok used redwood to build homes, sweathouses, canoes, furniture and other objects, and performed ceremonies when harvesting redwoods or carving a canoe. And below the coast redwood region, in the Santa Barbara Channel area, the Chumash made use of large redwood drift logs to carve strong, light oceangoing canoes. California’s native tribes are vital stewards of these lands today.
Spanish explorers took note of redwood trees, as recorded by Father Juan Crespi in 1769. Adobe buildings constructed throughout California in the late 1700s to mid 1800s relied heavily on redwood for structural beams, doors, lintels, and trim. Spanish soldiers from the Presidio of San Francisco logged redwoods in the vicinity of Mount Tamalpais.
A.T. Dowd discovers Calaveras North Grove of giant sequoias while pursuing a wounded bear, and his account of the “Sierra big trees” draws the world’s attention. Coast redwoods recognized as an entirely distinct genus and named Sequoia by Stephen Edicher (1847); French botanist Decaisne recognized “Sierra redwood” (giant sequoia) as another species of Sequoia (1854). Exhibitions at the Crystal Palace in New York City and London (1855) made giant sequoias famous worldwide. Meanwhile, commercial sawmills are built in the San Francisco Bay area, and coast redwood logging becomes widespread.
Calls for the conservation of redwoods began to appear in print. The New York Herald exhorted: “It is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and preserve these Californian monuments,” while The San Francisco Daily Chronicle expressed alarm: “Soon the whole neighborhood will be cleared of growing timber. Already the fairest and largest trees have fallen before fire, axe, and saw. Those magnificent pillars, which form so strange a crown to the mountains when seen from San Francisco and the bay, are slowly disappearing” (1854).
Captain Israel Ward Raymond and California’s U. S. Senator John Conness want natural land areas at Yosemite to be set aside purely for preservation and public enjoyment. At Raymond’s request, Senator Conness introduced a bill in the Senate that quickly passed through both Congressional houses.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act of June 30, 1864, bestowing 20,000 acres encompassing the “Yo-Semite Valley” and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California. Governor Frederick Low accepted the grant in September of that year. Thus the nation’s first state-controlled park was born.
The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 sold Western timberland for $2.50 per acre in 160-acre blocks. Land that was deemed “unfit for farming” was sold to those who wanted to “timber and stone” (log and mine) the land. The act was used by speculators who were able to get great expanses declared unfit for farming, allowing them to increase their land holdings at minimal expense. Wealthy companies seeking to access natural resources semi-fraudulently circumvented the stipulations of the law by hiring individuals to purchase 160-acre lots on their behalves. Some of these companies gained control of up to 20,000 acres in this way.
On September 25, Sequoia National Park was established by President Benjamin Harrison to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging, becoming California’s first national park and the nation’s second. A week later, state-controlled Yosemite became a national park as well, thanks to the impassioned advocacy of naturalist John Muir.
As technology improved in the first half of the 1900s, it became easier and cheaper to cut and process larger trees, resulting in great profits for redwood lumber companies — especially during economic upswings and the building booms that came with them. Recognizing the need for regulation, California passed a Forest Protection Act and hired the nation’s first state forester in 1905. At this time, 85 to 90 percent of the redwood forest remained unlogged.
California’s first official state park, Big Basin State Park, was created. Thanks to the campaigning of the Sempervirens Club (now the Sempervirens Fund), led by Andrew P. Hill, nearly 4,000 acres of old-growth redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains were protected. In 1902, William and Elizabeth Kent purchased Muir Woods, in Marin County, to preserve its old-growth redwoods. In 1908, they donated the area to the nation and it became Muir Woods National Monument. These parks protected land from the intense threat of logging, and could be easily visited by urbanites from San Francisco and San Jose. The effort helps set the vision for creating hundreds of subsequent state parks throughout California.
The National Park Service was created. The California Redwood Association was organized to promote redwood products.
At the encouragement of National Park Service Director Stephen Mather, the scientists and naturalists John C. Merriam, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant drive into the northern redwoods to survey the landscape. After witnessing the logging devastation along The Redwood Highway, the three resolve to launch a movement to save the redwoods. The same year, the Sonoma County supervisors voted to purchase and preserve a 320-acre redwood grove for $80,000, which later became Armstrong Redwoods State Park.
Save the Redwoods League was founded in March of 1918. Inaugural donors were Stephen Mather, E.C. Bradley, William Kent, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant.
Newton B. Drury was hired as Executive Secretary for Save the Redwoods League. He would provide leadership to the League for the next 58 years, also serving as a National Park Service and California State Parks leader. In Humboldt County, members of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs established the Women’s Save the Redwoods League. And, National Park Service Director Stephen T. Mather recommended the creation of a redwoods national park.
The Save the Redwoods League bylaws were signed by 26 men, and the League’s incorporation papers were approved by the State, making the organization a nonprofit.
Save the Redwoods League poured millions into acquiring the magnificent stands lining the Redwood Highway. Meanwhile, with leadership from Save the Redwoods League, a broad coalition of groups and individuals united their collective powers into the campaign for legislation establishing a state park system.
The League’s first redwood memorial grove was dedicated in honor of Colonel Raynal C. Bolling on August 6, 1921, following a contribution from his brother-in-law (League Councilor John C. Phillips). Bolling was the first American officer of high rank to be killed in action during World War I. The grove includes redwood forest on the South Fork of the Eel River.
On June 31, California approved the Redwoods Preservation Bill – an emergency appropriation of $300,000 to acquire roadside redwoods near the South Fork of the Eel River in what became Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Richardson Grove was established when Save the Redwoods League encouraged the State of California to purchase land in southern Humboldt County from Henry Devoy.
The redwood lumber industry began to establish tree nurseries and organized reforestation programs.
In 1924, the League prioritized four projects: Bull Creek and the Dyerville Flats, Prairie Creek and the Humboldt Lagoons, Del Norte Coast, and the Mill Creek/Smith River redwoods. John D. Rockefeller became involved with the League’s work, contributing $1 million and pledging an additional $1 million to purchase land in the Bull Creek area. By the end of the 1930s, the League had made meaningful progress toward protecting all of these sites.
By the mid-1920s the number of state parks has grown to nearly 20, and a unifying system is needed to oversee park acquisition and management. Save the Redwoods League established a California State Parks Committee, to be chaired by Duncan McDuffie, to press for legislation.
Pacific Lumber began to harvest redwoods (again) in the Dyerville Flat near Bull Creek in November, 1924. The League and other conservationists called on Humboldt County to intervene. In February, 1925, county supervisors adopted a League-proposed resolution which called for League acquisition of the area either through amicable negotiations or condemnation proceedings. The funds provided by Rockefeller the year before proved essential in convincing the board that the League was capable of the purchase. Negotiations lasted six years, and in June of 1931, a mix of private and public funds were used to acquire what became the heart of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The state park system is established (1927). In the wake of a grassroots campaign organized by conservation groups and spearheaded by the League, the Legislature establishes an official State Park Commission tasked with managing the entire system of state parks. The legislation also authorizes a $6 million bond measure to be included in the following year’s ballot for parkland acquisition funding, and a calls for a statewide survey of potential new park sites. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. works tirelessly to conduct the survey, soliciting widespread public input and participation in reviewing site proposals. In his final report, submitted in 1929, Olmsted writes: “The magnitude and importance, socially and economically, in California, of the values arising directly and indirectly from the enjoyment of scenery and from related pleasures of non-urban outdoor life … are incalculably great.”
The League made significant acquisitions for Humboldt Redwoods State Park, including the 9,400-acre Rockefeller Forest; and helped fund the state’s acquisition of the Calaveras North Grove of giant sequoias — a goal of preservationists since 1877 — for Calaveras Big Trees State Park (1931). The following year, the League acquired 8,252 acres for Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Fifty years after John Muir called for the protection of a spectacular, glacier-carved valley near Sequoia National Park, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Kings Canyon and 450,000 acres of surrounding forestland America’s 26th national park. “Forest-clad valleys with sheer rock walls reminiscent of Yosemite: above these valleys, the crest of the Sierra Nevada range forms a tumbled array of mountains unequaled in North America for massed effect of peaks, palisades and minarets, with hundreds of lakes, meadows and streams – this is Kings Canyon National Park.” – Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1940
The League acquired 4,280 acres for Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (1944) and the first grove was donated for Montgomery Woods State Reserve in Mendocino County (1945). Also in 1945, Save the Redwoods League, with support from the Garden Club of America and others, raised funds to create the 5,000-acre National Tribute Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Thousands of people from across the country made contributions to honor all U.S. service members active during World War II.
Living dawn redwoods (Metasequoia), a species previously thought to be extinct, were rediscovered when a plant collector took samples from trees in China’s Hubei province and shared them with scientists. Those samples reached Ralph Chaney at the University of California, and Save the Redwoods League funded Chaney’s trip to China to investigate. The journey was covered by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Milton Silverman, whose articles on the discovery drew great public interest.
As late as 1947, vast tracts of old-growth redwoods still stood in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. However, after World War II, California experienced an unprecedented building frenzy, and the demand for redwood and Douglas fir soared. The number of coastal sawmills more than tripled between 1945 and 1948. Each year through the 1950s, the redwoods fell at a rate three times that of any year prior to 1950, reaching in 1958 an annual cut unmatched before or since. Another housing boom in the 1960s further increased the demand for redwood lumber. Bulldozers, tractors and trucks replaced steam railroads, expanding the land that could be profitably logged and resulting in many new roads built into the forest. Clear-cutting was favored, and state tax laws encouraged the cutting of 70 percent or more of the trees in a stand so as to remove standing timber from the tax rolls. By the end of the 1950s, only about 10 percent of the original two-million-acre redwood range remained untouched. Even redwoods in state parks were threatened by erosion and freeway construction.
The logging industry was extremely important in the redwood region in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties. In the 1950s, the per-capita income in Humboldt County was comparable to the rest of California.
Forest industries certified the first Redwood Tree Farm in a concerted program to encourage growing redwood timber as a continuous crop on privately owned, taxpaying forest land. The Redwood Region Conservation Council was founded.
Newton Drury assumed leadership of California’s state parks department, at this time called the California Division of Beaches and Parks. During his tenure, the department regains access to a large share of offshore oil royalties, funds from which are used to acquire more land. By the time Drury retires in 1959, the system includes 150 beaches, parks and historic monuments covering over 600,000 acres.
The South Grove of giant sequoias was acquired by Save the Redwoods League, the Calaveras Grove Association and the State of California as a major addition to Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
Heavy rains in the winter of 1954-55 sent piles of logs plummeting through the raging waters of Bull Creek. When the water abated, 525 giant redwoods had been lost from the Rockefeller Forest, and fifty acres of the flat had been washed away. It became clear that even protected forests below privately-owned (and logged) watersheds were endangered, and a landscape-scale approach would be needed for true protection.
The Avenue of the Giants Parkway was dedicated in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in 1960, after a 40-year acquisition process by the League. The League continued acquiring significant parcels of land for Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park. In 1961, Save the Redwoods League, the Sierra Club, and the National Geographic Society revived the idea of a redwood national park.
The National Geographic Society funded a survey to map the remaining old-growth redwoods and suggest the location for a national park. The survey showed that only about 15% of the original two million acres of virgin redwoods were uncut. Of those 300,000 uncut acres of redwood forest, about 50,000 were already in state parks. State-managed redwood forestlands at this time totaled 102,000 acres, valued at over $11 million, in four widely-known and admired parks.
The State Highway Commission’s 1963 plans to rebuild portions of Highway 101 and 199 threaten Prairie Creek and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks. The U.S. Department of Commerce passed a requirement that federally funded highway projects consider the integrity of public parks, which leads Prairie Creek to be spared. The fate of Jedediah Smith would hang in the balance until 1966. Meanwhile, the League continued to make major acquisitions for Humboldt Redwoods State Park — over 9,000 acres, including land along the Avenue of the Giants — and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, securing Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach.
Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund, making substantial funds available for national parkland purchases. Philanthropy, the traditional method of preservation, would play a decreasing role in the campaign for a national park.
In the culmination of years of advocacy, diplomacy, and hard-fought battles, Redwood National Park was established by Congress, preserving 58,000 acres of redwood forest in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Senator Henry Jackson said, “It is our intention that a thousand years from now, redwood seedlings of today will have lived, within this park for the inspiration and wonder of future generations.” – Los Angeles Times, Sept. 20, 1968. Also in 1968, Save the Redwoods League celebrates its 50th anniversary. (A decade later, President Jimmy Carter added 48,000 acres to Redwood National Park, in response to concerns about the negative impact of logging activity near park borders.)
From the 1950s to the mid-1970s, the annual redwood harvest stayed around one billion board feet per year. The harvest then began to decline so that less than 500 million board feet were being harvested annually by the late 1990s and only about 304 million board feet were harvested in 2005.
The 75th anniversary of Save the Redwoods League is marked in 1993.
The Corridor from the Redwoods to the Sea — linking Humboldt Redwoods State Park and the King Range National Conservation Area — becomes a priority project, and the League acquired 3,800 acres in the corridor in 1999.
More than a decade of protests followed the 1985 hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber by Maxxam, Inc., which favored unsustainable logging practices. Protestors rallied to save the largest remaining stand of unprotected old-growth coast redwoods, in the Headwaters Forest.
On March 1, 1999, the 7,472-acre forest (containing 3,088 acres of old-growth) was purchased by the government for $480 million. The acquisition agreement included restrictions on logging operations on more than 200,000 acres of adjacent land and a plan to protect threatened and endangered species.
President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation to create the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Spanning more than 325,000 acres, the site contains nearly one-third of the world’s giant sequoia groves.
The League purchased the Dillonwood giant sequoia grove and transferred it to Sequoia National Park. Assisted by a $5 million federal allocation sponsored by Senators Boxer (CA-D) and Feinstein (CA-D) and Representative Radanovich (CA-R), the League secured $5.3 million from over 6,500 members to complete the 1,540-acre purchase.
In 2002, the League purchased the vast, 25,000-acre Mill Creek forest, its largest acquisition to date. Adjacent to Redwood National and State Parks, Mill Creek had been intensively logged, and its return to the public domain completed protection of the region’s watersheds and enabled restoration efforts benefiting endangered fish and wildlife as well as the redwoods.
Meanwhile, that same year, “sustainable” timber harvest certifications became available to lumber companies. In California, certification is done through the Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative, according to criteria including “growth equals or exceeds harvest” and “forest ecosystem is maintained and protected.”
From 2002-2006, the League helped protect 7,334 acres for Mendocino Headlands State Park, and transferred 4,000 acres in the Corridor from the Redwoods to the Sea to the Bureau of Land Management.
The 1000th memorial and honor grove is established through the League.
The League’s Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative begins. This collaborative program brings the League together with researchers from UC Berkeley, Humboldt State University, the Marine Conservation Institute, and other organizations to study the impacts of climate change on redwoods.
The same year, National Geographic Channel’s Explorer featured new animations of redwood forests based on data from the League.
Also, the League helped protect 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands.
Proposition 21, intended to counter years of reduced funding for state parks, is defeated in November 2010. Facing major budget cuts, the parks department identifies 70 parks to close permanently by July 2012. Contributions from nonprofits, local governments, private partnerships, and volunteer efforts save all but five of those parks.
In 2011, a remarkable alliance of activists, the owners of a redwood lumber company, Save the Redwoods League and donors from every American state protected a unique piece of California history facing imminent harvest: the ancient Noyo River Redwoods along the 126-year-old Skunk Train route.
The following year, the League protected Four Corners.
The League announced to the world the surprising discoveries of its Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative, which will inform how we protect and restore redwood forests amid rapid global warming. These revelations marked a huge leap forward in our understanding of redwood forests. One of the discoveries is that ancient redwood forests store at least three times more carbon aboveground than any other forest on Earth.
The League purchased the 125-acre Orick Mill Site at the southern gateway of Redwood National and State Parks, planning to create a visitor center and trail connections, and restore prime habitat for iconic and imperiled wildlife.
The League established protections for the Peters Creek and Boulder Creek old-growth forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The same year, Save the Redwoods established a conservation easement for the 8,500-acre San Vicente Redwoods forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The League partnered in developing management and public access plans to conserve San Vicente for all its uses: protection of old-growth redwoods and drinking water; wildlife habitat restoration; ecologically sustainable timber harvesting; and public recreation.
The League protected the Big River-Mendocino Old-Growth Redwoods property from logging and development. Less than a mile from the popular North Coast tourist destination of Mendocino, this spectacular holding includes ancient redwood stands and a rare coastal pygmy forest.
Also in 2015, the League inspired 20,000 visitors to know and love the redwoods, providing free passes to 48 California redwood state parks on the day after Thanksgiving. The program inspired park systems in 12 states to make similar offers.
The League worked to conserve the Mendocino County redwood forest ecosystem at a transformative scale. Working with the owners of 15,000-acre Mailliard Ranch, Save the Redwoods League raised funds toward the purchase of conservation easements to protect the ranch from development and subdivision.
The League permanently protected its 870-acre Stewarts Point property from subdivision and extensive logging, transferring an easement to conserve 700 acres of redwood forest and coastal grasslands and a 1.7-mile stretch of the Gualala River. The League transferred another easement for the development of a coastal trail on the property by the end of 2019. A third easement will grant indigenous people permanent access to an ancestral site for ceremonial uses.