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State of Redwoods Conservation Report

Coast redwoods and giant sequoia are iconic symbols of California and the conservation movement. These magnificent species have endured major ecological change from logging, development, and political threats over the past two centuries. Today, both coast redwoods and giant sequoia are facing some of their most significant, cumulative challenges yet. Their conservation status warrants caution and requires action.

STATE OF REDWOODS CONSERVATION REPORT

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The current distribution of coast redwood and giant sequoia forests.COAST REDWOODS grow in a band from the coast of central California to southern Oregon. Compared to forests of the past, today’s redwood forests are fragmented, smaller, and more stressed than ever throughout their range. Logging and clearcutting that began over a century ago destroyed redwood forests on an industrial scale for many decades. Forest regeneration after clearcutting created unnaturally dense forests with high competition among trees for light and water, reduced genetic diversity, and impaired ability to store carbon or provide ample habitat for native species. The remaining old-growth forests are fragmented by these logged forests and threatened by residential development, roads, changes in climate, and the lack of productive, natural fires.

GIANT SEQUOIA grow in numerous isolated groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada as components of the Sierran mixed conifer forest. Even though they were not subject to the scale of logging or development impacts of the coast redwoods, the impacts of forest management and fire exclusion are significant. Sequoia need frequent low-intensity fires to suppress the growth of other woody species in the groves and encourage the establishment of young seedlings that can only sprout after fire. Decades of fire exclusion practices have made it increasingly difficult to conduct proactive burns. Because of this, other tree species, including white fir, have become densely established in sequoia groves, thus creating ideal conditions for severe fires that threaten giant sequoia and the communities found at the wildland–urban interface.

Given the extraordinary value of coast redwood and giant sequoia forests in providing resilient habitat, ecosystem services, scenic beauty, and inspiration, the degraded state of today’s redwood forests must be addressed. The forests’ connectivity, condition, species composition, age, genetic diversity, soil stability, water quality, habitat corridors, carbon storage capacity, and aesthetics have all been dramatically undermined by commercial logging, development, road building, agriculture, and fire exclusion for many decades. The pace of degradation has slowed, given more than 100 years of conservation efforts to protect the last of the old-growth from logging and recent regulatory efforts to enhance stream protection and encourage selective forest management in some parts of the forest. Although the protected old-growth groves remain as islands of isolated forests surrounded by degraded and fragmented landscapes, there is today an extraordinary opportunity to improve coast redwood and giant sequoia forest ecosystems through improved stewardship. To recover their multiple values and ensure resilience into the future, redwood forests need restoration via science-based interventions and supportive policies.

An effective conservation and restoration strategy for redwood forests requires an understanding of forest health, ecosystem dynamics, and a commitment to applying science to guide sound, protective actions. New and more detailed data are enabling a better understanding of these factors and providing more effective ways to view forest health.

This first-ever State of Redwoods Conservation Report provides a contemporary look at the state of coast redwood and giant sequoia forest health in California. Its purpose is to serve as a reference guide to their status today and discuss the key variables that matter most to their future health: overall age and condition of the forests, varied ownership and protection of redwood and giant sequoia forests, key stressors, and environmental challenges. As governments, nonprofits, landowners, and community partners work to repair the damage done over the last centuries, this report will help all of us in the critical work of protecting what we have, rehabilitating what is damaged, and identifying critical areas and opportunities for future protection and restoration.
 


ASSESSMENT KEY

In this report, the following meanings have been applied to evaluate the status of the conservation goals:

CONDITION: The current state of coast redwood or giant sequoia forest ecosystem health

GOOD THE CONSERVATION GOAL IS 75–100% MET

CAUTION THE CONSERVATION GOAL IS 25–74% MET

SIGNIFICANT CONCERN THE CONSERVATION GOAL IS 0–24% MET

TREND: Observed or near-term anticipated changes to the condition

IMPROVING THE CONDITION IS GETTING BETTER

NO CHANGE THE CONDITION IS UNCHANGING

DECLINING THE CONDITION IS DETERIORATING

Adapted from Measuring the Health of a Mountain: A Report on Mount Tamalpais’ Natural Resources with permission from One Tam.


KEY FINDINGS

Today, the overall conservation status of the coast redwood ecosystem warrants caution. Very little old-growth coast redwood forest remains, and these patches of the tallest forest on Earth stand in the midst of an extensively logged and intensively managed forest landscape. Only 22 percent of the coast redwood forest is protected against commercial logging, subdivision, and development. Further, nearly 40 percent of the ecosystem suffers from anthropogenic edge effects from roads, residential development, and agriculture across the landscape. Owned and managed by a range of public and private entities, the coast redwood forest has endured a multitude of past threats and contemporary challenges that have combined to shape how the ecosystem functions today. Changes to the historical pattern of beneficial, naturally occurring wildfires, the prevalence of new pathogens and invasive species, climate change, and human-induced impacts on wildlife are spreading to every corner of the redwood forest. It is the combination of stressors across the redwood ecosystem that poses the greatest threat to sustaining coast redwood forests for future generations and requires a variety of conservation and restoration activities to protect the future health of the forest.

COAST REDWOOD: OLD-GROWTH FOREST STRUCTURE

CONSERVATION GOAL:

Half the coast redwood forest ecosystem has the old-growth forest structure.

CONDITION SIGNIFICANT CONCERN (14% OF GOAL MET)

The current extent of old-growth forest in the coast redwood ecosystem is only 5 percent of the original 2.2 millionacre forest and is, therefore, of significant concern.

TREND: IMPROVING
ACTION NEEDED:

More than 600,000 acres of logged redwood forest must recover and regrow old-growth forest structure to regain critical ecological function.

COAST REDWOOD: PROTECTED FORESTLAND

CONSERVATION GOAL:

Half the coast redwood forest ecosystem is protected from future commercial (non-restoration) logging, subdivision, and development.

CONDITION CAUTION (43% OF GOAL MET)

Only 22 percent of the coast redwood ecosystem is highly protected from commercial logging, subdivision, and development.

TREND: IMPROVING
ACTION NEEDED:

More than 400,000 additional acres of redwood forest must be protected from future commercial logging, subdivision, and development.

COAST REDWOOD: ANTHROPOGENIC FOREST EDGE IMPACTS

CONSERVATION GOAL:

Less than 10 percent of the coast redwood forest is impacted by anthropogenic forest edges caused by roads, residential development, and agriculture.

CONDITION CAUTION (66% OF GOAL MET)

Since the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, an estimated 27 percent (600,000 acres) of the original coast redwood forest ecosystem was lost when forest was converted for human use. Today, nearly 40 percent of the remaining coast redwood forest is fragmented by roads, residential development, and agriculture, resulting in degraded habitat quality along the forest edge.

TREND: DECLINING
ACTION NEEDED:

The protection of the coast redwood forest from further encroachment must be prioritized ahead of the construction of new roads, housing development, and agriculture within the native coast redwood forest footprint. In addition, removal of nonessential infrastructure and agriculture or relocation of improperly located infrastructure and agriculture is needed—especially in and around old-growth forests—to improve habitat quality for more than 500,000 acres.

COAST REDWOOD: FIRE READINESS

CONSERVATION GOAL:

The entire coast redwood forest ecosystem is prepared for increased fire frequency due to climate change.

CONDITION SIGNIFICANT CONCERN (12% OF GOAL MET)

Today, 88 percent of the coast redwood ecosystem is burning moderately to significantly less frequently than prior to European settlement. With wildfire frequency predicted to increase with climate change and significant fuels accumulation in the forest today, the ecosystem is vulnerable to severe fire damage.

TREND: DECLINING
ACTION NEEDED:

The coast redwood forest ecosystem needs improved fuels management to reduce the risk of severe fire in second-growth forests following many decades of fire exclusion. Public funding is urgently needed to ready for fire more than 1.4 million acres that no longer burn at their historical fire frequency.

 


Today, the overall state of giant sequoia conservation warrants caution. In contrast to coast redwoods, which grew close to the rapidly urbanizing landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area, giant sequoia groves in the rural Sierra region were largely spared the magnitude of the destructive, early logging. However, logging did impact approximately one-third of the total forest footprint and was acutely destructive to several groves, including one of the largest—Converse Basin. Today, most of the groves are publicly owned and managed for conservation purposes. Giant sequoia forests have faced pervasive fire exclusion over the past century and suffer from the lack of frequent low-intensity fires that are necessary for giant sequoia reproduction. The long-term trend of Sierra snowpack reduction, in combination with warmer temperatures and widespread fir, pine, and cedar tree mortality from drought and pests, is greatly increasing the risk of severe fire and threatening the giant sequoia ecosystem.

GIANT SEQUOIA: OLD-GROWTH FOREST STRUCTURE

CONSERVATION GOAL:

The entire giant sequoia forest ecosystem has old-growth forest structure.

CONDITION CAUTION (67% OF CONSERVATION GOAL MET)

Historic logging of giant sequoia groves altered the forest structure and removed mature giant sequoia in at least 24 groves. Out of the 48,000 total acres of giant sequoia forest today, more than 11,000 acres were once heavily logged, and approximately 5,000 more acres were partially logged.

TREND: IMPROVING
ACTION NEEDED:

More than 16,000 acres of historically logged giant sequoia forest must recover and regrow old-growth forest structure to regain critical ecological function.

GIANT SEQUOIA: PROTECTED FORESTLAND

CONSERVATION GOAL:

The entire giant sequoia forest ecosystem is protected in public and tribal ownership.

CONDITION GOOD (97% OF CONSERVATION GOAL MET)

The vast majority of giant sequoia groves are held in public or tribal ownership, with only 1,200 acres privately owned today.

TREND: DECLINING
ACTION NEEDED:

Only 1,200 acres of the giant sequoia forest ecosystem are privately owned and require protection.

GIANT SEQUOIA: ANTHROPOGENIC FOREST EDGE IMPACTS

CONSERVATION GOAL:

Less than 10 percent of the giant sequoia forest is impacted by anthropogenic forest edges caused by roads and residential development.

CONDITION GOOD (93% OF CONSERVATION GOAL MET)

The giant sequoia forest experiences anthropogenic forest edge impacts on 16 percent of its ecosystem overall. Roads are the primary type of human infrastructure affecting the giant sequoia forest, followed by residential development.

TREND: IMPROVING
ACTION NEEDED:

Removal of nonessential infrastructure is needed to improve habitat quality for approximately 3,000 acres, especially in the heart of old-growth giant sequoia groves.

GIANT SEQUOIA: FIRE READINESS

CONSERVATION GOAL:

The entire giant sequoia forest ecosystem is prepared for increased fire frequency due to climate change.

CONDITION SIGNIFICANT CONCERN (7% OF CONSERVATION GOAL MET)

Fires once burned frequently across the Sierra Nevada and through giant sequoia groves, but today 93 percent of the ecosystem is burning moderately to significantly less frequently than prior to European settlement. With fire frequency and intensity predicted to increase due to climate change, and with the tree mortality epidemic creating crisis-level fuels accumulation in the forests, the ecosystem is vulnerable to severe fire damage.

TREND: DECLINING
ACTION NEEDED:

All 48,000 acres of giant sequoia forests need immediate and ongoing fuels reduction and the reintroduction of frequent fire through prescribed burning.

 


California’s redwood and giant sequoia forest ecosystems have survived centuries of natural and anthropogenic stressors due to their innate resilience and the many achievements of the conservation movement to date. However, protection of both ecosystems is far from complete given the impacts of logging, anthropogenic infrastructure, climate change, and altered fire regimes, which threaten the forests across public and private land. The overall conservation status of both ecosystems warrants caution. This status calls for the restoration of forests where the old-growth forest structure was lost to logging; further protection of land; removal of nonessential or relocation of improperly placed anthropogenic infrastructure within the ecosystems; and comprehensive forest stewardship across all forestland to prepare for more frequent fires.

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