Grove of Titans: Inclusive storytelling wins top NAI honor

First-place award reflects importance of centering Indigenous voices

An interpretive sign with a tactile sculpture of a redwood dugout canoe describes the importance of these canoes to the Tolowa people.
Interpretation panels in Grove of Titans communicated the sacredness of this land for the Tolowa people, in addition to helping visitors understand the forest ecosystem and how to tread lightly through it. Photo by Max Forster.

What an honor! The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) has recognized Save the Redwoods League and its partners for interpretive excellence on the Grove of Titans project in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

The League was thrilled to receive first place in the NAI’s Interpretive Media Awards, which promote excellence in the delivery of natural, cultural, and historical nonpersonal interpretive services. Grove of Titans was selected from projects all over the United States, giving national recognition to the importance of inclusive storytelling and redwood conservation.

A sculpture of a squirrel-like mammal called the Humboldt marten perches on a fence post alongside an interpretive sign in both English and the Tolowa language
A sculpture of a Humboldt marten is one of several tactile elements at the Grove of Titans designed for the visually impaired and those who learn better through touch. Signage includes the marten’s name in the Tolowa language. Photo by Max Forster.
Two men talk in front of an interpretive panel in the forest, which describes aspects of the Tolowa culture.
Loren Me’-lash-ne Bommelyn, Tolowa Dee-ni’ linguist and tribal historian, tradition bearer, and teacher, views interpretive panels with League president Sam Hodder. Indigenous perspectives were central to the project’s storytelling and interpretation. Photo by Max Forster.

From the start, Indigenous perspectives were central to storytelling and interpretation along the new boardwalk and restored trail at Grove of Titans. “Since the site is on the traditional lands of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, it was important to us that Tolowa voices, stories, and culture be included throughout,” says Deborah Zierten, League education and interpretation manager. “Having the Tolowa language, art, and stories on all the interpretive panels was a way to show visitors that the Tribe is living and active, rather than something from the past.”

The League worked closely with EDX Exhibits on the exhibit designs and partnered with the Redwood Parks Conservancy, Redwood National and State Parks, and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation on the interpretive content. Says Zierten, “We were so fortunate to have a representative from the Tolowa on the interpretive team to guide us through how the Tribe wanted to be represented.”

A group of seven people, some wearing rangers uniforms, pose for a photo in the redwoods
Project collaborators celebrate the Grove of Titans grand opening: (From left) Erin Gates, California State Parks North Coast Redwoods deputy district superintendent; Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Tribal Council members Terile Keevil and Amanda O’Connell; Josie Merck; Victor Bjelajac, California State Parks North Coast Redwoods superintendent; and Scott Sullivan, vice chair of the Tolowa Tribal Council. Photo by Max Forster.

Protecting giant redwoods while telling a larger story

Grove of Titans walkway around the giant, 2021
A new 1,300-foot elevated walkway at the Grove of Titans protects the redwoods’ shallow roots and encourages visitors to stay on trail. Photo by Max Forster.

Home to some of the tallest trees on the planet, the Grove of Titans was for many years inaccessible and relatively hidden, though local Indigenous peoples have sustained relationships with this sacred redwood forest since time immemorial.

When the grove’s location was revealed, visitation increased dramatically. So did negative impacts. Hikers created unofficial “social” trails to reach the old-growth giants, destroying understory plants and compacting soils. This also impacted the redwoods’ shallow root systems, threatening the long-term survival of the grove itself.

In 2019, Save the Redwoods League, Redwood National and State Parks, and the Redwood Parks Conservancy joined together to protect the grove. To shelter sensitive root s, the partners constructed a 1,300-foot elevated walkway around the base of the giant trees. The team also improved the existing Mill Creek Trail and updated all interpretative elements.

A sculpture of a banana slug sits on a fence post alongside an interpretive sign about banana slugs in both English and the Tolowa language
Various tactile elements are intended to engage vision-impaired visitors. Photo by Max Forster.
An interpretive panel on Tolowa culture features the triangular pattern of traditional Tolowa basketry
Project partners incorporated the Tolowa triangular basket pattern, language, and cultural stories on interpretation panels throughout the grove. Photo by Max Forster.
Two people feel a relief map in the foreground. A redwood forest is in the background.
A new tactile map of the Grove of Titans was designed for tactile learners and visitors with low or no vision. Photo by Max Forster.

The interpretation story along the trail focused on the incredible natural history of the grove, the importance of redwoods conservation (and staying on-trail), and the enduring relationships between the Tolowa people and the land. Interpretive elements included tactile models of various animals and a tactile trail map for visitors with blindness or low vision.

What started as a rescue mission for threatened redwoods became an opportunity to share a larger story with people from around the world. “Originally visitors flocked to the park to see a collection of amazing trees,” says Zierten. “Now they will walk away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the entire ecosystem and the Tolowa culture.”

About the author

Since 1918, Save the Redwoods League has protected and restored redwood forests and connected people with their peace and beauty so these wonders of the natural world flourish.

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3 Responses to “Grove of Titans: Inclusive storytelling wins top NAI honor”

  1. JWest

    This is a fantastic trail. I enjoyed it very much. the trees there are magnificent. I appreciate the protective walkways. However I missed a step down and fell on that walkway that has metal teeth. I got terrible bruises and even though I had on long pants I got a gash on my knee requiring 18 stitches at the Crescent City ER. I hope hand rails on the parts of the walkway with steps might be added to prevent future injuries like mine.

    Reply
  2. Deanne Parks

    As a resident of Smith River since 1957 I appreciate the restoration work and your respect for the Towola people and culture.

    Reply
  3. John C.

    Fine efforts; Fine Interpretive Displays; Fine photographs!

    Reply

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