The League is committed to working with California State Parks to tell a more complete history of our founders and ensure parks are welcoming to all
A key moment in the history of the American conservation movement took place more than a hundred years ago in a magnificent grove of coast redwoods called Bull Creek Flat in what is now Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It is a story that the League has long told about John C. Merriam, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Madison Grant being inspired to launch Save the Redwoods League and leverage their power and resources to elevate the movement to protect the ancient forest from the axe. The work that followed ultimately safeguarded many thousands of acres of old-growth coast redwoods and giant sequoia and gave millions of future visitors the opportunity to experience these natural treasures. The legacy of these men is memorialized in a number of plaques, signs, and interpretive exhibits throughout the north coast redwoods.
It is now well past time to rethink those memorials and tell the whole story. This work began in earnest during the summer of 2019, when California State Parks approached the League with concerns about the narrow story being told on interpretive signs at Founders Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We collaborated to remove two signs and replaced them with one that both broadens the context and definition of “founders” and provides a more complete history of the values of Grant, Osborn, and Merriam. They were leaders and participants in the discriminatory and oppressive pseudoscience of eugenics in the early 20th century, and many of their racist and exclusionary beliefs permeated the conservation movement they helped advance.
Save the Redwoods League disavowed our founders’ beliefs long ago, and in recent years we’ve realized that we must be much more proactive in our reckoning with the erasure and harm that results from putting these people on a pedestal. First, we needed to publicly acknowledge the dangerous beliefs of our founders and the role they played in our history. Likewise, we feel strongly that the memorials to our founders that exist throughout the parks should either be removed or updated.
Signs and names are important. How we choose to interpret resources and history as well as how places are named makes a tremendous difference to those who encounter them. If we want a future where everyone feels genuinely welcome at redwood and giant sequoia parks, then we can’t ignore or promote values that are oppressive at their core.
Recently, another of these memorials came down with the full support of the League. This was a memorial rock in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park honoring Madison Grant. The rock dated from the 1948 establishment of the Madison Grant Forest and Elk Refuge. Save the Redwoods League has worked closely with California State Parks on a new interpretive exhibit for the spot that will explain why the rock was removed and give a fuller accounting of Grant’s legacy. The initial impetus for this particular action was a letter signed by a number of historians and professors calling for action on changing the names of the Madison Grant Forest and Elk Refuge among other monuments in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We are grateful for the shared expertise and relationship that emerged with those professors, and we welcome community input, ideas, and accountability on this journey.
The removal of historical monuments honoring Confederate generals and others whose beliefs are now recognized as abhorrent has been surrounded by controversy. There are those who argue that these monuments simply reflect history and a past value system, and thus should remain. We believe they tell a singular and often inaccurate story from a privileged perspective that actively marginalizes other lived experiences. This is counter to our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we must do better.
There is much more work to be done with regard to the interpretation of and the memorials to League founders. We are advancing renovations at Founder’s Grove itself in the near future, and the League and California State Parks will work closely together to ensure a thorough representation of the past. And we hope this will be part of a larger movement to engage historically excluded communities in the visioning and storytelling of these treasured places.