War stories from the 1960s redwoods conservation movement

Since the movement to establish Redwood National Park, activist and photographer Dave Van de Mark has been documenting more than 50 years of transformation in the forest

Black and white photo of a forest next to a dry creek, with hikers in the distance
Emerald Mile Grove, Nov 24, 1967. Photo: Dave Van de Mark

The moment Dave Van de Mark arrived on California’s north coast in June 1963, he started exploring the trails at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Inspired by the splendor of the ancient forest, he decided to stay. He declined his acceptance to the University of Southern California and enrolled at Humboldt State College. Van de Mark recalls early days helping to build the Albee Creek Campground in the Rockefeller Forest of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where he spent breezy spring days sitting on a bank of Bull Creek and “watching the big trees sway and groan in the wind.”   

It wouldn’t be long before Van de Mark would find his niche in the redwoods conservation movement: supporting and documenting the establishment and expansion of Redwood National Park in the 1960s and ’70s. After decades of activism and capturing the story of the north coast redwood forests, the photographer has now embarked on a special project to photograph the places he shot in those early days—50 years later.  

Read more to learn about Van de Mark’s 50 Years Later project and take in some stories from a veteran of the redwoods conservation movement.

A lush, green forest along a dry creek
Emerald Mile Grove, Sep 20, 2019. Photo: Dave Van de Mark

1) How did you find your place in the redwoods conservation movement? Did you have an aha moment? 

The aha moment preceded my involvement in a way. I went on a three-week, late-summer 1964 trip with a friend to Montana, and I had a brand-new camera with me, which I just treasured. I photographed everything from mountains to little flowers and then looked for every opportunity to show them off back home. It was mostly those little flowers that fortuitously got me connected to some important conservation people.  

In the fall of my second year at Humboldt State College, a friend who was active in the Sierra Club, which I had barely heard of, saw my pics and urged me to make a presentation at one of their monthly meetings. The meeting went well, and after it I was warmly greeted by Lucille and Bill Vinyard, who were the top activists at the time. Lucille immediately asked me to become more involved, which I enthusiastically did. 

Not long afterward, I was invited to attend a development meeting of CRNP, Citizens for a Redwoods National Park, and I was the only kid there. I was young, strong, and eager, so I volunteered to be the field man to go find out what was happening in the woods and photograph those activities. The group looked on me with some humor I think, because I was 20 to 30 years younger than most of them. So, the kid got the job! Little did I know then, but two years later I would become president of the organization.

A man and a woman stand among giant redwood trees in a forest
Nobel Prize winner Keffer Hartline and wife Elizabeth in Emerald Mile grove, 1967. Photo: Dave Van de Mark

2) Describe what was going on during that time when you and your peers—or elders—were working toward establishing a new redwood park. 

It was intense beyond belief for four straight years—ramping up in 1965 and then being at a high level from 1966 through to the dedication in late 1968. A park service official who had been on the National Geographic-Interior Department trip down Redwood Creek told my friends he thought I was close to needing hospitalization from total exhaustion. I estimated later I must have walked over a thousand miles and driven over 90,000 miles during the effort, through the park’s expansion in 1978; all while attending college half-heartedly by day. 

Public hearings and trips to Washington, D.C., were especially critical, and preparing for them required a lot of effort. Senate and House public hearings held locally gave us the best opportunity to show and prove there was local support for the park. Trips to Washington, D.C. allowed us to show many large photos of critical places to members of Congress who would not be on field tours. Aerials of clearcutting always had a great impact. 

It doesn’t matter how beautiful and unique an area is if key people can’t be convinced or allowed to see it firsthand. Your enthusiasm and publicity you give to an area is extremely important, but the icing on the cake, in my experience, has come from well-arranged tours for people who have the power to act on your proposal, to see firsthand the land from your perspective. 

In the redwoods, I took numerous members of the press on small raft trips down parts of Redwood Creek, pounding home that the tallest trees weren’t the only game in town—not only were the surrounding forests unique in their own right, but they were also essential to conserving the tall trees and the living river. 

The Emerald Mile (the largest intact region of Redwood Creek) got a lot of publicity, but it could have been for naught if it weren’t for some Congressmen who had the chance to see it firsthand and loved it. 

After the dedication, we were in a complete daze—from tiredness, from sadness we had saved so little, and from the realization that it would be just a handful of us who would stick around and continue the fight for more. So little of Redwood Creek and Mill Creek had been protected, compared to what could and should have been, that it left a huge void in our hearts. 

The hardest work will always be done by the fewest select people in a conservation movement, but the battle will never be won without troops. I can’t imagine what it would have been like in the redwoods campaign without the steady stream of volunteers driving and flying in to help us.

A woman stands along a creek with a large rock surrounded by lush forest.
Redwood Creek in Emerald Mile. Photo: Dave Van de Mark

3) Do you have a favorite spot in the parks? 

Places in the Emerald Mile will remain the strongest in my heart—if for no other reason than it was an area I created a story about and presented to the conservation organizations, which then embraced the area as special. I called it the Emerald Mile, using the words of a kayaker friend, Maynard Munger, who was entranced by the sight of emerald-colored waters flowing past a beautiful grove.   

It was extremely important because the newly discovered tallest trees were receiving the lion’s share of attention. And all early park proposals (except for the Sierra Club’s big proposal) only considered protecting lower Redwood Creek, with a narrow corridor—soon to be jokingly known as the “worm”—extending upstream to the tallest trees. Thus, thousands of acres of old-growth forest upstream from the tall trees were being totally overlooked, even though that land was critical to the ecological well-being of the tall trees.   

The Emerald Mile was indeed no joke—compared to the proposed “worm,” it was the largest, wildest, and least spoiled region of Redwood Creek. Within that area was a wide variety of forest species and prairies, intact side streams, plus significant representations of elevation, climate, geology, and Native American and early pioneer history. And there the river itself was making remarkable transitions in character, from a swift flowing river in a rocky gorge to a more tranquil river flowing past riverside groves.   

In 1967, I helped get five Congressmen into the Emerald Mile by helicopter, and as each one was separately brought to the edge of the big grove, I told them about the area and then escorted each person into the grove and left them to peacefully explore on their own. 

When back in Washington, marking up a bill, they all demanded the Emerald Mile be added. But Committee Chairman Wayne Aspinall, no friend of parks, secretly rewrote the bill to exclude it. However, when all was wrapped up for the president to sign, the final park boundary included approximately 6 more river miles of Redwood Creek beyond the tallest trees, with the Emerald Mile at the upper end—clearly my proudest moment.

Images of a creek with a large rock surrounded by forest, the one on the left shot in summer 1967 and the one on the right shot on September 20, 2019, showing deeper water..
An image of Emerald Mile, 52 years apart. Photo: Dave Van de Mark

4) What inspired your 50 Years Later project? 

It dawned on me that I might be a novelty of sorts. How many national parks have been created where an active photographer, who documented the beginning, was still around and kicking 50 years or more later? I’m guessing not many, and perhaps I’m the only one!   

Over the last four years, I’ve made 87 photographic trips, even though I was very often completely broke. There were many more excellent opportunities to go, but the gas tank was empty and my tiny credit line maxed out!  

5) How can people support your project? 

Local supporters Ted Humphrey and Ally Gran created a GoFundMe on my behalf, and that is the best way for someone to help me.  

There will be times I’ll require help from younger and stronger individuals to help me carry gear and reach places in the park I visited when they were actually easier to get to. I will be on the lookout for volunteers.  

6) What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the last 50 years on the north coast? 

It is clear there is much less logging going on throughout northern California compared to the past. The timber industry’s economic might and psychological influence is but a mere whimper compared to the past. 

In 1963, there were probably close to 75 sawmills operating in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The industry controlled the minds of nearly everyone, with total dominance of radio, TV, and press. It was constantly smoky, and a quarter-inch of ash was on top of your car at the end of each day, but that was considered OK!   

Very slowly, the industry’s suffocating influence began to wane due to an expansion of small-scale manufacturing, education, and services industries; students and employees of those industries wanted a better and cleaner environment. Humboldt State College would soon become a university, nearly tripling its enrollment the first decade I was there. A large community college was created. The City of Arcata tripled in population. The influence of this growing population was politically significant. 

Environmentally, the December 1964 floods on all the major rivers certainly pointed a wagging finger at the industry and its forest practices. It wasn’t an overnight wakeup call, but I feel it definitely influenced public opinion of the industry over time. It took longer for the media to catch up to the fact that many other forms of employment mentioned above now existed that did not mess up the environment!

A woman stands at the base of a giant coast redwood tree that is several feet wide.
A woman stands at the base of a giant coast redwood tree on the Boy Scout Tree trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Photo: Dave Van de Mark

A point has been reached where I feel Redwood National Park is much appreciated in the community. I was at an open house event held in the fall a few years back at the old Arcata Redwood Co. Mill—a site just north of Orick. This is where Save the Redwoods League is funding a new trails gateway and plans for a new visitor center for the park.   

On that day, where once vast stretches of huge logs were stacked next to an active sawmill, the now bare stretches of pavement were filled with people from Eureka to Crescent City, eager to learn about future developments and enjoy a beautiful day. I had an assortment of large black-and-white photos on display, depicting scenes from before the park was created, which included aerial views of the sawmill and log deck.   

What was fascinating and unexpected was the number of older folks who came by and said they had worked at the mill. Most pointed to the exact spots where they had worked. I prompted them all with the same question: “Are you glad now that we have a park today rather than the logged hillsides and economic outcome that would likely have occurred with no park?”  

There was absolutely no hesitancy from any of them with their “yes” answer! They were very philosophical with their very personal stories, which reflected considerable appreciation for today’s environment as a whole.

About the author

Dana Poblete joined Save the Redwoods League in 2019 as Writer/Storyteller and Editor. In addition to amplifying people’s stories in nature, she loves building community in the outdoors.

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4 Responses to “War stories from the 1960s redwoods conservation movement”

  1. Ramona Raybin

    Agree, wonderful article. I am now motivated more than ever to participate in saving the trees despite political and other formidable obstacles which Dave and his colleagues clearly faced in the ’60s. Thank you for persisting.

    Reply
  2. Harry Freiberg

    Bravos & Kudos…

    Reply
  3. Peter Linton

    I’m wondering…
    .
    Is there any discussion for Dave Van de Mark’s pictures to be published (other than his online site)?

    Reply
  4. Steven Moore

    Wonderful article. It’s good to see Dave Van de Mark’s name. In the ’60s, I was a young Sierra Club active member attending Sonoma State College down the road a piece from Humboldt, and was aware of his photographic achievements and contributions then. Only one thing missing: a photo OF Dave.

    Reply

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