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Hidden Ancient Haven Saved

Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve will become the first ancient redwood park created in a generation. For decades, the privately owned reserve was a natural wonder containing 352 acres of old-growth redwoods unknown to the public.

The League, donors, and a family protect an extraordinary forest for the ages

Pristine unnamed creeks run through Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve.
Pristine unnamed creeks run through Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve. Photo by Mike Shoys.

Ancient redwoods can create a curious distortion of space and perception: The senses somehow reject the reality of a living thing so large, so charged with latent power. The 1,640-year-old McApin Tree is no exception to this rule. At roughly 239 feet in height and nearly 20 feet in diameter, it’s the oldest-known coast redwood south of Mendocino County and the widest coast redwood south of Humboldt County. As tall as a 23-story building and as wide as a two-lane road, it fills the entire field of vision on approach, until it seems that the whole world is a vast curvilinear expanse of heavy, russet bark. Moreover, it’s clear that a lot of things are happening in the McApin Tree, that it’s a node in a web of interconnected life, not an isolated natural phenomenon.

On a recent visit to the tree organized by Save the Redwoods League, Todd McMahon, the Vice President of the environmental consulting firm NCRM Inc., bent over at the base of the tree and picked up a gray bolus of dried matter bristling with hair and small, splintered bones.

“Owl pellet,” said McMahon. “He’s living in this tree—probably a great horned owl. This is too big for a northern spotted owl or barred owl.”  Jim Campbell-Spickler, a videographer and wildlife biologist, pointed out curious striations carved in the bark high up the McApin Tree’s trunk. Those were essentially trails, Campbell-Spickler said, caused by the denizens inhabiting the great redwood’s cavities and foliage.

“Those could be from ringtails (a raccoon relative) or flying squirrels,” Campbell-Spickler said.

Indeed, the McApin Tree teems with associated life, from the birds and small mammals that forage and shelter along its length, to a unique ecosystem of plants, insects—even amphibians—supported in its upper canopy, to the dizzyingly complex communities of microorganisms, fungi, and invertebrates that enrich the soil around its roots. And yet, the McApin Tree is but one constituent of the thriving forest called Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve. Formerly known as McApin Ranch, this spectacular 730-acre property lies southeast of the Sonoma County seaside town of Gualala, California, and is about 2 ½ hours’ drive from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Wonderland Will Open to the Public

For decades, the privately owned reserve was unknown to the public. This forested tract is one-third larger than Muir Woods National Monument, containing 352 acres of old-growth redwoods—112 acres more than Muir Woods. Some of the trees exceed 300 feet in height, with the tallest measuring 322 feet—only 57 feet shorter than a coast redwood in Redwood National and State Parks confirmed as the world’s tallest tree. The League has purchased the reserve, ensuring its protection forever. Pending a final management plan, the property will be open for public visitation. This magical place will be the first ancient redwood park created in a generation.

“For the public, Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve is an old-growth forest akin to recently discovered, fully intact ancient dwellings in the middle of a modern city,” said League President Sam Hodder. “But for the League and other conservation groups, it has been a long-term conservation priority. It’s the largest complex redwood forest in private ownership, the largest previously unprotected old-growth stand in Sonoma County, and thanks to its previous owners, the Harold Richardson family, its condition is virtually unparalleled. It supports a high-quality redwood forest, superb riparian habitat along a tributary of the Gualala River’s Wheatfield Fork, and critical connectivity to other protected forests.”

The existence of the reserve is largely due to the guiding vision of the man for whom it is named. Harold Richardson, who died at the age of 96 in 2016, did not conform to the profile of a typical environmentalist. He worked in the woods his entire life, said his grandnephew, Dan Falk, felling trees well into his 90s. As a nonagenarian, Falk said, Harold Richardson didn’t crawl into the brush and slash to set chokers—the cables that are used to haul logs by a tractor—“but he’d still tell you how to do it.”

Harold Richardson protected his family’s ancient redwood forest while most of his neighboring landowners favored clear-cutting to harvest timber. Photo courtesy of the Richardson family.
Harold Richardson protected his family’s ancient redwood forest while most of his neighboring landowners favored clear-cutting to harvest timber. Photo courtesy of the Richardson family.
A History of Conservation

The land’s original owners, Mary Ann Dousman and James McApin (historically spelled “McCappin”), were among the first settlers in western Sonoma, with the couple claiming property along Tin Barn Road and King Ridge Road in 1858. McApin descendants sold the ranch to H. A. Richardson, Harold’s father, in 1918. At one time, the extended Richardson family owned as much as 50,000 acres along the rugged coast. Timber was an economic mainstay of the region, and generations of Richardsons paid the taxes and bills by logging and milling the redwoods on their lands. But an innate conservation ethic was central to the family’s traditions, and Harold was a particularly dedicated devotee to judicious resource management.

“He was known around here as a three-D logger,” said Falk. “In other words, a tree had to be dead, down, or diseased before he’d take it.”

That went against local conventions, in that most of Harold’s neighboring landowners favored clear-cutting to harvest timber. Their rationale was simple, and from a business perspective, easily justified: Removing every tree from an area was more efficient and far more profitable than the fastidious selective harvesting the Richardsons favored.

But Harold was never swayed by their arguments. “He’d fly or drive over the land those guys were cutting, and he was very up front with his criticism,” Falk said. “He hated to see the land degraded. He always felt timber was worth more standing than cut, and he only harvested what he needed to keep the land in the family.”

Harold Richardson’s dedication to truly sustainable timber production is all the more impressive considering the financial pressures he and most other landowners in redwoods country were facing in the mid-20th century, McMahon said. “Before 1977, timberland owners were taxed on their standing timber, not on the timber they cut annually,” McMahon said. “That put a tremendous burden on Harold, given his devotion to minimal harvests. The family lived frugally, and I don’t doubt there were times when it was tough to pay the taxes. He really backed up his beliefs with action.”

A Wild Kingdom

The legacy of the family’s long-term commitment to forest conservation is eloquently expressed by the land itself. The reserve contains a complex forest of old-growth redwoods and Douglas-firs interspersed with vigorous, younger trees. As is typical for healthy, mature forests, the understory is relatively scant, save for shade-loving swordferns. Lush meadows thrive between the groves, bordered by gigantic bay laurel trees that perfume the air with the spicy, herbaceous scent of their leaves. Wildlife is almost extravagantly abundant, from blacktailed deer, black bears, and mountain lions to a vast array of smaller mammals, amphibians, and migratory and resident birds.

Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve
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Any walk through these woods yields abundant evidence of their presence: deer tracks, the distant tapping of an acorn woodpecker, a ball of shredded fir needles wedged in the crevice of a redwood trunk—prepared by red tree voles for nesting material. This forest brims with life, from the most charismatic predator to the humblest invertebrate. Save the Redwoods scientists evaluated the property against the benchmarks of the League’s Vibrant Forests Plan, scoring it 99 out of 100 possible points.

Protecting this extraordinary place is a key part of the League’s vision for the next 100 years, which is to protect and regrow vibrant redwood forests of the scale and grandeur that once graced the California coast and the Sierra Nevada, and connect them to people through a network of magnificent parks and protected areas that inspire all of us with the beauty and power of nature. (Learn more about the League’s Centennial Vision .

Protecting Their Heritage

When Harold Richardson died in 2016, the family faced an estate tax so large that they had to consider selling off parts of the larger ranch surrounding the old-growth reserve, or aggressively harvesting more timber. Neither choice was tolerable, said Falk. The land was more than a livelihood, more than a place of residence; it was a part of the Richardsons’ sense of self, of heritage, of place. It felt interwoven with their very DNA. “I’m the fifth generation to work this ranch,” Falk said. “When you have those kinds of roots, when you know almost every tree on your place, it’s very hard to lose any of it.” So the family went with a third option: a conservation accord. The deal is complex, but it basically consists of a land swap.

In 2010, Save the Redwoods League purchased the nearby 870-acre Stewarts Point property from another branch of the Richardson family. After permanently protecting Stewarts Point with conservation easements, including those for trail and tribal access, the League exchanged Stewarts Point for the reserve property. The agreement also included a $9.6 million payment because the reserve was more expensive than Stewarts Point. In honor of the man who conserved this forest, the League agreed to name the place Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve. Major funding came from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, two anonymous donors, and The Mattson Family Foundation. League members also provided generous support, collectively giving more than $500,000 toward the purchase.

“It’s a major change,” acknowledged Falk, “but our other options—selling off parts of the property, accelerating the cut or both—weren’t really acceptable to us.

We looked over the League’s 100-year management plan, and it pretty much tracks with our own goals. We believe they’ll take good care of the land, and that it’ll remain in the condition that Harold wanted.”

Foremost among the League’s goals in acquiring the reserve is to protect the old-growth forest from future harvesting. While the Richardsons had chosen not to harvest the old-growth redwoods, they had every legal right to do so as long as they protected the streams and wildlife habitat required under state forest practice rules. The League’s acquisition also removes the potential threat of subdivision or development. Though it’s still rural—even wild—the Sonoma Coast faces long-term development pressures that could ultimately degrade the area’s stunning ecological and scenic values. Subdivision of large ranches into smaller recreational properties is the major component of this threat. By protecting the reserve at its current size and configuration, the League’s acquisition assures the property’s ancient trees will be protected forever, along with the complex and extraordinarily rich ecosystems they secure. Further, the acquisition allows the League the flexibility to eventually open this incomparable property to the public to explore and enjoy.

Toward a Vision

The purchase of the forest took years to negotiate, and is a prime example of the good work that can result when people of various backgrounds are united in their love of a place, said Catherine Elliott, the League’s Senior Manager of Land Protection. “The Richardsons took great care of this special forest for 100 years, and the League wants to continue that tradition,” Elliott said. “The challenge was finding a way to maintain that vision forever while ensuring the Richardsons could continue to live and work on their neighboring land for the next generation and beyond. We did that by establishing mutual respect and trust.”

Dan Falk’s mother, Lois Richardson Falk, acknowledged the family endured a “grieving process” over the agreement. “It was sad to think we weren’t going to be the direct caretakers anymore,” she said. “My boys grew up here. We picked mushrooms and hunted here, rode our horses all over this land. But we came to terms with it. Dan’s still a forester and a rancher, and with his brother Leland, they will continue the Richardson family tradition of sustainable timber and ranching practices. So it appears that the Richardsons will be on the coast through the next generation. Working on conservation solutions isn’t always easy, but it’s clear they’re the way of the future.”

For Dan Falk, the agreement is a means of honoring Harold Richardson’s final wishes. “He told us to keep this ranch in timber and cattle—no subdivisions, never any subdivisions,” said Falk. “Those were essentially his dying words. He didn’t feel that he was a landowner, really. He felt that he was a placeholder, a caretaker for a certain period. And I feel the same way. I’m here to safeguard this place for a certain portion of time, to keep it intact. And I think this agreement helps fulfill my obligation.”


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About Glen Martin

Glen Martin was an environmental reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years, and has contributed to more than 50 magazines, including Discover, Audubon, Men’s Journal, Forbes, Sierra, Outside, Recode and Wired. His book, Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife, was published in 2012 by the University of California Press. Before his journalism career, Martin worked as a wildfire fighter for the U.S. Forest Service in the Shasta/Trinity and Mount Baker National Forests.



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