The Race to Restore

We can bring back the redwood forests that store more carbon than any other forest type on Earth—places that epitomize resilience when we need it most—and raise the spirits of all who explore these cathedrals of nature.

Fritz Wonder Plot. Photo by Andrew Slack
The Fritz Wonder Plot near the town of Mendocino was a cutover wasteland. After 160 years, it is now an enchanting forest. Robert Van Pelt, left, a forest ecology researcher, and Laura Lalemand, League Forest Ecologist, study the plot to gain information for restoring redwood forests in an era of climate change. Photo by Andrew Slack.

Deep in the Big River watershed near the little coastal town of Mendocino is a stand of majestic redwoods, trees of great physical dimension and transcendent beauty. Dappled light filters down through their lofty canopies to a forest floor carpeted with western swordfern. The air is still and fragrant, perhaps broken on occasion by the resonant drumming of a pileated woodpecker or the flashing orange plumage of a varied thrush flitting between the massive, shaggy trunks. This stand embodies the ecological and spiritual essence of a grove of old-growth coast redwoods. They seem like witnesses to the eons.

But that semblance is an illusion. This is the Fritz Wonder Plot, and while the trees are old, they are by no means ancient when judged by the standard typically applied to redwoods. The area was logged in 1858, meaning few if any of the trees are older than 160 years. Some are more than 250 feet tall, and they all have the impressive girths and wide spacing associated with old-growth groves.

While the recovery of the Fritz plot from cutover wasteland to magnificent forest in fewer than two human lifetimes is inspiring, it also speaks to a larger issue: the potential future of the redwood forests. As Save the Redwoods League begins its second century, our scientists, staffers, and volunteers are ramping up efforts on large, landscape-scale conservation and restoration, protecting and healing redwood forests that have been cut, sometimes repeatedly, and accelerating old-growth characteristics in young stands. The Fritz plot, along with a few other sites that contain older second-growth trees, are providing valuable information on ways to best accomplish that mission in an era of climate change.

“The Fritz plot is near the top of the trajectory on the growth and yield tables,” said Robert Van Pelt, a forest ecology researcher and Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington who specializes in the study of large trees. Van Pelt notes that other second-growth stands located on alluvial (or river-bottom) soils show similar growth trajectories. “On the other hand, we’re finding that old second-growth trees in the Arcata Community Forest [adjacent to Humboldt State University] don’t grow as big as fast,” Van Pelt said. “Water appears to be the limiting factor. Where redwoods are concerned, alluvial soils are optimum.”

Expansion of a Pioneering Study

Of course, more data is needed as the League and partners mobilize for ambitious restoration initiatives. Professor Stephen Sillett, the Kenneth L. Fisher Chair of Redwood Forest Ecology at Humboldt State University, is leading that quest. Sillett has conducted groundbreaking research on redwood forest canopies, and developed the climbing techniques that made such challenging work possible. Now, with funding from the League, he is heading Phase 3 of the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative (RCCI), a three-year project to measure coast redwoods in 30 locations across the species’ range, including the Fritz Wonder Plot.

Such measurements are critical in the formulation of restoration goals for young forests, Sillett said. By analyzing the dimensions, tree ring records, and other factors in both young and ancient trees, researchers hope to answer several critical questions: Are growth trends generally congruent for redwoods across their entire range, or do they vary? How does drought affect redwoods in different locales? Can growth trends be accelerated with restoration interventions? What are the rates of carbon sequestration for trees of varying ages and locales, and the types and dimensions of wildlife habitat provided by forests of varying age? And how will such information affect restoration strategies, particularly in the southern and eastern portions of the redwood range, where the stresses of climate change are apt to be especially acute?

This project is going to help us determine what’s possible [for restoration],” Sillett said. Sillett and his team are concentrating a good deal of effort on obtaining reliable cross dating data for trees across the redwood range. He wants to be assured that a specific growth ring identified with a certain year corresponds to the same year in rings from neighboring trees and, ultimately, from tree rings across Sequoia sempervirens’ native range.

“We want to be able to look at a tree ring, confirm the year it was produced, note its width [which indicates growth rate], and scale that information across the landscape,” Sillett said. “That will allow us to create a time series for long-term performance. Then we could confirm, for example, that 1924 was a drought year in the west and less wood was produced.”

Obtaining reliable cross dating data isn’t easy. Redwood tree rings become smaller with age, Sillett said, sometimes shrinking to submillimeter dimensions. They don’t grow at the same rates in a given tree. Moreover, rings sometimes go missing. “There can be hundreds of missing rings on a tree that’s thousands of years old,” Sillett said, “and the problem is magnified if you take cores from lower down on the tree, where there can be a lot of distortion in the trunk. So we have to climb and take multiple core samples at different heights.”

The ultimate goal of the research is to develop equations that can accurately project growth rates under various scenarios for different parts of the redwood range.

“Our concern is forest development,” Sillett said, “so our equations will help us figure out which management techniques might be best suited for specific areas. The equations will help us determine likely outcomes over time, and help managers plan for climate change.”

Those techniques would vary from site to site, Sillett said. For example, coastal fog is rare at the eastern edge of the redwood range. This means that conditions are drier; trees grow with less vigor and are more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire than redwoods farther west. Such sites may benefit from fuel-reduction programs to minimize risk of severe fires. RCCI’s data could also be used to identify sites where redwoods are likely to thrive during a changing climate, justifying major restoration efforts.

Our concern is forest development, so our equations will help us figure out which management techniques might be best suited for specific areas. The equations will help us determine likely outcomes over time, and help managers plan for climate change.”
Professor Stephen Sillett, Kenneth L. Fisher Chair of Redwood Forest Ecology at Humboldt State University, and a researcher of the League’s Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative

Visionary Restoration in Progress

Indeed, ambitious restoration programs already are in play. Foremost among them is Redwoods Rising, a Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) effort involving the League, the National Park Service and California State Parks. Redwood National and State Parks (which include Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek redwoods state parks, and Redwood National Park) are the living heart of the coast redwood forests; 45 percent of the world’s remaining old-growth redwoods and most of the world’s tallest trees grow within its borders.

But the park complex also contains large tracts of land that were once clear-cut. Eroding roads crisscross these logged-over landscapes, discharging large quantities of sediment and burying the rocky streambeds that imperiled salmon need to spawn. Invasive plants flourish, and the stands of dense, spindly young trees that have sprouted with the removal of the ancient forest are vulnerable to severe wildfire. These young stands require thinning, the removal of select, smaller trees to reduce competition for light, water, and nutrients that will put the forest on the path to develop into an old-growth wonderland and contribute to the diversity and health of the ecosystem.

Through the Redwoods Rising initiative, the League and government partners will apply these techniques that have been and are being developed in the lab and in the field. This work builds on the League and California State Parks’ restoration accomplishments: Together, they have thinned more than 4,000 acres of forest, retired 69 miles of roads, removed 344 stream crossings, and installed 90 in-stream log structures since protecting the Mill Creek Addition of RNSP in 2002. But work here is only beginning.

“In the next two years, we plan to finalize our strategy, restore 3,000 acres of redwood habitat, remove or repair four miles of eroding roads to improve water quality and critical fish habitat, and complete the plans for the greater Prairie Creek watershed and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park,” said Sam Hodder, League President and CEO. “Redwoods Rising is a springboard. We’re taking the lessons learned here and applying them to other redwood project areas beyond RNSP’s boundaries. This is how we will accelerate the healing of our greatest forests and restore their capacity to store carbon, re-establish resiliency in California’s landscape, and expand the treasured redwood parks that inspire the world.”

The lessons learned in RNSP are being applied in San Vicente Redwoods, a critical part of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ ecosystem, where swaths were clear-cut more than a century ago. The League recently began thinning select trees there to accelerate the growth of the remaining redwoods.

Ultimately, by taking these and other bold restoration steps today, we can return redwood forests to the scale and beauty that existed long ago, ensure they are protected forever, and connect them to people through magnificent parks that lift hearts of visitors from near and far.



California’s coast redwood and giant sequoia forests are home to the tallest and largest trees on the planet. These forests store more carbon than any other forest type in the world, and play an outsized role in slowing climate change. They support rare life found nowhere else. And visitors to the redwoods have the opportunity to connect with a landscape unlike any other.


Explosive demand for lumber devastated what were once vast, ancient redwood forests. Just 5 percent of the original coast redwood range remains. Save the Redwoods League and its partners have protected the most magnificent primeval groves, but today those groves are islands surrounded by a sea of very young redwood forests and a tangled web of logging roads and development.


In 2018, Save the Redwoods League celebrates a century of protecting, restoring, and connecting people to magnificent redwood forests. The League is embarking on a Centennial Vision that will accelerate the pace and scale of conservation, doubling the size of the protected redwood reserves over the next 100 years and putting that expanded reserve landscape on a restoration trajectory to become the old-growth forests of future generations.


Forest vegetation reclaims the former area of the roadbed, as shown here in Redwood National Park
One forest restoration practice is the retirement of former logging roads. After the League and partners complete work, forest vegetation reclaims the former area of the roadbed, as shown here in Redwood National Park. Photo by Mike Shoys.

Save the Redwoods League and partners apply evolving techniques to put historically cutover redwood forests on the path to old-growth structure and complexity.


Removing select, young trees in an overstocked stand to reduce competition for light, water, and nutrients and accelerate growth of dominant trees.


Removing buildups of combustible vegetation to reduce the threat of severe wildfire.


Eliminating failing culverts and other structures.


Adding woody structures to create cooler pools for imperiled salmon to rest and hide from predators. Structures replace naturally accumulated woody debris historically removed by logging operations.


Restoring the forests’ contours and covering the area with woody debris and mulch to promote vegetation growth.

The Path To Splendor
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About the author

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. 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. His book, Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife, was published in 2012 by the University of California Press.

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