"They Took Out All The Trees and Put Them in a Tree Museum"
On July 21, 2008, a dry lightning storm of unprecedented size and activity swept over much of Northern California, igniting over 1000 separate wildfires throughout the area. Within two days, the smoke had drifted as far south as Los Angeles and affected air quality throughout the Western U.S. By July 25, 2008, there were over 12,000 people working to suppress these fires.
On July 28, 2008, we headed north from Simi Valley, (home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) to Red Bluff, California, a distance of 500 miles. While descending “The Grapevine” on California Highway 99, we encountered smoky haze far thicker than that we had seen in L.A. As we transitioned to Interstate I-5 North, the visibility dropped to less than ten miles. The farther we traveled, the thicker the smoke became, reaching as low as three miles visibility.
The following day our eyes were dry and our throats felt like we had smoked cigars all night. Reaching Medford, Oregon in the afternoon, we discovered that the smoke had preceded us there, as well. When, we asked, would our lungs get the opportunity to breathe freely?
Later that day, we proceeded southwest on U.S. Highway 199, heading back into California, as we traveled. By early evening, we had reached our destination, Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park.
Jedediah Smith was a mountain man and explorer of what later became known as the Spanish Trail, crossing the Mojave Desert at Needles, California. On his 1827 trek, before reaching Los Angeles, Jed turned north and explored the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, both of which we had traveled through just the day before. Smith’s status as the first white man to explore the Oregon, California border area earned him such immortality as the naming of a state park affords.
The Smith River, which is the last major free flowing river in California, bisects the park’s old growth coastal redwood ecosystem. Almost all of the parkland is watershed for the Smith River and Mill Creek, one of its major tributaries.
Upon arriving at the park our first feelings were of relief. The dense redwood forest limits one’s view, so if there was smoke in the area, we could not see it. It was a case of “Out of sight, out of mind”, as the saying goes.
Unlike other more arid western forests, a coastal redwood forest retains a great deal of moisture. Although little rain falls in summer months, fog often envelopes the coastal valleys and river canyons. Directly absorbing much of that moisture, allow coastal redwoods to grow taller than capillary action alone would allow. Some of the moisture that is not directly absorbed by the redwoods drips from their branches, thus replenishing the local groundwater.
Another factor in our respiratory relief was the effect of photosynthesis, which removes carbon dioxide from the air and replaces it with life giving oxygen. When one reflects on the sheer mass of plant life in an old growth coastal redwood forest, it becomes obvious that it is a very efficient scrubber of what we call “greenhouse gases” and an equally proficient oxygen generator.
According to scientists, the oxygen content of Earth’s atmosphere peaked at around 35%, during the Permo-Carboniferous period. With current oxygen levels at around 21%, one wonders how much oxygen depletion may have occurred on Earth during our current industrial age. Although my evidence is anecdotal, the sweet, clean air of this forest elevated our moods and made everything seem all right with the world.
Unique to the Northern California coastal strip, these redwoods are a relic of vast forests that covered much of the temperate zones of the U.S. West Coast and Asian East Coast. As such, they are a living museum of the way life used to flourish on Gaia, our Mother Earth. Older than any living thing, other than the ancient Bristlecone pines of the White Mountains in Eastern California, the coastal redwoods appeal to us visually through their magnificent size. Not only among the oldest living things, at up to 378 feet, they may also be the tallest trees on Earth.
Although the battle to save the redwoods is not a politically hot topic today, when Ronald Reagan successfully ran for Governor of California in 1966, it was. Although he did not say, “When you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all”, he did say, “I mean, if you’ve looked at 100,000 acres or so, of trees – you know, a tree is a tree; how many more do you need to look at”. In 1967, as governor, he visited an old growth coastal redwood grove and said, “I saw them; there is nothing beautiful about them, just that they are a little higher than the others”.
The king of the conservatives was obviously not the darling of conservationists. With Reagan’s stubborn refusal to help protect these unique and special trees, loggers felled all but the last three percent of the old growth coastal redwood forests during the balance of his life. Although his lack of environmental consciousness does not make him a villain, I would like to know what we gained by destroying most of that unique environment, other than some nice looking redwood decks some short-term profit for the forest products industry.
As Joni Mitchell sang in the 1970 song, Big Yellow Taxi,
- “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum.
- Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em.
- Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you’ve got ‘Til it’s gone?”.
As it turns out, the coastal redwoods are not all gone and it is free to see these forest giants at Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. Its verdant groves are the best place on this Earth that I know to take a deep breathe and feel at peace with All that Is.
As it turned out, the coastal redwoods are not all gone and it is free to see these forest giants at Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. Its verdant groves are the best place on this Earth that I know to take a deep breathe and feel at peace with All that Is.
As a postscript to this article, The Los Angeles Times reported on July 31, 2008 that "the Mendocino Redwood Co. (controlled by the founding family of Gap Inc.) paid more than $550 million to creditors (of Maxxam Inc.) to gain control of 210,000 acres of timberlands in Humboldt County, California and a sawmill owned by (Maxxam's subsidiary) Pacific Lumber, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2007".
In 2008, the Gap Inc. website declared, "Our business operations rely on our planet’s natural resources. We believe that our success should not come at the expense of the environment, so we strive to operate in a way that is mindful of long-term environmental sustainability."
Author's Note: By 2015, the above quote had disappeared from the Gap, Inc. website. Has a gap developed between Gap Inc.'s founding family's promise to "walk the walk", or will they simply "talk the talk".
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