Understanding the Redwood Wars: An Environmental History Lesson

Very few conservation battles have endured longer—from the 1970s until the first decade of the twenty-first century—or with more violence than the fight over logging on the North Coast of California, behind the Redwood Curtain. In his new book, Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics, Darren F. Speece fills an important gap in American environmental politics with a long history of the Redwood Wars that focuses on the ways small groups of Americans struggled for control over both North Coast society and its forests.

The Redwood Wars pitted workers and environmental activists against the rising tide of globalization and industrial logging in a complex conflict over endangered species, sustainable forestry, and environmental politics. Activists used both direct and legal action, while the timber industry, led by Pacific Lumber, fought the lawsuits and lobbied to halt reform efforts. Ultimately, the Clinton Administration sidestepped Congress and the courts to negotiate an innovative compromise with activists and industry. In the process, the Redwood Wars transformed American environmental politics by shifting the balance of power away from Congress and into the hands of the Executive Branch.

The text excerpted below provides a brief introduction to the Redwood Wars:

The Redwood Wars were conflicts over massive, magnificent trees. That was their primary importance. Indeed, the trees initially drew me to the North Coast and interested me in the fights over logging, as they had compelled people in the past to try to protect them. Americans have tended to most value the oldest and largest redwoods, and stands of those trees garnered the most attention and sparked the critical conflicts during the Redwood Wars. But the actors in this drama had invested the trees with conflicting meanings. Timber companies prized the oldest trees because they were worth the most in the timber market. Earlier scientists revered them as specimens of evolutionary magnificence. Hikers, picnickers, and sojourners sought out the stands of the oldest trees as refuges and sanctuaries where they could escape industrial society and breathe the forest air. Modern environmentalists and ecologists valued the larger ecosystems inhabited, and in some senses constituted, by the oldest redwoods because they were rich with biodiversity and housed rare species. The various values placed on the redwoods and differing conceptions of how to best utilize the forest were central to the conflicts among North Coast residents during the twentieth century.

Naming those forests was critical to the activists’ efforts, yet it was also problematic. During the late twentieth century, American environmentalists came to refer to forests dominated by old trees as “virgin” or “pristine” because they had not been molested by the machinery of white loggers of European descent during the preceding two centuries. The image of a pristine or virgin forest could create a sentimental attachment for the public and was thus useful for generating public concern about the fate of forests. The terms virgin and pristine, however, are problematic because they imply that these forests had been untouched by humans. But Native Americans had manipulated forests in North America for thousands of years, transforming their appearances and inhabitants, and the redwoods of the North Coast were no exception. People also adopted the term ancient to describe those unlogged forests, and though it substituted a deep temporal integrity for a mythical and racially dismissive ideal of untouched nature, that term also misrepresented the long history of human manipulation of these ecosystems. Nonetheless, ancient did capture a critical feature of redwood forests—that the redwoods themselves could live for thousands of years and that individual specimens had been alive since ancient times.

More recently, foresters and environmentalists have preferred to use the term old growth to refer to the forests along the West Coast that had not been logged since the European conquest of the Americas. An old-growth forest anywhere is one where trees are allowed to grow old and the forest is allowed to develop a complex canopy and a rich biodiversity. Accordingly, forests that have regrown after being logged are referred to as second-growth or new-growth forests—though they could become old growth with time. The term old growth thus seems to avoid the cultural, racial, and historical errors inherent in the other terms, but it doesn’t really capture the particular kind of violence involved in cutting down an old-growth redwood forest. Because coast redwoods can grow for thousands of years, those forests are vastly different from forests dominated by Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, or white oak, where it is rare for an individual tree to live beyond five hundred years. Old-growth habitat thus takes much longer to develop in redwood forests, where it takes a thousand or more years to replace fallen giants. More than that, two-thousand-year-old redwood trees stand as monuments to the deep history of the earth, and they provide a direct connection to an ancient past for modern humans. And the individual trees are irreplaceable. Their roots and trunks are living artifacts of an ancient world; once gone, they are gone forever, along with the connections to that ancient past. Because of the complexities involved with describing the redwood forest, I prefer to use the term old growth to describe the habitat characteristics of a forest and ancient to describe the age of the giant trees.

In Redwood Country, the image of the ancient forest was an incredibly powerful tool for environmentalists, but so too were the material and ecological benefits derived from those forests. The activists involved in redwood preservation understood the oldest redwoods as nonrenewable because they took more than a thousand years to grow, and they argued that the trees were most valuable to society when left in the ground. Those forests would provide the North Coast and the planet with rich biodiversity, a refuge from the pressures of an industrial society, and a laboratory for understanding forest ecology. The timber companies, however, considered the trees renewable, arguing that the present market value of the oldest trees was high enough to offset the prospect of growing less-valuable younger trees on the logged landscape. Harvesting the oldest trees would provide valuable employment and create second-growth forests more quickly, sustaining employment in the region. Thus some people on the North Coast were defending a different kind of giant: the timber companies, their profits, and their ranks of employees. The battle lines were drawn, but they were not always clear. Workers feared the effects of both liquidation logging and forest preservation on future employment. Activists wanted to make the North Coast hospitable to both giant trees and timber workers. And some timber executives were acutely aware of the desirability of managing their land to maintain long-term harvest levels rather than facilitating short-term liquidation.

Fights to save the redwoods were sparked by fears that timber companies would eliminate the oldest and largest redwoods, turning them into shingles and decks and hot tubs, leaving the North Coast with a damaged economy, society, and set of ecosystems. The first such battles emerged in the early twentieth century in the San Francisco Bay Area when activists worked to preserve public redwood preserves near urban centers, such as Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz, just south of San Francisco, which was set aside in 1902 as California’s first state park. But logging and clear-cutting increased during and after World War I, and as a result, wealthy patrons and local activists worked hard during the interwar years to establish more such parks, including Humboldt Redwoods State Park. After World War II, logging and clear-cutting increased yet again, further reducing the size and number of stands of massive trees. In response, the patrons and activists continued to create more redwood state parks. But the politics of redwood preservation was also changing. Large multinational corporations were displacing smaller local timber companies and imposing industrial logging practices. At the same time, ecologists had begun to argue that biodiversity was integral to healthy ecosystems and to sustaining life on earth. Influenced by those new ecological commitments, national environmental groups sought to protect entire watersheds in Redwood Country. One major result was the creation of Redwood National Park in 1968, a demonstration of the power of combining the differing approaches of older and newer redwood activist organizations. This recurring conflict escalated into the Redwood Wars in the 1970s, as the oldest and largest redwoods became scarcer and their value to all members of North Coast society increased exponentially. Activists continued to work to create and expand redwood parks, but they also began to demand wholesale changes to logging practices to protect redwood forests on private property. The Redwood Wars would determine the fate of the last stands of ancient redwoods: whether they would be turned into quick profits for multinational corporations and short-term wages for workers or remain for humans to enjoy for the long run, for fauna to occupy, and for future ancient redwoods to sprout beneath.

speece-darren-credit-jo-sittenfeldDarren F. Speece is a history teacher and assistant dean of students at Sidwell Friends School.

Join for these author events:

Wednesday, October 26 at 6:30 p.m, Book launch at Sidwell Friends School with Politics & Prose, Washington, DC (Book talk, dessert reception, and signing)

Saturday, November 26 at 6 p.m., Green Apple Books on the Park (1231 9th Ave.), San Francisco, CA