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. Continue reading