Northern Spotted Owl
To breed, Northern Spotted Owls require cavities or platforms like those found in large old-growth trees, and they do not tolerate habitat disturbance. When they gained protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, it forever changed the battle groud to save the last tracts of old-growth redwood forest that were not held in public trust. They are a fitting emblem of this realm: cool, dark, lush, and mysterious.
Coast redwoods are the tallest organisms on Earth, and among the oldest (one tree was recently determined to be 2520 years old). It is also the largest species of tree; there are historic records of coast redwood trees that were larger than even the sequoiadendron giganteum of the Sierra Nevada. Their range once covered much of the northern hemisphere but is limited now to a strip of coastal land that runs from the southern border of Oregon to Big Sur, California.
Valley of the Lost Groves
“The Valley of the Lost Groves” is home to some of the largest redwood titans. Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce, and Western Hemlock also grow to enormous proportions, draped with moss and lichens, and armored by gnarled bark. Hiking through this terrain is like being in an exotic land on expedition.
The coast of Northern California is wet enough in the winter, but almost no rain falls during summer and early fall. It is the blanket of fog drifting in on cool air off the Pacific Ocean that bridges the moisture gap and supplies the trees with one-fourth to one-half of their annual uptake of water.
A mature redwood can survive almost any attack from insects, disease, or fire, but they are quite vulnerable as saplings. In the southern reaches of the redwood range, most young sprouts are actually clones from the roots or burl of a parent tree. Farther north, where there is less fire recurrence, most sprout from tiny seeds. A young tree may spend decades languishing in the understory, waiting for its opportunity when a giant may fall and open a hole in the canopy.
Follow Me Up
How our eyes are drawn up when in this forest.
A Thousand Rainy Seasons
Redwoods thrive in this temperate rain forest, with rainfall sometimes exceeding 100 inches per year. A winter storm can last for a week, pelting the landscape with sideways rain. Being toppled by the wind is one of the few serious threats to a mature redwood.
One way redwoods survive wind throw is by growing close to each other in groves. Their roots are surprisingly shallow, only about ten feet deep or so, with no tap root. But the roots of neighboring trees are intertwined and anchor each other against the wind.
Old-growth forest is all about a continuous cycle of life rising from death. An acre of primeval redwood contains more biomass than any other ecosystem on Earth. Shortly after the gold rush in California came the start of logging, and all things redwood stayed on the decline for 150 years. But thanks to the efforts of many to preserve old-growth and second-growth habitat we are for the first time seeing a turnaround to that trend.
Plants of the understory must be able to survive in very low light. The flowers of the redwood forest are subtle: Fairy Bells, Bleeding Hearts, Rhododendron, Columbia Lily. . .and Trillium.
Fire can have a major impact on an ecosystem, and redwoods have adapted to survive. The bark of a coast redwood can be a foot thick and is full of water. Redwood sap is not as resinous as that of most other conifers, so it is less flammable. The crown of a redwood is protected by its sheer height. Evidence of past fires can be seen in the form of bark that has been scorched black. “Goose pens” are caves that have been burned into the base of redwood trunks (often large enough to walk in).
Avenue of the Giants
Driving with the top down, redwoods style.
One person can make a difference. Once upon a time a girl famously climbed into a tree named Luna and stayed there in protest for over two years to help protect the Headwaters Forest. We all have skills we can use to advocate for the redwoods, whether that is volunteering, supporting environmental organizations, grass roots efforts, or even making music. Perhaps in the future we will think less about dollars and more about sense.