Saving the Tallest Trees

Redwoods Photo
Redwoods descend from trees that shared our planet with dinosaurs. Today, some redwoods grow to be at least 2,000 years old.
©Julie Larsen Maher
Tracking the Pacific Fisher Video
In California, WCS works with the Hoopa tribe to preserve the redwoods for an elusive forest mammal.
©WCS

Earth’s tallest forest—the redwoods of California—has inspired pioneers and explorers, speculators and scientists for generations. Not only are the redwoods some of the most massive living things on Earth, they are also among the oldest. But beginning with the days after the California Gold Rush in 1848, many of these ancient trees have been reduced to ancient stumps. An insatiable timber industry felled nearly all of the nation’s original redwood trees, and intensive clear-cutting continues even today. When these trees disappear, with them goes habitat for a small carnivore known as the fisher, an endangered seabird called the marbled murrelet, Coho salmon, spotted owls, and many other forest creatures.

WCS has a long history of working in northern California, beginning with a walk through the redwoods in 1917 by Henry Fairfield Osborn, who helped found both the society and the Save the Redwoods League. Almost a century later, in 2009, WCS conservationist J. Michael Fay undertook his own walk through the woods to continue a legacy of forest conservation.

Challenges

About 2,500 square miles of redwood forest remain today, but much of the land is unprotected. Three timber companies own more than a third of the forest, the state of California and the federal government own 21 percent, and smallholders own the rest. In addition to logging, redwoods face the threats of urban development, population growth, and climate change. Because of these trees’ incredible growth, lifespans, and resistance to disease, insects, and rot, they are powerhouses for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in their wood. As a result, their loss breaks down an important line of defense against climate change.

The threats to the redwoods have wide-reaching impacts for the wildlife that make their home in the canopy, spawn in the rivers, and scamper along the forest floor. The fisher, a candidate for federal endangered species status in the Pacific states and one of the carnivores WCS works to protect, has been decimated by the loss of its redwood habitat. Today it occupies less than half of its historic range in California, in just two isolated populations.

What WCS is Doing

In September and October 2009, WCS conservationist Mike Fay walked the entire range of the coast redwood tree, from Big Sur in southern California to just north of the Oregon border. Fay’s 1,800-mile hike represented the first comprehensive redwood transect ever completed. Along his journey, he spoke with landowners, ranchers, foresters and loggers who had found new ways to balance the needs of people and the forests themselves. By cutting the younger and less robust trees, and maintaining the oldest stands, foresters are helping to protect wildlife habitat and clean rivers while continuing to provide forestry jobs and timber products.

To conserve remnant fisher populations, WCS is working with various partners in Northern California, including the Hoopa Valley Tribe—original stewards in the region. Together we are collecting information on fisher dens and habitat needs and assessing their population. As part of a team headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, this collaborative project aims to adapt current forest and fire management practices to protect these elusive forest carnivores.

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