Bowing to Sovereigns
Boy (foreground) amidst Grove of Giant Redwood Trees, Humboldt County
Historical Society; photo Redwood Empire Association
The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It's not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.
—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America, 1962
Redwood National and State Parks in northwestern California is unique among the state’s National Parks. As its name implies, it is a National Park comprised of three State Parks: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County, Smith Redwoods State Park and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, both in Del Norte County.
Humboldt County Brochure
California Historical Society
With the National Park designation, these three formerly distinct parks now form one contiguous unit, which runs from just south of the Oregon border down Highway 101 for approximately 60 miles. It is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
All three State Parks were created in the 1920s as concern grew among Californians about the loss of original Redwood forests due to logging. Beginning in the 1850s with the Gold Rush, the immediate and tremendous need for quality lumber and the relative accessibility of these forests made them good candidates for the burgeoning lumber industry. By the time Redwood National Park was created in 1968, it is estimated that 90 percent of original growth redwoods had been cut down for timber.
Redwood Loggings, Scotia, California, before 1918
Courtesy Save the Redwoods, www.savetheredwoods.org
A pivotal actor in early efforts to save the trees was the San Francisco-based organization, Save the Redwoods League. Encouraged by National Park Service head Stephen Mather, conservationists John C. Merriam, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn first explored the state of the redwood forests in 1917.
(Left to right) John C. Merriam, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Stephen Mathers, and Madison Grant
Composite of Public Domain Images
Based on their concern about what they encountered, including automobile traffic on the Redwood Highway, they formed the League in 1918.
Coast Redwoods Dwarf Cars along the Redwood Highway before 1918
Courtesy savetheredwoods.org; photo by H.C. Tibbitts
Members of the Women’s Save the Redwoods League, 1919
During the 1920s the League raised funds—then matched by the state—to begin purchasing tracts of land to be set aside as State Parks. Prairie Creek Redwoods gained State Park designation in 1923, followed by Del Norte in 1925 and Smith in 1929. Efforts began early to create a National Park, but that would not come to pass for many years. In the meantime, the League purchased a total of 100,000 acres between 1920 and 1960, and at the birth of the National Park—signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 2, 1968—the new National Park included 58,000 acres beyond those of the original State Parks.
Although the League was successful in setting aside significant groves of trees early on, over time an increase in understanding of the entire forest ecosystem has led to the inclusion of non-forest areas, including parts of the Pacific coastline, rivers, streams, estuaries, meadows, and prairies. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter added an additional 48,000 acres to the park.
Cow Parsnip on Yurok Loop Trail, Redwood National and State Parks
Courtesy National Park Service
It goes without saying that redwood forests inspire a near-religious awe in those who visit them. In addition to noted authors like John Steinbeck and John Muir, countless others have also been inspired by the redwood landscape.
One notable exception to the legions of the awestruck was Ronald Reagan, who is often reported to have said about the trees, “If you’ve seen one redwood tree you’ve seen them all.” Reagan’s actual words, spoken as a gubernatorial candidate to a wood products association in March 1966, were:
I think, too, that we've got to recognize that where the preservation of a natural resource like the redwoods is concerned, that there is a common sense limit. I mean, if you've looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees—you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?
The Big Tree, Redwood Highway
© Patterson; California Historical Society
Apparently however, a redwood may not just be any old tree. In 2016—fifty years after Reagan’s comments—a new benefit to preserving California’s redwoods has been discovered. According to researchers from Humboldt State University and UC Berkeley, with the assistance of the Save the Redwoods League, redwood trees are champions at combatting global warming. Because of their massive size and long lives, through photosynthesis they are able to absorb far larger quantities of carbon than any other known forests.
Visiting the redwoods in 1962 John Steinbeck wrote, “One feels the need to bow to unquestioned sovereigns.” As it turns out, places like Redwood National Park may hold even greater powers than Steinbeck could ever have imagined.
Sunset on Rocky Coast, Redwood National and State Parks
Courtesy National Park Service
Strategic Initiatives Liaison
David , “If You’ve Seen One Tree..."; http://www.snopes.com/quotes/reagan/redwoods.asp
National Park Service/Department of Parks and Recreation, Redwood National and State Parks;
Redwood National and State Parks; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redwood_National_and_State_Parks
Redwood National and State Parks: Official Map and Guide (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service/Department of Parks and Recreation, State of California, 2001)
Paul Rogers, “Are California Redwood Trees the Answer to Global Warming?” Mercury News, July 6, 2016; http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_30094332/weapon-against-global-warming-california-redwoods-store-more
Save the Redwoods League; http://www.savetheredwoods.org/
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America (New York: Curtis Publishing, 1962)
Read more in our series A Mirror of Us: CHS Celebrates the National Park Service Centennial:
Death Valley National Park; http://
californiahistoricalsociety. blogspot.com/2016/02/a-mirror- of-uschalliss-gore.html
Joshua Tree National Park; http://
californiahistoricalsociety. blogspot.com/2016/03/a-mirror- of-us-chs-celebrates-national. html
Pinnacles National Park, http://
californiahistoricalsociety. blogspot.com/2016/04/a-mirror- of-us-chs-celebrates-national. html
Lassen Volcanic National Park, http://
californiahistoricalsociety. blogspot.com/2016/05/a-mirror- of-us-chs-celebrates-nps-and. html
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, http://
californiahistoricalsociety. blogspot.com/2016/06/a-mirror- of-us-chs-celebrates-nps-and. html
Redwood National and State Parks, http://
californiahistoricalsociety. blogspot.com/2016/07/a-mirror- of-us-chs-celebrates-nps-and. html
Today the National Park Service cares for 409 park sites spread over more than 84 million acres (131,250-plus square miles) in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.
Learn more about the NPS Centennial Initiative