This Land Is Your Land (except…NOT the Redwood Forests)

This entry is a part of a series. To clearly understand the material below in context,
you may wish to begin at the beginning with the introduction to the series.

Let’s try a little game of “Where’s Wally—and his friends?” See if you can spot three fellows in blue jackets and one in red in this “composite photo” below. (If it is too small to see clearly, click on the pic. When it opens up in another screen, click on it again to magnify it. Then use your Back Button to return to this page when you are done.)

stratosphere tree

Did you find them? One in blue is near the top…


Another in blue is part way down the trunk…


The one in red is right at the foot of the tree…


I’ll let you spot the other one in blue, who is also somewhere along the trunk.

As you have likely guessed by now, this isn’t just any ol’ tree. It was, until 2006, “the tallest known tree in the world.” Nick-named “Stratosphere,” this redwood tree was discovered in California in 2000, when it was measured at almost 373 feet tall. Estimated age—800 years.

In 2006, an even taller redwood was discovered in California and measured. Nicknamed “Hyperion,” it was just over 379 feet tall at the time. Unlike the Stratosphere, which I think had a damaged tip and may have quit getting taller, Hyperion was definitely continuing to grow, and may be over 380 feet by now. From what I understand, its vigorous growth may mean it is significantly younger than the Stratosphere…maybe “only” 600 years old.

To put these heights in perspective, consider the Statue of Liberty.

statue of liberty

From the base, where you see tiny people standing in the pic above, all the way up to the tip of the torch is 305 feet. When considering objects of a certain height, I often try to envision them standing next to a tall building. An average “story” in a building is about ten feet tall, so to go up ten stories would be to ascend close to 100 feet. So if you figuratively put a seven story building next to Hyperion, and then placed the Statue of Liberty, base and all, on top of that building, and then climbed up into Lady Liberty’s torch…you’d be about level with the tip of the tree.

(No, you can’t go up in that torch in recent decades, but as originally designed you could. As you can see from this 1876 picture from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition…


…The arm and torch were on display there while the rest of the statue was being finished in Paris. For an entrance fee, about a dozen Centennial visitors at a time could climb up and stand on the rim of the torch for a nice view of the grounds. After the completed statue was erected on Bedloe’s Island and opened to the public in 1886, visitors could still take turns climbing up the narrow ladder into the torch, but that ended because of safety concerns in about 1917.)

There are other pretty tall trees in the world, of course. The tallest known “ponderosa pine” is just over 269 feet tall…approaching the height of a 27-story sky-scraper. But it can’t hold a candle to the Stratosphere and Hyperion, which are both almost 100 feet—ten stories—taller. You would have to climb up 200 feet of bare trunk on those trees before you even got to where the branches start reaching out from the trunk!

They are coastal redwoods, scientifically known as Sequoia sempervirens. Sempervirens means “evergreen” or “always alive”…which likely was intended to indicate the year-around greenness of this type of tree, just like other evergreens. However, it is particularly appropriate to the Coastal Redwoods/Sequoias…for they are incredibly long-lived. Hyperion and Stratosphere are barely out of their woodsy teenage years! Some Sequoias have been estimated to be 1,800 years old—or more.

Although the “tallest” trees are always Coastal Redwoods, they aren’t the “largest.” The tall guys are usually fairly slender…say 15 feet in diameter. The largest, in terms of “mass of trunk,” are as much as 100 feet shorter, but very hefty around the middle—the largest known is a Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) called the “General Sherman.” It is 275 feet tall, has a diameter of 25 feet, and is estimated to weigh over 4 MILLION pounds…the “largest living thing on earth” by some criteria. It is estimated to be 2000 years old, or older. (Shown below with Teddy Roosevelt and friends 100+years ago.)


Of course, none of these are anywhere near the age of the “oldest known living organism” in the world…Methuselah, a Californian bristlecone pine close to 5,000 years old by tree ring count.


But our story is not about bristlecone or ponderosa pines. It is about Coastal Redwoods. Which takes us back to Madison Grant and the Boone and Crockett club.

In August 1917, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn traveled to California to attend the summer encampment of the exclusive Bohemian Club. This annual gathering of the Golden State’s movers and shakers took place in the Bohemian Grove, the club’s forest enclave sixty miles north of San Francisco. The two New Yorkers soon became engaged in conversation with a fellow member of the Boone and Crockett Club, John C. Merriam, chairman of the Department of Paleontology at the University of California. Merriam was renowned for his excavation of the La Brea tar pits and the numerous fossils of sabertoothed tigers he found there….

The three men marveled at the beauty and the height of the redwood trees that had been preserved in the Bohemian Grove. Merriam told Grant and Osborn that in the 1840s the reports of the first exploring parties describing the redwood trees were so fantastic that they had not been taken seriously. In 1854, an entire tree had been shipped to New York and put on display, but it had been considered by most to be a hoax. And he reminded them that the Baptist church in Santa Rosa they had passed en route from San Francisco, with seating room for three hundred people, was built from the lumber of a single redwood tree.

At this point, an eavesdropper assured them that the more extensive but rarely seen redwood groves of Humboldt County in the northern part of the state not only had taller specimens than the Bohemian Grove but possessed a “mystery and charm unique among living works of creation.” Intrigued, it did not take long for the three Boone and Crocketteers to decide to embark on an excursion to see the trees up close (an excursion that came to be known in the conservation community as the “Historic Camping Trip”). Thirty years later, the director of the National Park Service would marvel that “one of the great dramas in the history of conservation”—that is, the saving of the mighty California redwoods— had originated in that conversation in the Bohemian Grove. [from: Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. University Press of New England, 2009. Kindle Edition. This book is the source of much of the information about Madison Grant in this blog series. I will just use the name of the author, Spiro, in subsequent citations in this entry.]

The next morning they headed out in their touring car for a trip about 150 miles farther up the coast north of San Francisco. They arrived at the spot, and were overwhelmed by what they saw. A later president of the Save-the-Redwood League put it this way:

“To enter the grove of Redwoods on Bull Creek Flat is to step within the portals of a cathedral dim, lofty, pillared, peaceful. But this temple which the Great Architect has been building for a score of centuries is incomparably nobler, more beautiful and more serene than any erected by the hands of man.”

As the tale was told in later years, they were all so awestruck when they entered the stand of trees that they all spontaneously took their hats off just as they would in church.

Grant was convinced that “nowhere on earth does there exist a forest to compare in continuous grandeur and unqualified beauty with the Redwoods” of California. It was, quite simply, “the most magnificent forest in the world.”

…The men felt as if somehow they had stepped back in time. When they finally sat down to eat their lunch, Merriam the paleontologist looked around at the primeval trees, the prehistoric ferns, and the steam rising where shafts of sunlight struck the wet earth, and he remarked to Grant that “if a dinosaur should stick his head around one of the tree trunks amid the ferns, he would find nothing in the landscape that was unfamiliar to him in Jurassic times.” [Spiro]

And thus began the love affair between Madison Grant and friends and the California Redwoods.

In short, the three Boone and Crocketteers were entranced by the redwoods. Unfortunately, so were the logging companies. Those same qualities of the trees that had impressed Grant—their resistance to fire, their invulnerability to insects, and their imperviousness to rot—were, as he put it, “the unfortunate virtues that have made their lumber so valuable.” Strong, beautiful, durable, lightweight, nonwarping, straight grained, a good insulator, able to hold nails and finishes: lumber from the redwood tree was a carpenter’s dream.

Californians were literally building their state on a foundation of redwood. The flumes and sluice boxes of the gold country, the grape stakes and wine vats of the Napa Valley, the curbs and sewers of Oakland, the piers and houses of San Francisco, the railroad ties and telegraph poles that connected those cities to the rest of the Union—all were constructed out of redwood trees. No wonder that logging was the most important industry in northern California, and that every year the companies were cutting down and dragging out of the coastal valleys another 500 million board feet of redwood lumber. [Spiro]

1901 log1901orso log2

But of course the Redwood Forests (honored in song by Woody Guthrie in “This Land is Your Land”) were huge. They would pretty much last indefinitely. Wouldn’t they?

Before the gold rush, the coastal redwoods had reigned over nearly two million acres of northern California from Monterey Bay to the Oregon border. The trees grew in such dense stands that it was believed the supply would never be exhausted. [Spiro]

Why, just like the gigantic herds of buffalo that roamed the prairies of the US, there were just too many of them for the puny efforts of mere men to wipe them out. Weren’t there?? Sigh.

But by the time of Grant’s 1917 visit, a large percentage of the trees had already fallen to the ax, and almost all the surviving stands were in the hands of logging companies and “marked for massacre.”

The lumber industry estimated that the remaining redwoods would be gone within sixty years, but Grant gave them an even shorter time. He knew that before the turn of the century, when the old-timers used handsaws, it had taken up to a week for a team of loggers to fell one of the giant redwoods. But now, with modern, mechanized logging methods, a tree that had taken five centuries to mature could be cut down and hauled out in an hour. And an entire forest that had taken millennia to create could be liquidated in a few weeks. (“Any fool can destroy trees,” John Muir [“Father of the National Parks” and founder of the Sierra Club] once wrote despondently. “They cannot defend themselves or run away.”) [Spiro]

Yes, the Redwood Forests had lasted for thousands of years, were no doubt flourishing before the first humans entered the North American continent. And for thousands more years, those humans were no more of a threat to the future of the Redwoods than a few woodpeckers visiting the forests.

Thousands of species of flora and fauna had come and gone, and yet the redwoods had lived on. But now, with the coming of modern civilization in the form of chain saws and donkey engines and mechanized logging mills and greedy lumber executives, it was all going to end. (One lumber baron stuck out his jaw, looked John C. Merriam straight in the eye, pointed at a grove of redwood trees, and exclaimed: “I hate ’em. I’d like to see every damn redwood down!”)

To mercilessly destroy these “priceless heirlooms” now, after nature had preserved them for eons in their virgin state, would be “like lighting one’s pipe with a Greek manuscript to save the trouble of reaching for matches.” [Spiro]

Of course, Grant and the Boone and Crockett club were already busy almost constantly with other projects. The Bronx Zoo was an ongoing responsibility, the Bison situation needed to be kept under surveillance, the drive to establish and maintain a variety of national parks and national animal refuges required ongoing efforts. But as mentioned previously, Madison Grant was a master at multi-tasking. To all his other projects he added saving the Redwoods.

And of course the first order of business to make that happen was to form a club, a society—or, in this case, a “league”…the Save-the-Redwoods League. (It still exists to this day, but the dashes have been eliminated from the name.) Madison Grant was also a master at perfectionism and micromanagement, so it was no minor feat just to put together a league, let alone run it.

Grant returned to Manhattan and spent the next few months tending to the various details involved in creating a new organization. A constitution had to be written, a statement of purpose drawn up, funds secured, offices established, executive officers recruited, a letterhead designed, legislation drafted, and so forth.

Grant relished the nitty-gritty of building an organization. He labored for weeks to make sure that the branches of the trees in the Save-the-Redwoods League’s logo were tilted just right, and spent an equal amount of time arguing with John C. Merriam over whether the league’s directors should be listed on the letterhead alphabetically or by seniority (Grant, of course, pushed hard for seniority).

He agonized over the proper paper stock to use for the League’s stationery—but then, there had always been three verities in Grant’s epistemology: the need to preserve the native flora and fauna of North America, the immortality of the germ plasm, and the absolute necessity for fine stationery. [Spiro]

The second order of business after the preliminary organization was always to get Big Names for the board of directors, because the names of famous and/or wealthy people gave credibility to the efforts. Once that was done, the usual advertising blitz began.

Madison Grant and John C. Merriam ensured that articles extolling the effort to save the redwoods were placed in national publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, Natural History, Outlook, and Outing. Grant himself wrote lengthy and effective articles for National Geographic and the Zoological Society Bulletin, in which he argued that posterity demanded that the redwoods be preserved:

“After the fall of the Roman Empire the priceless works of classic art were ‘needed’ for lime, and statues by Phidias and Praxiteles were slaked down for this purpose, but the men who did it are today rightly dubbed ‘vandals and barbarians.’ What then will the next generation call us if we continue to destroy these priceless trees because lumber is ‘needed’ for grape stakes and railroad ties?” [Spiro]

It was all well and good to get public recognition for the value of the efforts. But exactly what mechanism could they use to “save” the Redwoods?? Because, you see, their efforts to make national parks like Denali and Glacier were relatively easy. The parks were carved out of public lands.

Turning them into national parks had required only that Congress pass a resolution and the president sign it. Such situations were tailor-made for a charming aristocrat like Grant: invite the appropriate politicos over to the Metropolitan Club, pass out some cigars, discuss the situation as gentlemen, and after a glass or two of Château Lafite 1878 (and ten or twenty years of legislative wrangling) the deed was done. [Spiro]

Not so with the redwoods. Woody had sung that “from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters” this land of America was made for…belonged to… “you and me.” But that wasn’t really true. The redwoods weren’t on “public property,” either state or federal. Almost all of them were sitting on private property, most of it owned by logging companies.

Madison Grant at first proposed to persuade the California government to grab some of the land under the law of “eminent domain,” and set it aside in the public interest by law. But rich “private enterprise” folks in California were adamantly opposed to such a scheme, and it was doomed to failure.

Grant and the Save-the-Redwood League now faced the maddening fact that the only way to save the redwoods was to raise a lot of money in order to purchase, at full market value, whatever scattered lands could be pried from recalcitrant—if not hostile—lumber companies.

The league would then donate the areas to the state of California to be preserved in state parks. It would be like putting together a very large jigsaw puzzle, grove by grove.

And so the race was on, between the fund-raising abilities of the league and the tree-felling activities of the loggers. But at a time when most Americans still did not own an automobile, let alone envision transcontinental jet travel, it was going to be very difficult to convince them that the fate of a certain few trees in a remote corner of California—trees they would never get a chance to visit— should be of concern to them.

And thus it was that Madison Grant spearheaded the creation of “memorial groves,” which one writer has called “the most brilliant example of linking conservation with human sentiment ever devised.” [Spiro]

Yes, what ultimately “saved the redwoods” was offering immortality to individuals—family and friends of some worthy person would donate enough funds to purchase a stand of redwood trees—anywhere from a few trees to a few thousand acres of forest. And it would be turned into a “Memorial Grove,” complete with bronze plaque extolling the virtues of the honoree.

To date, over 1000 such memorial groves have been established. Of course, they don’t come cheap. Especially the acreage of forest (and meadows) that DeForest Grant (and friends including John D Rockefeller, Jr.) arranged to purchase in memory of his brother, Madison Grant after Grant died in 1937. It cost a million dollars or so (worth about $10 million today) to establish the 1,600+ acres as the official Madison Grant Forest and Elk Refuge in 1948. In addition to being identified by many as the most beautiful section of redwood forest left in California, its meadows became a secure home for the last herd of “Roosevelt elk” (the largest land mammal in California, named after Teddy.)

roosevelt elk

The 300 elk protected there over a half-century ago have reproduced well now and have come back from the brink of extinction. A nice plaque at the edge of the Forest and Refuge memorializes “Madison Grant, Conservationist, author, anthropologist, a founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League.”

And there is another plaque in California Redwood territory memorializing the efforts of Grant.

During Madison Grant’s first visit to California, he predicted that one day the tallest tree on earth would be found somewhere near Bull Creek Flat in Humboldt County. In 1931, Major Frederick Russell Burnham [of the California State Parks Commission] commissioned a survey that did indeed find the tallest tree in the world, a 364-foot redwood just where Grant thought it would be, in what is now Humboldt Redwoods State Park, one of the world’s most beautiful and impressive forest areas.

Major Burnham suggested that this tree be dedicated to the three men who founded the Save-the-Redwoods League, Madison Grant, John C. Merriam, and Henry Fairfield Osborn—“as a living monument symbolizing eternal life and the duration of our gratitude.” At the dedication of the plaque…

A choir sang the “Hallelujah” chorus, and Major Burnham then delivered the main address, in which he declared: “It is an ancient and racial urge that has brought us together today in the shade of this far western forest, like the druids of old,” to give thanks to Grant, Merriam, and Osborn for rescuing the redwoods from the ax. … The Founders Tree immediately became (and remains) the most visited spot in all the redwood region and the focus of many ceremonies.

founders treesignfounders treefounders plaqueThe plaque reads:

SEPTEMBER 13, 1931

Of course, the Founder’s Tree no longer has the honor of being recognized as the tallest, but it still represents the glory of the efforts that led to the saving of the mighty redwoods. Certainly a milestone in American history worthy of remembering, and men whose efforts made them worthy of honor.

Well, not to everyone. In 1991 the California Parks and Recreation folks received a letter from a tourist who had come across the plaque shown above when visiting the Redwoods area. In no uncertain terms, he insisted, “…honoring Madison Grant with a plaque on public property is as historically bizarre as erecting a monument to Adolf Hitler for his part in founding the Volkswagen Company. Please have it removed.

Huh?!? Did he have in mind the same Madison Grant whom we have been talking about? The one who saved the buffalo and the redwoods and the Roosevelt elk (and much more), who pushed through establishment of beautiful national parks like Glacier and Denali, who spearheaded the establishment and development of the largest and most progressive zoo in the world?

Yes, he did have that Madison Grant in mind. For earlier in his letter he noted that Grant’s “racist writings are so abhorrent to basic American principles that they discredit anything honorable the man may have done in his lifetime.”

What on earth could Grant have written that could have been THAT abhorrent? It’s pretty common knowledge that a significant proportion of the “famous” men of America’s past have said and written things that are clearly evidence of racial prejudice by modern standards. If we eliminated all monuments and historical plaques honoring such men we’d have a pretty sparse collection of national memorabilia! But is there an upper limit to what we can tolerate in our heroes in terms of racism, at which point we might seriously consider giving them the boot from our annals of American Pride?

And did Madison Grant exceed that limit? We’ll consider those questions in upcoming blog entries. Starting with the next entry,

Edwardian TED Talk.

But before you go, enjoy this video with pics honoring the National Parks, set to a pleasantly harmonized version of Woody’s song.


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