The Life, Death, and Life of a Tree

The only real threat the majestic redwood has ever faced is us

By Jack McClintock and Brown W Cannon III
May 1, 2002 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:28 AM


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On a quiet Wednesday morning near Miranda, California, as the fog lifts in the forest, a man approaches a redwood tree. The man is Buck Tallman, 44. He's wearing a shirt with cutoff sleeves and a red dented hard hat over the 32-stitch scar on his forehead, where a redwood limb snapped loose and whacked him a few years ago. Tallman is a faller, as lumberjacks are known in redwood country. He has a holster of wedges on his hip, and swinging nonchalantly from one calloused hand is a 20-pound Stihl chain saw with a 36-inch bar, long enough to slice up a six-foot-diameter tree. This redwood, not that big but far larger and older than Tallman, stands at the clearing's edge with two other, smaller trees. Tallman looks up, inhaling the Christmas-tree fragrance. The redwood's trunk tapers sharply, its soft, matted bark shadowy with dust and spiderwebs. Up high, patches of sun strike its needled branches and then fall to splash over Tallman's boots.

A few feet away, forester Jim Able, stocky and wry, is examining the tree. Able has taken to calling it Luna II, after the famous redwood, visible through his car window on the drive down from Eureka, that activist Julia Butterfly Hill occupied for years to protest old-growth logging. Where Hill would see a tree, Able sees both a tree and a forest product. Scientists say duplicating the environmental conditions that produced old-growth redwood forests may be impossible. Foresters claim that economic pressures make it necessary to choose: If we can't afford to lock up every redwood in parks, then which do we want—managed forests or subdivisions? Or is it already too late to choose? Biologist Ron LeValley, a private consultant, says, "There are no unmanaged lands anymore."

Sunlight peeks through the canopy of a redwood forest in Arcata, California. Forester Jim Able calls redwoods "children of the storm," for their ability to survive disasters that include floods, insects, and fires.

So Luna II will soon head for the sawmill. This forest is managed by Able, hired by the landowner, Stephen Kahn, to inventory its assets, protect spotted owls and other wildlife, arrange harvesting permits, and enhance the land's value. As really big redwoods go, Luna II is unimpressive, perhaps 35 inches in diameter, 80 feet tall, and sharply tapered. The tree's misshapen trunk and blown-out top testify to a rough life. The forest burned around 1900, Able says, and was selectively logged over in the 1940s or 1950s, when Luna's parent tree, then about 30 inches in diameter, was cut. But that didn't kill her genes. The coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens— ever-living— is the only conifer that sprouts happily from a cut stump or from its root collar, and that's what happened to Luna II. The trees seem to possess the ability to live forever, or if not, to sprout up again with the same DNA after falling over or being burned to a crisp. Three of the sprouts of Luna II's parent survived, jammed together around the rotting stump, crowded and stunted in the shade—even now, the other two are just 10 and 14 inches in diameter. In 1974 the loggers came again. At that time an ill-conceived law taxed landowners on standing timber larger than about 20 inches in diameter, which encouraged the cutting of bigger trees. But Luna II was lucky, a runt even then and too small to chop, so it and its sibling sprouts escaped the chain saw.

Logging, though, let in a blast of sun, and Luna II took off in a spurt of fast growth. A fine timber tree is columnar, not tapered, with more board feet of usable lumber per foot of height. Luna II didn't have to reach upward for the sun, it came down to her, so she grew extra girth and messy, useless limbs. "She was just a big ole hog sitting there putting on a lot of fat around the waist but not putting on any bacon," Able says. About 15 years ago, Luna's top broke off. A broken top makes a good wildlife habitat but lousy lumber.

"We'll cut those not growing well or that don't fit in well or don't have the potential to be grandiose trees," Able says. "We want to leave the land as valuable as it was or more valuable." If he does it right, he says, the landowner can harvest and sell some timber every 10 years, improving the quality and size of the remaining trees, thus maintaining the forest volume and raising its value without paying taxes on the increase. Theoretically, that leaves open the choice of growing the tract into old-growth forest. Well-managed timberlands can be a bit like stock certificates, Able says, "The value goes up, and you take dividends every so often—about 15 percent a year."

Maybe in a thousand years, this forest could look like the majestic Founders' Grove a few miles away, which Able, who has worked with redwoods for 35 years, calls "the finest old-growth redwood forest I've ever seen." There, 2,000 years of growth have produced trunks as large as 17 feet in diameter and 300 feet tall—30 stories. Such trees create shaded spaces so silent and serene that visitors drop their voices when they speak.

The forest where Buck Tallman approaches Luna II with his chain saw and holster of wedges is far from that. It's sliced with pitted roads, heaped with logs and brush. As the day wears on, it rumbles and clanks with the noise of heavy machinery that throws up brown dust. Yana Valachovic, the University of California forest adviser for Humboldt and Del Norte counties, says, "There's no pretty way to get trees out of the forest."

Tallman yanks his chain-saw cord.

Unprepossessing as Luna II may be compared with the trees of Founders' Grove, the coast redwood is an impressive organism, one of three surviving redwood species; the others are the giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, which grows in scattered groves in the High Sierras, and the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, once thought to be extinct but rediscovered in China in 1941, growing in a remote valley. Redwood forests once covered the Pacific Coast from central California to southern Oregon. These days some redwoods are protected in 380,000 acres of public land, but most are young and small. The original old-growth forests with trees wide enough to hide a Volkswagen have mostly disappeared; only about 88,000 acres out of the original 2 million are left.

Luna II and the other coast redwoods evolved from a common ancestor that grew about 100 million years ago, when the globe was warmer and wetter. Water is crucial to the redwood, which soaks up tremendous quantities of it from soil, rain, cloud, and fog. A 20-foot length of redwood lumber 1 inch by 4 inches will lose 64 pounds as it dries—eight gallons of water, says Eric Hollenbeck of the Blue Ox Mill in Eureka, the only remaining U.S. woodworking job shop that still has its own sawmill. Recent research shows that between one-fourth and one-half of a coast redwood's water comes from summer fog, mostly dripped from leaves into the soil but some also taken up by foliage, says Todd Dawson, a plant ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley. That's not surprising, in a way, because how trees this tall could lift sufficient water against the forces of gravity and friction into their tops to nourish them has always been a mystery. When stomata in the leaves open, water moves out into the less-humid atmosphere and is replaced by more water from inside the tree. Because water coheres, more water is pulled up the tree to replace it. But the redwood's ability to drink fog also helps and contributes to the tree's great size.

Part of Dawson's work is to reconstruct climate changes in the forest by studying tree-ring widths. "Our data show that when trees are removed and fog input declines," he says, "the hydrologic balance of the forest is altered, perhaps so severely that the reestablishment of the vegetation and the key functions that sustain them are lost." That's significant, he says, because not only are coast redwood forests endangered, but fog-flooded ecosystems are common throughout the world, and studying these trees may help save others.

On a stroll through the 1,550-acre Arcata redwood stand, which was clear-cut 120 years ago, forestry manager Mark André tells a group of scientists: "We're introducing chaos into basically an even-aged forest." Allowing gaps between trees and leaving downed logs to rot help speed growth in the forest. Underfoot, bright-yellow six-inch banana slugs bind soil particles with their slime. High above, limbs break and new growth sprouts, creating cover for songbirds and owls.

You wouldn't think redwoods would need saving; if they weren't trees, they'd make good weeds. Some of the most vigorous young forests are growing on land that turn-of-the-century homesteaders tried their best to convert into farms, chopping and burning for decades until the rampantly returning redwoods simply wore them out. Fire? Fire favors the thick-barked, insulated redwood, leveling competing stands of spruce and fir and leaving the redwood standing alone. Floods? Redwoods don't seem to mind them. The most spectacular redwood groves are found at alluvial flats, areas along streams or rivers where sediment settles and periodic floods keep a constant supply of nutrients coming; witness the giants of Founders' Grove, some of whose bases survive beneath 20 feet of alluvial mud, where they simply add more roots near the surface and keep growing. And "they don't really have fungus or insect enemies" that do widespread damage, says Graeme Berlyn of the Yale School of Forestry. But the recent discovery on a few coast redwoods of Phytophthora ramorum, the fungus that causes "sudden oak death," has some scientists concerned, and an investigation has been launched.

Sometimes a bear will climb up to where the trunk is narrow, clamp it with her claws, and then slide down, skinning off about 30 feet of bark to expose the sweet cambium, which she then devours. "It basically girdles the tree and kills the top," says forester Mark Collins. But the greatest enemies of the redwood are droughts, which can turn a tree's top dry and brittle, and foresters like Buck Tallman. Luna II's roots, invisible beneath Tallman's steel-toed boots, are wide and shallow, about four feet down, extending straight out for a hundred feet or more in every direction, entwining and even interconnecting with the roots of neighboring trees. The interconnected roots help stabilize Luna II against flood and storm.

To reproduce sexually, Luna II produces olive-size cones, each containing about 100 seeds the size of tomato seeds. Wind-pollinated in midwinter, they develop over the summer and produce seedlings in spring. But germination rates are low, and many seeds or seedlings get eaten by bush rabbits, banana slugs, or nematodes, or succumb to fungus or lack of light. "The last place you'd want to live is in a redwood forest—it's cold, dark, and damp," Valachovic says. But if just one or two seedlings a century survive, that's enough, along with sprouting, to perpetuate an old-growth forest. The seedling can bide its time for decades in low-light conditions. Then when a gap opens up and sun floods in, it will grow with astonishing speed. Redwood is the fastest-growing softwood tree in North America: An established sapling can jump six or eight feet in a season, and a redwood can put on 130 feet in 30 years. A mature old-growth redwood stand can contain up to 1,800 tons of living and dead organic material per acre—nearly eight times the biomass in a tropical rain forest.

In an old-growth forest like Founders' Grove, the effects of shade, flood, and wildfire maintain a cathedral-like openness under the trees. The lowest branches of most older redwoods are 100 feet up the trunk, but Luna II's trunk bristles with branches right to the ground. Buck has to nip them off with his chain saw—not to mention clear away a tangle of sword ferns, salal shrubs, and tanoak seedlings—before he can get down to work.

Lumberjack Buck Tallman has spent 16 years wielding his ax in the woods. The trick to cutting a redwood, he says, is to keep the stump low so wood isn't wasted and to fell the tree so it doesn't damage others nearby.

Hundreds of feet up in the redwood canopy, botanist Steve Sillett of Humboldt State University has found a new world. Here are platform mats of soil and fallen vegetation the size of cars, "incredible candelabra" of new tree trunks up to a yard thick growing out of ancient branches six feet in diameter. And there's an amazing variety of living things, from the predictable birds and rodents to the unpredicted mollusks and the totally surprising crustaceans usually found 300 feet lower down, living in streams. When treetops or branches break, the redwood starts a new trunk, and soon the tree is a gigantic three-dimensional menorah, all the splits and crotches filling with fallen foliage, which soon becomes organic soil irrigated by rain and fog. These host entire new communities hundreds of feet up, sheltering lichen and fungi, as well as beetles, crickets, earthworms, millipedes, salamanders, slugs, and newts. The wandering salamander even breeds, lays eggs, and raises young here, usually in the matted, gigantic leatherleaf ferns with their 2,000 moist fronds covering several square yards in a single tree. Some of these soil mats are sizable enough to grow new forests of their own, of tanoak, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and even young redwoods seeded by birds or wind. The host redwood may send adventitious roots into the rich, sometimes ancient soils of its own crown, seeking more water and nutrients, just as the trunk will send such roots into flood muck at its feet. You can hear the wonder in Sillett's voice as he describes it.

On the ground, forester Mark Collins squints up Luna II's tapering trunk and guesses, "This tree will have 1,000 board feet." More like 700 to 800, says his boss, Jim Able. Buck Tallman shrugs as he plans how to fell the tree into a clearing. If it hits a rock or another trunk, they could end up with 1,000 board feet of redwood toothpicks. With a series of chain saw snarls, he fells Luna II's smaller siblings, then gazes up. "Looks like a free-fall tree; won't have to stick a wedge in it."

"All right, easy money!" Jim Able yells. Tallman laughs. His chain saw snarls and red dust sprays as he puts in his first cut, then the angled top cut. With the saw tip, he chews out the face. Moving around the tree, he makes his back cut a few inches higher, then circles back again to the face to put in a snipe, angling the face cut down so the falling trunk will skid nicely off the stump. But Luna II doesn't fall.

Tallman adds an inch to his back cut and waits. Silence. He slips a yellow plastic wedge into the cut and taps it delicately with his five-pound ax head. Taps again. A crack, a crackle, a whoosh, a whump. Nobody yells timber, but that's what Luna II is now. Moments ago a living tree, now a stump and a log.

Luna II was felled at age 58. "The first harvest cycle for redwoods was between 1860 and 1950," says Yana Valachovic, a forestry expert. "Now we've gone back for seconds and in some places for thirds."

But that's not the end. Even on the ground, redwoods don't give up. Old logs remain intact for centuries, protected by bitter tannins and volatile oils that repel insects. Carpenter ants and termites attack but only halfheartedly. Redwood logs do finally rot—dismantled by fungi—but very slowly. In sluggish economic times, loggers snap up 100-year-old logs, and even stumps, and sawmill operators are happy to see them coming. Left lying in the forest long enough, Luna II would become a nurse log, habitat for 180 species of birds and other small animals, 700 plants and fungi, and 3,000 invertebrates. The western red-backed vole, one of the few American mammals that feeds mostly on fungi, lives underground near fallen redwood logs, stuffing itself on truffles. The Pacific giant salamander, a foot long and one of the world's largest, needs clean water and the moist environment under old logs to survive. The log itself eventually fertilizes the next generation of redwoods.

Not much lives on Luna II. A few black carpenter ants stroll out from a crack near the stump, having been admitted through a decades-old fire scar. Able walks the length of the trunk to where the top broke off 10 years before. Two new branches grew there, and caught in the crotch crack is a cupful of rotting foliage, the start of a new tiny habitat but not for anything visible to the naked eye. On the trunk near the top, there are a few patches of brilliant, lime-green lichen. "It takes 100 years to become a real lichen habitat," says Valachovic. "This isn't one of those old-growth trees with salamanders and huckleberries in the top."

And Luna II won't remain here to rot, as it would—at its own leisurely pace—in a natural forest. "All right, old tree, you're gonna leave us," Able says, patting the log. "We're gonna get some new ones, and they'll all grow better."

What growing better actually means is not clear. If it means becoming an old-growth forest like Founders' Grove, that's unlikely. "You can grow salable timber in 40 to 50 years," says Ron LeValley, "but it takes a thousand years to make an old-growth forest." Some scientists doubt it's even possible on logged-over land. The spectacular alluvial groves may never have been more than 10 percent of redwood country. A natural old-growth forest, with its standing snags and downed logs and rich, multilayered canopy, shelters a tremendous diversity of living things for a temperate forest, including the startling bright-yellow banana slug, 75 species of mites found in just a square yard of forest floor, and the Pacific tree frog, found everywhere from the forest floor to the highest canopy Steve Sillett has explored. Not to mention flying squirrels, fishers, and 59 other mammals. Scientists still find new life: The first nest of the marbled murrelet, a secretive seabird that is protected like the northern spotted owl, was found high in the coast redwoods in 1974. Such diversity doesn't exist in a second-growth forest like Luna II's, where loggers are removing the debris and tidying things up. The old-growth redwood ecosystem is sensitive, and parts of it—and some associated species like salmon—are in decline.

"Efforts to reestablish forests following massive deforestation have met with mixed success because the ecology is so poorly understood," says Todd Dawson. Defenders of managed forestry believe they're just being realistic. "You can have old growth managed by silviculture," says Yana Valachovic, "or let nature battle it out—it just takes longer." John Stuart, a forest ecologist at Humboldt State University, says, "In a well-managed forest there's a better chance to influence it for good."

In a sawmill in Willets, California, blades 9 inches wide and 29 feet long reduce redwood to lumber for decks, paneling, and bridges.

Buck Tallman is walking atop Luna II, nipping off limbs with his chain-saw tip, watching out for the trapped ones taut as a drawn bow that could snap up and nail him. Logs are sold in two-foot multiples, so he cuts Luna II into two 16-foot logs and a 33-footer—32 plus a foot for trim. Jim Able spray paints the ends with a big S—for superlog, he says—just as a John Deere 650G tractor trundles into the clearing, tossing up brown dust. Men jump down and loop choker cables around the three logs. Gunshot cracks ring out—limbs breaking as the tractor drags them down the road in a cloud of dust to the landing, a clearing where a log truck will pick them up in the morning, except for the skinny, 16-foot top log. It will go to the Britt Lumber Company in Arcata, which makes redwood fence posts.

Mike Riddle squints at Luna II's butt log, 33 feet long, green, and wet. He estimates it weighs 8,000 pounds. Riddle's not impressed. It's just one of a dozen on his 18-wheeler log truck, cinched down under cable binders as he starts the engine. He drives a few hundred feet down the dirt road to let the load settle, stops, gets out, and resets the cables. After four hours on the highway, he pulls into the yard at the Willets Redwood Company, where a Caterpillar operator carefully unloads the logs with forklike prongs. "A lot of men have been killed when a log rolls off," says the sawmill's co-owner, red-bearded Chris Baldo.

The scaler, David Hedges, arrives promptly at 6:30 the next morning. Employed by the nonprofit Northern California Log Scaling Bureau, his job is to assess how much Baldo will pay for what's left of Luna II. He measures the length of each log, the average diameter of each end, figures the number of board feet, and subtracts any defects. Luna II's butt log has 400 board feet gross, but Hedges has to deduct 5 percent for a crack in one end that becomes a five-legged spangle on the other—the defect that harbored those carpenter ants—reducing it to 380 board feet. Luna II's second log, 32 feet long, 17 inches at one end and 24 on the other, has 480 board feet with no defects. Baldo will pay roughly $700 for Luna II—the price would have been twice as much just a year ago; the timber market is a volatile one—out of which the landowners will have to compensate Jim Able, Buck Tallman, Mike Riddle, and the others.

Baldo's men set about the final dismantling of Luna II. In the log-littered yard, young Roberto Leon bucks the longer log into two 16-footers, while Jack Gamble, 82, who first went into the woods in 1938, peels the bark off another with a five-foot-long steel blade shaped like a giant's chisel. An enormous lathelike debarker chews the skin off the others, rolling them on big rubber tires, and then deposits them in the sawmill queue. At the head rig, Baldo's partner Bruce Burton operates the computer-guided, 29-foot-long band-saw blade. "First, I'm looking to see if I can get any big timbers," he says over the howl of the saw, whine of motors, groan of cables, chug of diesel engine, and heavy slam as the log is turned over for another cut. "And I'm looking for clear lumber—the best grades." The saw screams.

"Even in the most efficient sawmill, probably only about 60 percent goes into lumber," Baldo says. He can sell an average truckload of lumber for $10,000 to $15,000; the rest are cheap by-products: sawdust, chips, and bark worth about $400 for a 50,000-pound truckload. The saw screams again. Luna II ends up as a heartwood 8-by-8; four heartwood 3-by-10s; some common sapwood 2-by-4s, 2-by-6s, and 2-by-8s; a handsome, chunky heartwood 14-by-14 timber; and a heap of bark, chips, and sawdust. A few days later, a truck arrives to carry the 14-by-14 timber to Ukiah, where it is treated against rot. From there it goes to Matson Building Supply in Ft. Bragg, which had bought it from lumber broker Bob Haas of Alamo Forest Products, who had bought it from Baldo and Burton. Luna II, once a $700 log, could bring $1,000 at the retail level as decking or fence posts.

Part of Luna II has returned to the forest but is horizontal now rather than vertical. A 14-by-14-inch pressure-treated timber from the tree has become a mudsill under this bridge in Russian Gulch State Park, near Ft. Bragg, California. Redwood lumber is known to survive more than 150 years without rotting.

A few months later, part of Luna II is back in the forest as a mudsill foundation timber, supporting one end of a footbridge over a seasonal tributary in Russian Gulch State Park near Ft. Bragg. The park is a mixed forest, mostly redwood, that contains Douglas fir, grand fir, tanoak, and California bay laurel, much like the woods Luna II came from.

Back there, Jim Able, whacking dust off his pants beside Luna II's stump, says, "We'll trim this forest every 10 years for the next 30 or 40 years. And then we might still be arguing about whether it'll become old growth 200 years from now."

Steve Sillett doubts it. "You fragment the forest, and the canopy becomes less retentive of water and fog," he says. "No second growth today will be allowed to become old growth, so these are all we're ever going to have, a continually shrinking resource."

But Luna II's stump doesn't know that. In a few months, it will sprout a little ring of bright green miniature trees, just as Luna II's parent did to create her. In fact, that parent is still here—a punky, half-rotted mound that cleverly passed on all its genes, which may have been on Earth since the days of Tyrannosaurus rex, to its offspring. Luna II will pass the same genes on again.

"How long can the genetic material of a redwood maintain itself?" asks forest ecologist John Stuart. "We don't know. But you really have to work at it to kill a redwood." Even lying in the mud beneath that park bridge, the timber cut from the heart of Luna II will have a kind of eternal life, resisting every effort of man and nature to destroy her essence.

A comprehensive map of California's redwood forests and their designations can be found at

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