Redwood Clearance

Posted on 10 January 2014

Redwood pasture

Before 1945, redwood timber firms generally did not replant cutover forest with redwood seedlings. According to the ingrained attitude of pioneer loggers, Sequoia sempervirens was a one-shot crop. The species successfully reproduced only by suckering, they said, and suckered second growth produced commercially worthless wood, knotty and “brashy” (soft, brittle). According to folk wisdom, it took two thousand years for tight-grained heartwood to develop in redwoods.

Around 1910 several redwood firms, notably the Union Lumber Company of Mendocino County, tried something different: planting eucalypts as a potentially sustainable harvest crop. The experiment withered when the Australasian trees proved susceptible to frost.

Whenever it seemed cost-effective, landowners turned cutover redwood land into pastures or bulb farms; to extract massive stumps, they used dynamite, gas- or donkey-powered pullers, and repeated fire. They sold or leased the deforested land to dairymen. One Humboldt County supervisor summarized his preferred approach to silviculture: “I would cut it clean, burn hell out of it, and seed it to grass.” In some converted pastures, giant snags—or whole titans, girdled to death, exfoliated—rose above the dairy sod like ghostly sentinels.

In 1939, the great Dorothea Lange (working as a staff photographer with the Farm Security Administration), took a haunting picture of all that remained of an old-growth redwood forest in Humboldt County. The neighboring trees had been cut, burned, dynamited, and mostly dislodged. In 1949, when University of California foresters visited the site, only one (dead) redwood remained.

Dorothea Lange Humboldt County

Ghost snag(Sources: Fritz-Metcalf Photograph Collection, UC-Berkeley; Photogrammer.)

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