Book Review: Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics

A decade ago, not long after moving to Oregon, I traveled to Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park where I entered an old-growth coast redwood forest for the first time. To say it was a moving experience is an understatement. The photographs I took were also an understatement; no picture can capture the enormity of these ancient trees. But perhaps it is the sound, or lack thereof, that best captures the experience. As author Darren Frederick Speece writes at the beginning of Defending Giants:

To walk into a stand of two-thousand-year-old redwoods is to enter deafening silence. It is rare to hear songbirds, or the sound of a squirrel scampering in the canopy, or the condensation of the think fog dripping off redwood needles like rain. It’s not that those noises are entirely absent; it is just that the shade, the moisture, the fog, the deep bed of soft needles on the ground, and the ropy red bark of the trees seem to absorb all sounds before they can radiate outward from their source.

There are only 5% of these forests remaining. The California gold rush led to their demise in the latter part of the 1800s. But as Speece illustrates in his thoroughly researched and all-too-relevant book, the tragic death of so many of these trees also helped give birth to the modern environmental movement. It is comforting to know that there were people in the 1800s who were so enraged by wholesale logging that they mobilized to do something about it. And we owe these people a great debt. This book tells their stories.

The Sierra Club, founded by John Muir in 1892, was not initially focused on saving the redwood forests. But one of the founding members, William Dudley, urged the group to prioritize these forests. As Speece writes:

Dudley believed the coast redwoods also needed the Sierra Club’s “immediate attention” because redwood was the highest valued timber, it was the “loftiest species of confier,” and like its Sierra relatives, it needed protection from the “rapacity of men and scourge of fire.”

Fundraising combined with government lobbying resulted, in 1902, in the formation of California’s first state park: Big Basin. This environmental protection template would be employed again and again in the following decades.

Save the Redwoods was formed in 1918, an organization that I’ve supported over the years. I was surprised to learn that the founders of this group were member of the Bohemian Club and proponents of eugenics (which you can learn more about here). While eugenics has been rightfully relegated to history’s trash bin, I’m happy to see that Save the Redwoods has not only survived but is stronger than ever. They also work to protect giant sequoias (which grow in the Sierras). Speaking of which, they are raising money right now to purchase the 530-acre Alder Creek property.

While men may have been on the forefront of the logging industry, it was women who were on the forefront of the anti-logging movement.

In 1924, Laura Perrott Mahan was leader of the Humboldt County Federation of Women’s Clubs, a powerful voice in forest conservation. When Pacific Lumber violated a court order preventing it from logging the Dyerville Flats, she and her husband alerted the media and recruited a group of women to occupy the grove. The redwoods’ first “occupy” direct action occurred nearly a hundred years ago, and it was led by women.

And while one might think this protest would be enough to stop Pacific Lumber, it took seven long years of fighting and fundraising for the group to purchase the land and form what ultimately became the Rockefeller Forest in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, “the largest contiguous ancient redwood forest remaining in the world, named after the league’s 1924 anonymous donor, John D. Rockefeller Jr. The league paid more than $3 million for the 13,629-acre Rockefeller Forest: $2 million from Rockefeller, $1 million from the state, and smaller donations from the Humboldt Women’s League.”

As citizens mobilized to protect old-growth forests, the logging companies mobilized to clear cut these forests more quickly and to lobby governments more aggressively. Activists turned to the Endangered Species Act as an important tool to block logging efforts, by filing claims on behalf of the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. Speece documents the evolution and expansion of the Redwood Wars and the many players involved — as well as the importance of old-fashioned, grass-roots organizing to the success of the movement. And, as with so many movements, compromises were made, alienating activists, leading some to form more aggressive offshoot organizations. It’s not easy to keep track of all the names and places involved, but it’s important to remember that any social and environmental movement is messy, chaotic even, as everyone has different goals and different ideas for how to achieve them. And, infighting often threatened progress at critical points in history. But progress did happen.

While anyone can hike through the Headwaters Forest Reserve today and enjoy the peace and the beauty, it is equally important that we not overlook the many personal and financial sacrifices made by people who wanted protect something that could not protect itself.

Perhaps the best way to honor those who fought to save the redwoods is to keep up the fight, not just for the redwoods but anything and anyone who could use protecting. This book will inspire you.

Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics
University of Washington Press