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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Day Three: Forest Maintenance...and the Joys of Tourists

Today was once again spent in the many parks that make up the combined "Redwood National and State Parks." There is, as one might expect, much to see -- and there's a stunning variety to see as well. "If you've seen one big tree you've seen them all" would definitely not apply here, partly because there is so much here beyond groves of towering trees. There are vibrant streams, protected coves that evoke Maine more than California; there are beaches and sea cliffs and, indeed, many groves of trees -- each one unique and possessing its own distinct character.

My day was divided more or less equally: morning in the Lady Bird Johnson grove, where the National Park was first established in honor of the former First Lady (by, of all people, Richard Nixon). I then went back to explore more of Prairie Creek State Park, by far the most stunning of places I've visited so far.

Pictures of all of those coming later. But in the meantime I wanted to put a pause on Jeff's Parade of Stunning Tree Pictures and talk a little bit about what I've learned regarding logging and forest well as share a few exasperated thoughts on the trade-offs that come with visiting places that lots of other people would also like to see.

First off, logging & restoration!

As I made my way through the Lady Bird grove I was struck by how different an environment it was from the Brown Creek hike I made yesterday. At Brown Creek, a surprising amount of sunlight reaches the forest floor, but the undergrowth is remarkably uniform: mostly ferns and sapling trees. This is not to say that the forest would be easy to traverse when one left the trail: there was a good 18" of twigs, branches, needles, and general debris between what appeared to be the forest floor and the real thing. Still, the understorey of the forest was surprisingly...uncluttered...and not terribly diverse in its flora. Today at the Lady Bird grove the picture was very different: lots of bushes, tangled vines, small deciduous trees fighting for light, and all manner of chaos. Some of it was beautiful -- Rhododendrons and the like -- but while one might have been tempted to venture off the trail into the deceptively shallow undergrowth of the Brown Creek floor, there was no question that diving into the LBJ undergrowth was asking for trouble (starting with poison ivy and working up from there).

What was the cause of this difference? Climate was my first thought; after all, Brown Creek is a lowland valley with steep sides, a microclimate all its own, whereas the LBJ grove is high up on a mountain, far above any streams and more removed from the regular fog that creeps in from the Pacific (including this morning). But was there another reason? Brown Creek was strewn -- one might almost say "clogged" -- with fallen giants. Everywhere you looked there was another one, clearing a patch of sky for seedlings but also giving birth to a new generation of living things springing up from the slow-rotting trunk. But at the Lady Bird grove, while I saw the remains of trees whose tops had broken off, there were virtually no fallen trunks. How could this be?

Then I remembered some history. The various state parks, Prairie Creek first among them, had been established in the 19-teens and 20's -- nearly 50 years before the National Park had been established. My guess (though I don't have confirmation of this) is that the land that would become the National Park -- previously private land, mind you -- had been used as the owners saw fit. They weren't logging this land (yet), but when a giant fell there was no sense in letting the tree go to waste: it was hauled off and used. Salvaged, as it were.

In one sense I suppose this was reasonable. But when I contrasted this grove with Brown Creek, which had always been left to its own devices, I saw another picture. The fallen trunks of these giants play a critical role in the forest ecosystem. Beyond clearing up a bit of sky for the next generation, the logs provide a template for new saplings to spring from the remains of their predecessors. It's almost as if the trunks -- though fallen and doomed to die -- manage the ultimate cosmic switch-a-roo: their burls and cracks house new saplings that take their place. In essence, they don't die; they regenerate. They're reborn.

Sequoia Semperverins -- "ever-living."

This mystical sense of regeneration -- immortality, if you will -- was absent at the Lady Bird grove. There, completely unrelated species took the place of the redwood giants: deciduous trees and bushes and vines, perhaps each with their part to play, but without the profound simplicity and wonder of the unperturbed Brown Creek forest.

(Pictures and details from the LBJ grove to follow, I promise!)

Meanwhile, with these thoughts swirling in my brain I continued up the the road onto a high ridge, where there was an overlook of the Redwood Creek Valley -- the heart and soul of the National Park. Visible here are the various states of forest represented in the park -- and a good illustration of the state of forests throughout western North America.

If you look closely at this picture, you'll see three different sorts of forest. Easiest to spot are the patches that are lightest green and the least tall -- these are tertiary-growth forests, some cleared as recently as 30 years ago (the National Park has expanded greatly since Lady Bird inaugurated the first paltry acres). Then, there's a darker forest that represents the largest amount of forest; this is second-growth forest. That is, the old growth has been logged, but what has grown in its place is perhaps as old as 200 years -- nothing to scoff at. Then, darkest of all, there are little patches here and there of what represents the old growth forest: untouched by Westerners and with some trees dating well past 1,000 years of age.

Now, look still closer. Which of the three looks the most uniform? If you guessed the tertiary growth, you're right! These tracts were seeded in an industrial fashion, leading to perfectly homogeneous regrowth: one species, planted at the same time, waiting to be harvested in another 50 years or so. It's corn, basically -- only on a longer timescale.

Next, note the secondary growth. It's a little more uneven. It's had time to begin to differentiate, time for some trees to die while others thrived. And since these sections predate any sort of organized replanting, they represent a somewhat more diverse set of species -- that is, whatever grew back after the hillsides had been stripped of trees.

And what of those little splotches of old growth forest? Look very closely, and you can detect an unevenness. Some trees poke out well above the canopy, while others are much shorter. There appears to be a much greater diversity of height -- and indeed there is, because when a forest is left to its own devices there is variety of both age and of species: a complete ecosystem, diverse and balanced.

I'll talk more about this once I arrive on Vancouver Island, but for now tuck this thought away: if healthy forests require a diversity of age and species, does replanting of forests, with a single species, once they're clear-cut, really restore the forest? Or does it just make it into any other crop, to be harvested when it's corn?

But let us consider more trivial things (or is it??).

I remember my first trip to Europe. I was a kid, but I learned something very important: while tourists can be annoying, if they're flocking to a place there's at least a decent chance that they're flocking there for a reason (not always true, of course: humans' capacity for banality will never fail to amaze me). But usually, if there are a lot of people wanting to see something there's a good reason for it.

So of course, this being a National Park, there are plenty of folks who are here -- though some are here for reasons that I can't quite grasp.

As I posted on Facebook this morning: "Paradise, meet Parking Lot"

Take my walk through the Lady Bird grove this morning. While perhaps not quite as stunning as Brown Creek -- not to mention that crown jewel of Coast Redwoods, Muir Woods -- this grove is nonetheless a cathedral of trees. A place that takes your breath away and demands our contemplation. So is this really the place to admonish your daughter to be sure she apologizes to Mrs. Whatshername when she gets home? Is this really the place to assure your buddies that your wife is truly as "fit" as you claim she is? Or that story about how your nephew got his bike stolen freshman year because he didn't lock it up and that was a lesson to learn the hard way. Really?? Is that what you choose to occupy your mind with at this moment? Is there nothing else more...substantive with which to spend your time, more meaningful? More...lasting?? Can you not pull yourselves out of the mundane, the day-to-day, to consider what these trees have to tell you? Why are you here, if not to listen?

After my time at the LBJ grove I went back down to Prairie Creek to check out the aptly-named "Big Tree."

It was, without question, big. Huge, actually.

And there were many other huge trees in this grove (pictures tomorrow, I promise!). But also lots of people -- the Big Tree walk is right off the road: easy access is a surefire way to attract crowds in a park. I tried my best to distance myself from the hoards, and after awhile I managed to find myself alone with a fallen giant that was, by all appearance, relatively new in its demise. I just stood there, in awe, trying to take in what had happened, when up came a family of four behind me.

The teenage brother belched loudly, prompting the younger sister to smack him on the arm. "Sssh!!" she admonished him in a loud whisper. "That guy is..." -- she searched for the right word -- "That guy is trying to look at that tree!"

I smiled and thought to myself, "Actually, my dear, I'm trying to listen to that tree, but I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless."

So yes, nothing new here: humans can be irritating. Our species has an uncanny ability to miss the point, to overlook the profundity of the moment in favor of whatever else is distracting us. There must be some comfort in the mundane, but it escapes me.

But that young girl understood. She realized that there was something more to this experience than just gawking at the gigantic, gaping at the grotesque beauty of things grown larger and longer than we can grasp. She realized that a certain amount of reverence is in order, even if she couldn't quite articulate why.

She gave me hope.

And so I think the image that will stick with me most from today is this: an elderly couple, walking slowly but determinedly up the trail, holding hands. They smiled at me as they passed, and I bid them good morning -- hoping that someday I might walk that trail hand-in-hand with my beloved.

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