California’s redwoods: Ten years after the protests that saved giants

Northern California’s Headwaters Forest Reserve conjures images of clear Coho salmon streams and ancient redwoods so tall they darken the forest even as the California sun hangs overhead.

The grove of old-growth giants is a peaceful haven that would not be here today had it not been for the environmentalists, industry CEOs and regular Joes that rallied to prevent logging of the forest more than a decade ago.

The work of thousands of protesters – including celebrities who scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to hang a protest banner and country signers who sang their hearts out on behalf of the forest – was celebrated earlier this month on the ten-year anniversary of the agreement that created the reserve.

“Our work with groups spanned every possible thing imaginable,” said Cecelia Lanman, who has worked extensively over the past three decades to protect old growth forests, specifically the last ancient redwood groves at Headwaters.

The anniversary celebration took place at the reserve located 6 miles southeast of Eureka, Calif. Attendees listened to speakers, met with activists and went on an organized hike through the forest.

It was March 1, 1999 when federal and state governments reached an agreement with Maxxam Logging Corporation restricting the logging of redwoods and creating the northern California reserve.

The Headwaters issue flipped the switch for environmental activists, students and nature lovers, allowing for the formation of an alliance against the destruction of public lands. The fight to save Headwaters brought together people from all walks of life. In 1996, three years before the reserve was created, actor Woody Harrelson and a handful of other activists scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to raise awareness about the threatened redwoods.

“There is quite a colorful history that went into the acquisition (of the reserve),” said Chris Heppe, Headwaters reserve manager.

Anniversary events celebrating 10 years of protection for the groves reflected that diverse background. A list of attendees included timber-company employees, activists and families dressed up to hike the reserve’s trails.

The reserve’s importance lies not only in its towering trees. It is home to threatened Coho salmon, marbled murrelets and Northern spotted owls. The area’s fragile diversity is why the reserve offers only 13 miles of hiking trails.

This past decade, reserve workers focused their efforts on removing old logging roads, trimming the mini-forests that grew up in place of the logged redwoods, increasing opportunities for recreation and establishing research projects at the park.

“I’m impressed with their management. They have long-term goals,” Lanman said.

Headwaters is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System, which has the mission of conserving, protecting and restoring BLM lands that hold national significance for their cultural, ecological and scientific value. Legislation to make this new conservation system permanent is before Congress and could become law soon.

The Wilderness Society has been a leader in building support for the National Landscape Conservation System.

“This new conservation system and its 26 million acres, protects an amazing diversity of American landscapes, from towering old-growth trees, to wide open mesas and steppe, to wild and scenic rivers and wilderness,” said Kevin Mack of The Wilderness Society.

“Headwaters is an amazing part of a legacy we can leave for our children,” Mack said.

After the anniversary festivities die down, Heppe and his coworkers will resume their work erasing the roads that scar the forest, maintaining habitat for the array of rare birds and fish that live in the reserve and meeting with local university students who use the reserve as a classroom.

photo: Celebrants gather outside a refurbished "engine house" that was once used as a shelter and repair shop for locomotives that hauled timber out of headwaters during the historic logging period of the mid 1900s.