After three decades of helping save African forests, Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, now has redwoods in his blood. His obsession with the iconic American trees began a few years ago after he completed the Megatransect—his Livingstone-like exploration of the largest intact jungle remaining in Africa. (See the October 2000, March 2001, and August 2001 issues.) One day while driving along the northern California coast, he found himself gazing at swaths of clear-cuts and spindly second-growth forests. Another time in a state park, a six-foot-tall slice of an old redwood log on display caught his attention. Near the burgundy center a label read: "1492 Columbus."
"The one that got me was about three inches from the edge," Fay says. "'Gold Rush, 1849.' And I realized that within the last few inches of that tree's life, we'd very nearly liquidated a 2,000-year-old forest."
In the fall of 2007 he resolved to see for himself how Earth's tallest forest had been exploited in the past and is being treated today. By walking the length of California's mythic range, from Big Sur to just beyond the Oregon border, he wanted to find out if there was a way to maximize both timber production and the many ecological and social benefits standing forests provide. If it could be done in the redwoods, he believed, it could be done anywhere on the planet where forests are being leveled for short-term gain. As he'd done on the Megatransect, he and Holm—a self-taught naturalist born and raised in the redwood country of northern California—took pictures and detailed notes on their 11-month trek, exhaustively recording wildlife, plant life, and the condition of the forest and streams. They talked to the people of the redwoods as well: loggers, foresters, biologists, environmentalists, café owners, and timber company executives—all dependent on the forest.
It was an auspicious year to be walking the redwoods. After more than two decades battling environmentalists and state and federal regulators over its aggressive cutting practices, the oft vilified Pacific Lumber Company was bankrupt and up for grabs. Even with most of the remaining old growth protected, the emblematic species of the great forests—northern spotted owls, elusive little seabirds called marbled murrelets, and coho salmon—continued their dangerous decline, while the reeling economy and housing bust were shuttering sawmills throughout the redwood range. Fires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the worst fire season in memory. Tourism was down.
But something else was taking root among the trees Woody Guthrie lionized in "This Land Is Your Land." The buzz among environmental groups, consulting foresters, and even a few timber companies and communities was that the redwoods were at a historic crossroads—a time when society could move beyond the log/don't log debates of decades past and embrace a different kind of forestry that could benefit people, wildlife, and perhaps even the planet. The more Fay walked, the more convinced he became.