"California revolutionized the world with the silicon chip," Fay says, his voice deceptively soft. "They could do the same with forest management."
Fay and Holm started their walk at the southern end of the forest, where the trees grow in scattered holdings and groves in the Santa Lucia Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Except in small parks like Muir Woods outside San Francisco and Big Basin near Santa Cruz, where they encountered a few rare patches of ancient trees, they zigzagged 1,800 miles through stands that had been cut at least once and many that had been cut three times since 1850, leaving islands of larger second-growth forest in a sea of mostly small trees.
But on a glorious May day, nearly three-quarters of the way into the transect, they arrived at the southern end of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the largest contiguous block of old-growth redwood forest left on the planet—some 10,000 acres. The alluvial flats along its creeks and rivers are prime redwood habitat, where the mix of rich soils, water, and fog rolling in from the ocean have produced the planet's tallest forest. Of the 180 known redwoods greater than 350 feet, more than 130 grow right here.
Fording a vein of emerald water known as the South Fork of the Eel, they climbed the far bank and entered the translucent shade of the most magnificent grove they'd seen yet. Redwoods the size of Saturn rockets sprouted from the ground like giant beanstalks, their butts blackened by fire. Some bore thick, ropy bark that spiraled skyward in candy-cane swirls. Others had huge cavities known as goose pens—after the use early pioneers put them to—big enough to hold 20 people. Treetops the size of VW buses lay half-buried among the sorrel and sword ferns, where they'd plummeted from 30 stories up—the casualties of titanic wars with the wind, which even now coursed through the tops with panpipe-like creaks and groans. It's no wonder Steven Spielberg and George Lucas filmed scenes for the Jurassic Park sequel and Return of the Jedi among the redwood giants: It felt as if a T. rex or a furry Ewok could poke its head out at any minute.
Redwoods are no less magical for foresters. Because their bark and heartwood are rich in compounds called polyphenols, bugs and decay-causing fungi don't like them. And since there's not a lot of resin in their stringy bark, larger redwoods are highly resistant to fire.