In a new book, renowned activist and journalist Greg King details how a century-old conservation group with close ties to powerful industrialists was able to thwart certain preservation campaigns, allowing vast amounts of old-growth redwoods to be lost.
Excerpted from “The Ghost Forest: Racists, Radicals, and Real Estate in the California Redwoods” by Greg King. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
In 1986, I resigned my position as a news reporter in Sonoma County to engage as an activist in a subject I’d been covering: the 1985 junk-bond takeover of the Pacific Lumber Company, in Humboldt County, by Houston-based Maxxam Corporation. At the time, Pacific Lumber owned the very last large groves of ancient redwood forest still standing outside of parks, a precious inventory of primeval life that Maxxam was now very busy liquidating. I would try to save this forest.
Less than one year later, I hiked with a dozen others into one of the Maxxam-held groves and hoisted myself onto a three-by-six-foot plywood platform that was dangling 150 feet above the ground in an ancient redwood tree that measured 13 feet in diameter at the base. This was my second “tree-sit” in a month, and I’d stay up for a week, guarded by chainsaw-wielding loggers.
Tree-sitting was a last resort. Our Humboldt County Earth First! group staged many such direct actions in the redwoods, yet every grove we occupied and otherwise agitated to preserve got cut down or severely damaged, with the exception of Headwaters Forest. I had discovered and named 3,000-acre Headwaters Forest in March 1987, just five months after quitting my job. That this iconic grove still stands is nothing short of a miracle.
The grove’s salvation occurred even in the face of regular and impactful opposition to protecting the forest by the long heralded “savior” of the redwoods, San Francisco-based Save the Redwoods League. How was it possible for an organization that called itself “Save the Redwoods” to actively oppose protection of the very last grove of ancient redwoods? Through this rabbit hole I would discover one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. Decades later I would solve it.
During the 2010s UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library began organizing and curating a particularly revealing trove of primary documents that would allow me to unmask Save the Redwoods League as the first, the largest, and the longest-lasting example of an inward political and economic phenomenon that today we call “greenwashing”— that is, rhetorical support for environmental protection by an institution actually working on behalf of destructive corporations. These were the League’s own records, dating back to 1917, some 200,000 pages of eye-popping revelations that would keep me in thrall for years.
Through deep examination of the League’s papers (I would eventually copy 10,000 pages) and many other sources, I learned that in 1917 a small coterie of powerful industrialists had gathered at the secluded Bohemian Grove, in Sonoma County, during the annual encampment of the exclusive San Francisco Bohemian Club. The industrialists included some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the nation, and the world, virtually all of whose businesses relied on redwood lumber to undergird the swiftest and most forceful expansion of industry and wealth in human history. They created Save the Redwoods League not to save redwoods as parks, but as standing inventories for use by industry.
From its founding until the end of the century, Save the Redwoods League actively and successfully opposed viable redwood protection efforts. In 1920 League leaders quashed legislation by U.S. Rep. Clarence F. Lea of Santa Rosa to create a Redwood National Park on the Klamath River. Lea’s bill hinged on a recommendation by Paul G. Redington, a district forester for the U.S. Forest Service, that the U.S. government preserve the entire stand of 64,000 acres of virgin redwood then standing along the banks of California’s fabled Klamath River.
In his report that year, Redington wrote, “This Klamath River Tract is untouched by the axe of the lumberman (and) has a better proportion of both bottom and slope types (of redwood) than any of the other tracts examined … The timber is virgin … The tract is the last unconsolidated body of redwood of its size in existence. … The Government should be able to purchase here a larger typical area, superior in every way, for less money than in any other locality …”
At the time, the U.S. National Parks Director was Stephen T. Mather. Mather also happened to be a founding councilor of Save the Redwoods League. When members of the League’s powerful, five-member executive committee decided that they wanted the Klamath River redwoods preserved as future lumber inventory, they leaned on Mather, who then declined to support the idea of a Redwood National Park in Congress. Lea’s bill died a pallid death, and today the Klamath River is denuded.
Who were these directors and influencers of Save the Redwoods League who were powerful enough to scotch an act of Congress? And why was redwood lumber important enough to go to such trouble? For starters, one must examine the redwood stave pipe and associated industrial infrastructure.
What’s a stave pipe? Imagine a giant tube up to 16 feet in diameter, made of specially milled lumber and bound by iron bands. Stave pipes demonstrated the redwood’s superpower, which is that the lumber is nearly impervious to rot. By 1920, hundreds of miles of redwood stave pipe were stitched across the American West, the nation and the world, for water delivery and storage, sewage outflow and many other uses. Redwood tanks and pipes stored and transported petroleum and chemicals including cyanide solution – no other lumber could do this without almost immediately breaking down.
Without redwood lumber, gold mines, farms, cities and especially hydropower plants in the West could not have expanded as rapidly or as forcefully as they did from the turn of the 20th century through World War II. Hydropower was especially important as it fueled the growth of virtually all other industries. Had redwood lumber been unavailable, the empire we today know as California would look much different.
Early 20th-century industrialists understood the need to protect redwood from preservation. At the time, the corporate owners who operated out of the San Francisco Bay Area collectively formed a federation of economic and political power with few rivals in the world. Among these owners was a little-known but increasingly powerful corporate attorney with the pulp-fiction name of Wigginton Creed. It is here that we find a smoking gun – one of several – that undermines the reputation of Save the Redwoods League as anything but a front for the redwood timber industry and the firms that relied on redwood lumber (which is to say, virtually all of them).
By 1920, Creed was the president of nine western corporations, some of which either owned and brokered commercial redwood timber lands and milled and distributed vast troves of redwood lumber (Excelsior Investment Company, C. A. Hooper Company, Big Lagoon Lumber Company), while others consumed whole forests worth of redwood as a foundational resource. These companies included Tempe Land and Improvement Company, South Shore Land Company, East Bay Water Company, and the world’s largest consumer of redwood stave pipes, Pacific Gas & Electric.
That year, Creed became a founding director of Save the Redwoods League, and he authored the league’s bylaws and articles of incorporation. Creed was not alone. Virtually every individual of authority at Save the Redwoods League was powerful industrialist who relied on securing limitless supplies of redwood lumber.
Through the 20th century, this marvel of institutional prevarication enjoyed unchallenged success in marketing itself as the protector of redwoods. Save the Redwoods League would come to specialize in garnering accolades and donations while simultaneously gathering into a political eddy, and then drowning the unwitting support of tens of thousands of concerned people, from the United States and throughout the world, who demanded redwood protection.
The penultimate nadir of this long running sleight of hand began in the 1960s, when Save the Redwoods League successfully derailed promising efforts by the Sierra Club to create a Redwood National Park on Redwood Creek. The Sierra Club wanted to preserve the entire lower half of the 180,000-acre watershed from ridge to ridge for 22 miles, protecting nearly 40,000 acres of old-growth redwood. The League actively lobbied in Washington, D.C., against the club’s plan, instead advocating for taking the northernmost redwood state park, Jedediah Smith, adding a small amount of old-growth and thousands of acres of cutover land, and making that into a Redwood National Park.
The League’s plan was nonsensical, but the effort so efficiently hampered the Sierra Club’s park plan that when Congress created Redwood National Park in 1968, and expanded it in 1978, more than half of Redwood Creek’s 40,000 acres of virgin redwood had been clear-cut. The cutover land looked like a war zone and was incorporated into the park. The total cost of Redwood National Park was $1.6 billion, a vastly inflated sum for what remains the most expensive national park in U.S. history.
In 1986, when I began agitating to preserve the redwoods now owned by Maxxam, I turned first to Save the Redwoods League for help. The League’s silence, then and throughout the rest of the decade, baffled me. By now only 80,000 acres of ancient redwood habitat remained standing, amounting to just 4% of the 2 million acres that once lined California’s coastal mountains from Big Sur to the Oregon border. Maxxam was now leveling the very last groves of primeval redwood outside of parks, yet Save the Redwoods League took no action. Then things got worse.
In 1993, Save the Redwoods League finally injected itself into efforts to save Headwaters Forest. That year, California Congressmen Dan Hamburg and Pete Stark submitted the Headwaters Forest Act. The legislation would have preserved 3,000-acre Headwaters Forest and 36,000 acres of surrounding forestland, which included an additional 1,600 acres of ancient redwood that stood in four scattered groves.
Save the Redwoods League set out to kill the bill. League executive director John Dewitt publicly derided the bill as “fatally flawed.” He said fighting over Headwaters Forest was like “debating the value of the last few gold bars to come out of Fort Knox.” He tried to strongarm members of Congress into defeating the bill.
Nonetheless, in 1994 the Headwaters Forest Act passed overwhelmingly in the House. Save the Redwoods League continued to oppose the measure. In the Senate, powerful California senator and League ally Dianne Feinstein successfully stalled even a hearing on the Headwaters Forest Act companion legislation, and the bill died a pallid death. (Feinstein’s husband, the wealthy investor Richard Blum, had been a business partner of Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz.) Later Feinstein led the creation of an “accord” between Maxxam and the state and federal governments that resulted in a taxpayer appropriation of $480 million for Headwaters Forest – more than half of what Maxxam had paid for the entire Pacific Lumber Company, and an estimated 10 times the grove’s true market value. The Headwaters agreement provided Maxxam with an enormous windfall, and it allowed Pacific Lumber to continue its rapid liquidation of the rest of the company’s 200,000 acres of forestland. This is the deal that Save the Redwoods League chose to support.
In 2007, Pacific Lumber, now out of trees, declared bankruptcy. Maxxam, on the other hand, did quite well. Between 1989 and 1998, Maxxam made the Fortune 500 list of highest-earning American corporations eight times.
The ecological catastrophe of redwood liquidation that occurred on Pacific Lumber lands, as well as on Redwood Creek, the Klamath River and much of the rest of the ancient redwood biome, represents the true legacy of Save the Redwoods League.