Bay Nature magazineSpring 2008


Muir Woods Anniversary

April 1, 2008

It may be the most looked-at ancient forest in the world. Die Muir-Waelder. Muir Woods National Monument. Le Monument National de Muir Woods. Handouts tell the story in four alphabets, eight languages; there is demand for as many more. Listen a few minutes in the parking lot on Saturday, and you’ll hear a good number of them.

One of the first parks ever set aside for the coast redwood, named for a great and talkative conservationist who had little to do with its saving, Muir Woods is now an emblem. It represents the redwoods in a way in which other and greater redwood parks, on other and greater redwood-bordered streams farther away from the city, do not. For multitudes over the decades, these redwoods, so close to San Francisco and a stop on numerous tours, have been the redwoods: perhaps the only ones they will ever see.

Redwood Time

Just into Muir Woods a mounted exhibit tells time, redwood-fashion. It is a cross-section of a tree just over a thousand years old. Until 1988, a cheerfully Anglocentric display picked out annual growth rings corresponding to the Battle of Hastings, the Magna Carta. Now we have Western Hemisphere events, such as the settlement of Mesa Verde, encompassed as well in the lifetime of one tree.

We’re meant to marvel at that thousand years, and we do. But neither the Magna Carta nor Mesa Verde is anything but the very latest news—on the redwood scale of years.

Unlike the higher animals, unlike many other plants, redwoods apparently have no fixed life span. They change as they get older, their growth slows down, they reproduce less vigorously. Yet science knows of no built-in reason why any particular redwood tree need ever die.

Redwoods are also unusually well defended against external enemies. A Douglas-fir will lose a branch in a high wind; a fungus invades at the break; the end begins. A redwood with a broken limb or even a snapped-off crown is no more mortally ill than a human with a broken arm.

There are a few redwood-eaters: a fungus or two that can colonize parts of a tree, a beetle or two that can pierce to the sapwood. But none of these does serious damage. Something about the wood—perhaps the particular form of tannin it contains, though the matter is poorly understood—resists invaders. Ecologist Stephen Veirs writes simply: “No killing diseases are known for established trees.”

Of course, accidents, chiefly involving wind and fire, do occur. They happen frequently enough to limit the life span of the trees, in a practical sense. Time runs out for a redwood, too. Or does it? In addition to reproducing by seed, redwoods propagate as clones, by sprouting. The stems we now see may be only the latest shoots from rootstocks many times older. Just how ancient the oldest redwoods might be, as genetic individuals, is simply not known.

The well of the past suggested by that cross-section of redwood is far deeper than the life of any individual tree, however you quantify it. Redwoods not basically different from those at Muir Woods appear in the fossil record from 144 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period—dinosaur days. The slow brute dance of the continents and oceanic plates has since shaped us a more rugged, less temperate world than the one in which the redwoods developed. The ancestors of today’s coast redwoods did not evolve to meet these challenges. They merely retreated, and retreated, until today they occupy only this coastal strip, never more than 45 miles deep and about 500 miles long, on the far western edge of what we know as North America.

Creature of Fog and Shade

There is fog over Redwood Creek this morning: moving in the tops, dampening hillside meadows, milling among the boles. A visitor asks, “Are you going to get any sun in here today?” Maybe. Maybe not. But if you find the fog dreary, you are not a redwood tree.

Redwoods require a humid, equable climate and cannot endure a pronounced summer drought. Only at the far northern end of the species’ range is rainfall sufficient and distributed well enough around the year to give them what they need; at Muir Woods, annual rain averages only some 40 inches, nearly all of it falling between November and March. If there were no other source of moisture, by August the soil would be dry enough to start killing the redwoods.

But not long after the rains taper off, the summer fog begins, pushing in and out almost daily, on some days barely admitting the pale outline of the sun. By keeping temperatures low, the fog slows evaporation from needles and ground. Droplets catch and condense on needles, sifting down in what is called fog drip, thought to contribute the equivalent of 10 inches of rain a year at least. And it has recently been established that redwoods absorb fog’s moisture directly into their needles, reversing the normal “evapotranspiration” process by which plants lose water to air.

In the drier southern part of redwood country, Muir Woods included, winter rain and summer fog combined are not enough to guarantee a redwood climate. Here the trees are confined to spots made especially moist by the shape of the land—places that are both wind-sheltered and topographically shady.

Kent’s Redwoods

Muir Woods as we have it today is, in a sense, an artificial, accidental treasure.

This forest, for all its massive loveliness, is a rather average specimen of old-growth redwoods. You won’t find the tallest redwoods, nor the thickest, nor the oldest, nor the lushest woodland floor. Any of a hundred local canyons might equally well have been the site of a federal redwood park. But, by the late 1800s those other canyons had all been logged. Human beings, by cutting down all but one of the prominent ancient redwoods stands within easy reach of San Francisco, conferred uniqueness on the one they spared.

At that, it was a pretty near thing. Muir Woods survived the logging boom of the middle 1800s by topographical luck. The steep little ridge that lies between it and the town of Mill Valley was far more of an obstacle then; the sea cove at the mouth of Redwood Creek was a poor ship’s landing. As early as 1870 the grove was drawing notice as a rarity, but it stayed in private hands. By 1900 logging appeared imminent.

Enter the hero of the story, the man for whom Muir Woods is notably not named, William Kent. A man of ambition, conscience, and wealth, Kent had large plans for the Mount Tamalpais region. As the owner of extensive lands there, he hoped to profit from the tourist trade. As a conservationist, he wanted to see on the mountain a national park “on the lines of Yellowstone.” Redwood Canyon, which Kent knew well, was included in the plan.

In 1903, at a meeting in Mill Valley, Kent founded the Mount Tamalpais National Park Association, soon after which he received a query from the current owner, the Tamalpais Land and Water Company: Would Kent himself buy these redwoods to save them from the saw?

Kent, much of whose fortune was tied up in unprofitable landholdings, did not jump at the offer. But, as he later remembered, “The beauty of the place attracted me, and got on my mind, and I could not forget the situation.” Finally, in 1905, he plunged, purchasing 611 acres for the discounted but still-formidable sum of $45,000. His wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, records his reply when she questioned the expense: “If we lost all the money we have and saved these trees, it would be worthwhile, wouldn’t it?” Kent may just have meant it.

One year after Kent acquired his forest, San Francisco lay in ashes in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake and Fire, waiting to be built all over again with redwood lumber. But none of that lumber, now, would come from Redwood Canyon.

Or would it? On December 2, 1907, while the Kents were away on vacation, a local water company filed suit to acquire land in the heart of the woods for a dam and reservoir. As the provider of a public service, the company had the legal right to force the sale. Returning the next day, Kent telegraphed his friend Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C.: “Condemnation and destruction of Redwood Canon threatened by Water Company. Must have it accepted as National forest at once. . . . Sole idea is to save trees for public. Wire acceptance and terms. Vitally urgent. Answer Kentfield, Marin County, California.”

Gift to the Nation

It was not as a forest reserve, however, that the tract would enter the public domain. Kent soon got wind of the Antiquities Act of 1906, a novel law that allowed the president, acting alone, to set aside areas of federally owned land as national monuments, similar to national parks but needing no congressional approval.


Sunlight Through Redwoods
Photo by Stephen Joseph.

As Christmas approached, Kent bombarded Washington with letters, photographs, and articles about Redwood Canyon; Pinchot took the case to President Theodore Roosevelt. Things moved. On New Year’s Eve, Interior Secretary James R. Garfield signed the deed accepting Kent’s gift to the nation of 298 acres, including the entire old-growth redwood forest. On January 9, 1908, one day before the condemnation ax had been due to fall, the president declared the land a national monument, inviolable.

In a public exchange of letters, Roosevelt urged that the monument be named Kent Woods, for the donor, but Kent insisted that it bear instead the name of conservationist John Muir.

From 1911 to 1918, Kent served in Congress. Back home in the 1920s, he plugged away on his project to blanket Mount Tamalpais with parks. He donated additional land to the national monument and, just before his death in 1928, to the new Mount Tamalpais State Park. The park-building process he started rolled on until, today, the entire rugged region is in public ownership as part of a still vaster greenbelt extending from the Golden Gate north to Point Reyes. Parts of that greenbelt are state parks, parts are protected watershed land of the Marin Municipal Water District, and parts—including Muir Woods—belong to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), established by Congress in 1972.

William Kent’s name is found at only one spot in Muir Woods: up the canyon of Fern Creek, on a plaque from 1929 placed on a rock beside a gigantic Douglas-fir log. The tree, Kent’s favorite, was actually higher than any of the Monument’s redwoods—for a while. In the winter of 1981—82, a storm tore off the top of the giant; in 2003, it fell.

And what would John Muir think today if he saw the woods that bear his name? Certainly, he wouldn’t confuse the place with the true wild places that he loved. Fenced, interpreted, here and there paved, this park is in some ways very artificial. It has even been dismissed as a “zoo for trees.”

Yet the zoo comparison is almost an inversion of the truth. In a zoo, people circulate among animals that are confined and far from their native places. Here, the forest is where it always was. It is the human visitors who, for the sake of the trees, agree to confine themselves.

And if this is not a wild park, no place to grasp “the freedom of the hills,” it has another function. It is a contact point, a place of meeting. For many millions of visitors, it is the first redwood grove they have seen. And for many, it is also the first encounter with the national park idea: that there are places where the preservation of an ecosystem is paramount.

William Kent once urged the governor to close schools and save forests. He didn’t go on to observe that forests can also be schools. John Muir might have made that point, had he been present.

If Muir visited his woods today? He probably wouldn’t care much for the parking lot. Once past that and homing into the green, watching the people watch the trees, hearing in unknown languages the upward lilt of awe, I suspect he would declare himself well pleased.

About the Author

Marin County freelancer John Hart is the author of many articles and several books on environmental issues in the Bay Area, including Farming on the Edge (UC Press, 1992), San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary (UC Press, 2003) with photos by David Sanger, and Legacy: Portraits of 50 Bay Area Environmental Elders (UC Press, 2006) with photos by the late Nancy Kittle.

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