Letter Correcting Misinformation in the 2009 National Geographic redwood article

October 22, 2009

Mr. Chris Johns, Editor-In-Chief
National Geographic Magazine
PO Box 98199
Washington, DC  20090-8199.
Dear Mr. Johns:

As scientists living and working in the Santa Cruz Mountains redwood region, we loved the foldout photo of the titan old-growth redwood tree in your October feature article, and your description of Dr. Steven Sillett’s pioneering research in the canopies of the world’s tallest trees. 

We are concerned, however, that many readers of the article may be left with the misconception that the century-long struggle to save the remaining old-growth redwood forest ecosystem is over. As laudable and valiant as the efforts have been to date, much work remains to ensure the viability of this ecosystem as a whole.  Most of the unprotected old-growth redwood forest is on private land and is still threatened by commercial logging.

Why is it important to preserve the remaining old-growth? Old-growth stands provide irreplaceable natural functions and ecosystem services. Their unique and complex structure serves as habitat for a variety of endemic species and species at risk of extinction.  These complex forests foster high biodiversity, perform unsurpassed natural water filtration, build stable stream channels, and sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than any other plant community on earth. These ecosystem services are easily worth as much in dollars as the timber that could be produced from these forests, and they produce that value every year. 

Yet, these invaluable ecosystem services have been severely degraded over the years, as old-growth forests have been felled. To make matters worse, the remaining 5-7% of the remaining old-growth stands are distributed across the landscape like islands. Even those old-growth stands in our state parks, which we had assumed were protected, are not secure; the governor of California recently proposed closing all state parks and he vetoed a bill that would have made it more difficult to sell state parkland.  

We unquestionably agree that better forestry practices are needed to protect the multiple values that are provided by healthy stands of redwoods. However, we believe that we should be looking for  ways to preserve the remaining old-growth ecosystem, restore second growth, and improve forestry practices to protect all the natural services provided by redwood forests for future generations.  A necessary part of the solution is to develop workable plans to preserve not only remaining old-growth, but also some older second-growth stands to buffer and connect old-growth preserves. The “ecological forestry” presented in the article as a panacea for the management of logged redwood lands sounds similar to the “selection” method of forestry practiced in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This method does not prevent the logging of old-growth trees, and results in chronic soil disturbance and degradation of ecosystem services.  Selective harvest is certainly better than clearcutting, but it is not the answer to balancing social needs, timber harvest needs, and ecosystem protection.

We appreciate the National Geographic Society's interest in redwoods, but we would like the public to understand the continuing and pressing need to preserve and protect old-growth.   Efforts to preserve the redwoods are just as necessary today as they were ninety years ago when Madison Grant said, “The impending destruction of these forests is the most serious question confronting California …” (National Geographic, June 1920, “Saving the Redwoods”).

Sincerely yours,

Diane Renshaw
Certified Senior Ecologist, ESA
President, Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council 

Dr. Betsy Herbert
Director, Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council
Steven Singer
Certified Wildlife Biologist, TWS
Secretary, Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council

Dr. Will Russell
Member, Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council