Poaching the Redwoods
Coming April 2017
In 2013, an alarming number of National Park redwood trees were shorn of their knobby protrusions, called burls. The trees were disfigured by thieves aiming to sell distinctive burl wood to luxury furniture retailers. One team was bold enough to fell an entire tree for its burl. Kirk Crippens and Gretchen LeMaistre read about these trees in the news and were motivated to go and see them. Rangers from the Redwood National and State Parks assisted them in accessing and photographing each site. From 2013 to 2016, they made many visits to the National Park redwood forests of Humboldt County, California.
On their first trip to the region, they passed a tourist attraction called “Trees of Mystery”. The entrance featured a 50-foot effigy of an American folklore lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, and a large souvenir store with a neon sign that read, “Live Burls”. At first they laughed at the spectacle; but the sign brewed in the back of their minds as they began to explore the lure and the lore of giant redwoods.
While redwood trees are sensational for their size, their burls are unique for less obvious reasons. Redwood burls contain stem cells that enable the trees to clone themselves. In a sense, a redwood tree may never truly die because the burls’ genetic codes maintain cycles of reproduction dating back nearly 200 million years when the species began. Only one percent of redwood seeds become trees; instead, burls generate the majority of trees. Redwood trees and their cousin sequoias sometimes exist for as long as three thousand years. For these reasons, they were given the species name “Semper virens”, or “Ever living”. Steinbeck once referred to them as “ambassadors of another time”.
Out of respect for their ancient heritage and after an extended period of aggressive logging, Theodore Roosevelt pioneered forest preservation efforts in the early 20th century. He is famously quoted as saying, “A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great or beautiful cathedral.” Today less than five percent of old-growth coast redwood forest remains in the Northern Hemisphere, most living in the Redwood National and State Parks. Yet even the protected trees are subject to threat. Shorn trees are more vulnerable to disease, and their ability to reproduce is uncertain. Decades may pass before the full extent of poaching damage can be assessed.