A guest post addresses a nativist myth about redwoods

We are grateful to Keith McAllister for this guest post about the history of redwood trees in the East Bay.  One of many myths that we often hear repeated by native plant advocates is that all of our non-native trees can be and should be replaced by redwoods.* Although we like redwoods a great deal, this wish is unrealistic because redwoods cannot grow in most places where non-native trees are thriving because they require more water and they do not tolerate wind.  The strongest evidence that redwoods are not suitable substitutes for our non-native forests is where they grew before Europeans arrived in the East Bay and where they grow now.  Thank you, Keith, for this valuable contribution to our knowledge of the natural history of the East Bay.

Redwoods of the East Bay Hills

The first Europeans to visit the East Bay Hills late in the 18th century found forests of magnificent old redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens), with some trees 32 feet in diameter and over 300 feet tall.  However, contrary to the mythology of native plant enthusiasts, the hills were never covered with redwoods.  The redwoods of 1776 were essentially where the redwoods are today, in three forests:  the western slopes where Joaquin Miller Park now sits, the canyon of Redwood Creek which now comprises Redwood Regional Park, and the canyon of upper San Leandro Creek near the town of Canyon. The entire forested region lay within an area about 3 ½ miles long and ½ to 2 miles wide, less than five square miles. For context, Oakland and Berkeley cover 95.7 square miles.  The hills were primarily grasslands.

The East Bay redwoods were first seen by the de Anza expedition in April, 1776, on its fruitless attempt to get “around” San Francisco Bay to Marin County.  The Carquinez Straits and the San Joaquin/Sacramento delta were an unpleasant surprise.  A map of the bay drawn a few weeks later by Jose de Canizares, pilot for Juan Manuel de Ayala on the ship San Carlos, showed forests on the east side of the bay.

Map of San Francisco bay by Canizares, 1776
Map of San Francisco bay by Canizares, 1776

Some timbers from East Bay trees were used in the construction of Mission San Jose at the beginning of the 19th century, but logging operations did not affect the forests for some time.  Contrary to urban legend, East Bay redwoods were not used to construct the presidio or mission in San Francisco.  Redwood lumber was exported from Ft Ross, Monterey, and the Santa Cruz area in the 1820’s, primarily to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), but there is no historical evidence of any export from the East Bay.

Redwood trees in Oakland. Creative Commons
Redwood trees in Oakland. Creative Commons

There is evidence of logging in the East Bay from 1840-41, with the lumber sent to Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) for export.  With a mere twenty houses in Yerba Buena, local demand couldn’t support much logging.  East Bay logging virtually ceased from 1842 to 1846 when John Sutter expanded his logging operations at Fort Ross and flooded the market with lumber at lower cost than East Bay lumber.

East Bay redwood logging flourished in 1848 and 1849 as the Bay Area population grew with the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills.  Yerba Buena and other towns around the bay grew rapidly, and some disappointed gold seekers found they could make a living selling lumber for the building boom.  Some of the lumber was hauled east, into Contra Costa County and the towns of Benicia and Martinez.  Still, at the end of 1849, after almost ten years of on-and-off logging, the East Bay redwood forests were essentially intact.  Up to this point all sawing was done with the power of human muscle.

Logging changed radically in the East Bay in 1850 with the introduction of steam-powered sawmills.  The early 1850’s witnessed a frenzy of boom-and-bust logging.  Lumber mills were the center of economic activity in the East Bay.   Lumber prices cycled through periods of $350-$600 to $150-$300 to $40-$50 per 1000 board feet.  There were many bankruptcies.  But through it all, the powerful and efficient steam sawmills chewed through the forests. By 1860 the magnificent redwood forests were reduced to “a sea of stumps.”

Although we will not see giants like those of 1776 in our lifetimes, the redwoods have grown from resprouts of their predecessors  in the same locations they formerly inhabited.  The needs of redwood trees are the same as they were in 1776, primarily water and shelter from the wind.  Those requirements are still met in the same locations, and those locations now have fine second and third growth forests.  There is even an “old growth” tree on a steep, over-grown slope above the York trail in Leona Heights Park.  It’s stunted and straggly looking, and only 450-500 years old, but still it is a tree that survives from 1776.  There are also many redwoods where they didn’t exist in 1776; they were widely planted in the early and middle 20th century.  We are fortunate to have handsome redwood groves on the UC campus, the Mountain View Cemetery, and landscaped areas throughout the East Bay.

Keith McAllister

Notes on sources:

  • Most of the information in this article is taken from “The Forgotten Redwoods of the East Bay” by Sherwood D. Burgess, published in the California Historical Society Quarterly, March 1951.
  • Further information was provided by Dennis Evanosky on a walk sponsored by the Oakland Heritage Alliance in July, 2016.
  • A good visual representation of the historical locations of redwoods, and other vegetation types, is provided by an interactive, touch-screen map in the Natural Sciences section of the Oakland Museum of California.

*There are many comments on Million Trees from native plant advocates about replacing all non-native trees with native trees, including redwoods. Here is just one example: “The East Bay Regional Park Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan is shrouded in bureaucratic speak but does not seem (I can’t get through the many segments down-loadable only one at a time) to incorporate the idea of replacing highly flammable eucalyptus with elegant redwoods and sequoias that are the most enduring and least flammable of trees.”

There are also similar suggestions from nativists in the public comments on the FEMA grant Environmental Impact Statement, available here: https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/100411

7 thoughts on “A guest post addresses a nativist myth about redwoods”

  1. This interesting article will be useful in providing an answer to those who dolefully ask, “Why can’t redwoods be planted where the eucalyptus are now?” It is interesting that people do not fear redwoods, planting them too close to homes and along sidewalks and roadsides even though redwoods are likely to fall or drop branches in a high wind. The trunks of redwoods may provide some resistance to fire, but I have seen a redwood, hit with an ember, burn to the ground when the eucalyptus tree standing beside it did not ignite.

  2. Look up “straw man”. I haven’t heard anyone advocating planting redwoods everywhere.

    So why don’t I see a proposal to remove exotics & replace them with redwoods & other natives where they did historically exist???

    1. Claremont Canyon Conservancy has planted thousands of redwood trees in the East Bay Hills for over 10 years. Few survived, which might be why you are apparently unaware of their planting program. Site 29 on Claremont Blvd is an exception to that lack of success. Some of the redwoods CCC planted have survived there because it is a riparian corridor where the redwoods are protected from the wind and they get enough water to survive.

      You can also see many comments on this blog from nativists who advocate for planting redwoods where non-native trees now live.

      There is a range of opinion among nativists about the appropriate replacement landscape for the the non-native plants and trees they destroy. Not all nativists want redwoods, though many do. Many nativists prefer grassland as the replacement landscape because that was the predominant pre-settlement landscape in the East Bay. Ironically, virtually all grassland in California has been non-native Mediterranean annual grasses for over 150 years.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post!

    Redwoods are really suffering now and do best when together and near creeks or other water.

    From what I’ve seen, nativists don’t seem to know much about plants, including native species. The introduced grasses are much more flammable than the native grasses, which are rarely seen or recognized.

    With so many of our native trees dying from drought and diseases and infestations (again, due to the drought), we are lucky to have such magnificent drought-tolerant and disease-resistant exotic trees that provide water through the dry months, which help the native plants beneath them as well as native animals.

    1. Yes, the lack of horticultural knowledge among the nativists is clearly contributing to the conflict. They are planting things where they will not grow because they are unaware of what the plants need to survive. They are not taking care of the things they plant because they do not know what the plants need. For example, it is pointless to plant new trees if you are unwilling or unable to then irrigate them regularly. Young trees require more water than established trees.

      Perhaps one of the most absurd of their demands is their desire to return the landscape to grassland when they do not seem to understand that grassland in California has been 98% non-native annual grasses for over one hundred years. They are demanding the eradication of non-native trees in order to promote non-native grassland. This display of horticultural ignorance would be an amusing joke on nativism if we weren’t losing our urban forest because of it.

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