Science

The Redwood Trees Will Be Just Fine

Less spectacular elements of the forest need our concern.

Low-angle shot of redwoods
These trees are here to stay (for now). Getty Images Plus

When I was 15, my family took a road trip through Northern California, stopping to see the coast redwoods of Humboldt County. Redwoods are famous for their majesty: They have deep red bark, and they’re the tallest tree species on earth—their height is almost impossible to take in. But what I remember most about that trip was not the redwoods towering above me. It was the ferns. Massive western sword ferns grow among redwoods. Some reach nearly 6 feet tall, with vibrant green fronds dripping with fog. Together with the massive cinnamon-colored trunks of the redwoods, those ferns created a particular atmosphere I had never experienced before. It felt cinematic. I remember saying, “Wow, it’s like … Jurassic.”

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The scene actually was pretty Jurassic. Ferns dominated the earth over 200 million years ago, so in some ways, the experience of hiking through that forest is like peeking into the planet’s ancient past. It’s an experience our children might not get. The western sword fern are showing signs of stress and dying en masse after droughts, which are the result of human-caused climate change. Yet public concern over the ferns has been limited. What gets attention instead is the supposed plight of the redwoods. That concern is largely misplaced—the redwoods will probably be fine.

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We’re very concerned about the redwoods. In August, raging wildfires tore through California’s Big Basin State Park, a redwood forest near Santa Cruz. Initial reports suggested that hundreds of these ancient trees—some over 2,000 years old—had been wiped out. The panic seemed to originate with the Sempervirens Fund, a local conservation organization, which released a statement that read, in part, “We are devastated to report that Big Basin, as we have known it, loved it, and cherished it for generations, is gone.” The Mercury News, based nearby in San Jose, subsequently reported, “The status of the ancient redwoods in the park, some of which tower more than 300 feet tall and date back nearly 2,000 years, was unclear Thursday afternoon, but the damage was widespread.” A reporter on that story tweeted that some redwoods seemed “doomed to fall.” A headline in the Los Angeles Times stated, “Fate of big trees unknown.” This recent coverage echoed a 1904 piece in the New York Times, which also speculated that the majestic trees were threatened by flames.

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But redwoods are well adapted to handle fire, as the fact that they have stuck around might suggest. A number of ecologists have since clarified that most of the redwoods in the park, although charred, will likely survive. “Fire is a natural part of the redwood ecosystem,” says Anthony Ambrose, a forest ecologist and redwood expert. In a phone call, he rattled off a host of characteristics that help these trees survive fire: “They have thick bark. They have tannins and chemical compounds that make them fire-resistant. One really important adaptation that redwoods have with regard to fire is their ability to re-sprout. So even if an individual coast redwood gets pretty severely burned, they have an incredible ability to regrow.” In the aftermath of a disaster, it might be easy to see a photo of the redwoods and be unnecessarily worried. “Trees that look like they’ve been destroyed in the fire are actually alive and have the ability to bounce back,” says Paul Ringgold, the chief program officer for Save the Redwoods League, a leading redwood conservation and research nonprofit.

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Yes, there is evidence that California’s fires have gotten more intense, in part because of climate change. Ambrose noted that redwoods are better adapted to lower-intensity fires than those we typically see today. A combination of poor forest management and a hotter, drier environment due to climate change have led to more severe fires than the redwoods evolved with. We don’t know for sure, but redwoods may be resilient enough to handle these kinds of changes, especially in the wetter, northern region of the redwood range. In fairness, there was some reason for concern after the recent fire in Big Basin—the park’s human-built infrastructure, visitor center, the nature center, the campgrounds, did not fare well. Many of these structures were historic and can’t be restored. Still, it’s likely the trees will be OK, for now. We should consider the redwoods one less thing to worry about in a year that has already taken so much.

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But there’s more to a redwood forest than redwoods. By focusing primarily on these trees, we are missing the countless other species that are not as capable of bouncing back—like the western sword ferns. In fact, a number of other species that share the very same ecosystem with redwoods are seriously struggling with the impacts of climate change but aren’t making headlines. Other tree species that grow alongside redwoods, many types of birds, and a number of fish species are among the dozens of species in decline in redwood habitat. Take, for example, the eulachon, a member of the smelt fish family, which once thrived in streams that flow through redwood forests. Eulachon spawn in freshwater, including, once upon a time, the Klamath River, which runs through the northern part of the redwoods’ range near the Oregon border. These days, however, the population of California’s eulachon fishery is crashing. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, climate change is a major cause of the species’s decline. Typically under a foot long, these skinny silver fish aren’t especially visually striking—they’re just your basic small fish. But they are important prey for other fish species, as well as impressive ocean mammals like sea lions. They are also a crucial part of life for the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, which has relied on the fishery for centuries. The eulachon’s decline has been disastrous for the tribe, which submitted written testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee this January declaring that the collapse of the Klamath River eulachon fishery has been “catastrophic to the social fabric and economic security of the Yurok Tribe.”

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The eulachon are a victim of climate change in a way that the redwoods, so far, are not. The species’s decline is already having major ripple effects on human and nonhuman communities alike. But the eulachon just don’t make for striking optics. Images of charred forests and smoldering redwood trunks easily symbolize environmental devastation. They create a simplistic story about something superlatively fantastic going through something superlatively bad, never mind that the true terribleness of the situation is a little exaggerated. It’s much harder to visually capture ecological impacts on dwindling fish, insect, and bird species. It is almost impossible to photograph the absence of a small thing, to track each effect of ecosystem degradation as one species after another declines or disappears. The loss of a 3-ounce fish is unlikely to gain national attention.

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Those losses are hard to notice, at least until they culminate. But what makes a hike in a redwood forest so moving is, well, the forest—the redwoods plus the other elements of the ecosystem that create the community as a whole. That’s why I remember the ferns as much as I remember the redwoods when I think about that family hike years ago. It’s a sense of the whole scene that sticks with me—the fog, the ferns, the giant trees, the velvety mosses and lichens—that left an impression. Take away one of those elements, and the scene gets a little drabber. The redwoods might persist for generations to come—we are lucky on that count. But a hike among the redwoods may no longer feature Jurassic-looking ferns or the flash of a darting eulachon in the nearby stream. Those losses may not make headlines, but every species in the ecosystem counts. And every loss matters.

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