Our Amazon: the Coastal Temperate Rain Forest

Redwood grove, southern Humboldt County, California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It is still possible to stand in a redwood sorel garden, a garden that carpets a remaining grove of the world’s tallest trees here in northern California. The flowers of spring – the trillium and the wild Iris are gone but native rhododendron are in blossom. Alas, there are few such groves remaining – the estimate is now 4% and the Save the Redwoods League, long the champion of the old growth, is shifting attention to second growth groves, still awesome though not in quite the same way; a 140-foot tree is not a 350-foot 2000-year-old tree.

This, the remnant of the redwood forest, occupies a ribbon of coastal land, often less than twenty miles in width, that stretches from south of Santa Cruz to the Oregon border. These great conifers have thrived for thousands of years, and they still do, given a chance, beneficiaries of long, rainy winters and the summer fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. They cool the ground beneath them, retrieving moisture from the summer fog. They are host to an unseen habitat where another world flourishes, this one in the canopy, an ecosystem that is home to flying squirrels, salamanders, spotted owls, bats and the ancient marbled murrelets.

The California coast redwoods are unique, but only to a degree. And not just in height. As extraordinary as the redwoods are, they have more in common with their “neighbors” to the north than one might imagine. The redwood forest is in fact just the anchor of an enormous forest, the temperate rainforest that occupies the North American coast from California to the Alaskan islands, an unbroken blanket of coniferous trees, including the tallest trees on earth.  On their northern reach, the redwoods blend into the Douglas fir of Oregon and Washington, gigantic trees in their own right, which then give way in northern British Columbia and Alaska to red cedar, Sitka spruce and western hemlock. Taken altogether this is a wonder of the natural world and has been called “our Amazon,” and, like the Amazon, these forests are our earth’s “lungs.” They breath in carbon dioxide and breath out oxygen.

This coastal temperate rainforest is characterized by its proximity to both ocean and mountains. Abundant rainfall results when the atmospheric flow of moist air off the Pacific collides with the coastal mountain ranges. It is a rocky, stormy and wild coast, one that everywhere reveals nature at its most spectacular self. There are the redwood groves of northern California and the raging rivers of southern Oregon, the Rogue and the Umpqua. There is the mouth of the Columbia River, with its huge waves and foaming breakers, where ocean currents and tides collide with the deadly bars. In Washington state, there are the breathtaking sea stacks of the Olympic National Park. The Hoh and Quinault river valleys, also in the park, are home to towering fir, cedar and spruce draped in ghostly mosses. Then comes an inland sea, the Salish Sea, shared by Washington and British Columbia, where snow laden mountains – the 10,000-foot Mt. Baker, another the 8,000-foot Mt Olympus – shelter idyllic islands whose waters are home to the last of the southern Orcas.

In British Columbia, the forests thicken and are often accessible only by sea. The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. This forest is home to mountain lions, wolves, moose, mountain sheep and grizzly bears; the Kermode (“spirit”) bear is also found here, a unique subspecies of the black bear in which one in ten cubs displays a recessive white colored coat. In the sea, there are humpback and grey whales, orca, dolphin, seals and sea lions, and in the air, eagles. And salmon, anadromous fish that spend most of their lives at sea but return to the streams of their birth to spawn. The salmon symbolize the north Pacific Coast, for ten thousand years they sustained not just people but a magical ecological world of plenty for all.  They are endangered now, all five species, by overfishing and rising temperatures, but above all by logging that has increased erosion, blocked streams, and eliminated shade, raising water temperature.

The jewel in all this forest is the Tongass in Alaska, 16.8 million acres. This National Forest is the largest in the United States and the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world, nearly 500 miles long with 11,000 miles of coastline. It is best known for its glaciers; giant cruise ships bring tourists by the tens of thousands to see these great vanishing monuments, sites surely worth seeing but perhaps best not on these ships.

There are many reasons to save the Tongass. The forest cools the earth, deters wildfire, cleanses water and air and provides shelter for hundreds of creatures, including scores of threatened species, above all the salmon. Then there is the sheer size of the Tongass, as well as the vast numbers of old growth trees that remain. The big, old-growth trees are highly effective at trapping climate-warming greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and storing it– the larger the tree, the more sequestered. The largest trees in Tongass, cedar and western hemlock are hugely effective in sequestering carbon dioxide and no single forest in the US can compare. This is simply photosynthesis, the chemical process that occurs in plants when they are exposed to sunlight. In photosynthesis water and carbon (taken from the atmosphere) combine to form carbohydrates and give off oxygen. The larger the “plant” the more carbon it takes. So, forests like the Tongass are most effective in helping the climate crisis when left standing. But only nine million acres of the Tonga’s are protected – for now. The same can be said of all old growth trees. The old growth redwood stores more carbon than any other tree, yet, when cut down, it loses its capacity to store carbon. Instead it releases carbon back into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis rather than helping it.

Still everywhere these forests are threatened. In the US, where they are not corporately owned, the U.S. Forest Service is likely to manage them, yet even these “publicly” owned forests are not safe.  The Forest Service is just as likely to enable the loggers as to restrain them; even the national and state parks and reserves of California survive only at the whim of giant bureaucracies – these in turn are reflective of which parties are in power. Professor William Russell, a forest scientist at San Jose State University, reports that “mature second growth redwood stands begin to develop old growth features, but are, unfortunately, under threat of commercial logging on public lands traditionally designated as preserves.  Commercial ‘restoration’ logging is currently taking place in National and State Parks.”

And not just the remnant (4%) redwood is facing the axe. The coastal lowlands of Oregon and Washington are a checkerboard of ongoing clearcutting, tree farms on a thirty-year rotation, ruling out meaningful recovery. In British Columbia and Alaska, there is no place too remote, no terrain too inaccessible for today’s loggers and miners; corporate loggers load raw timber directly onto ships bound for Asia. Mining multinationals thrive in the face of compliant governments. Dun and Bradstreet lists 500 mining companies with offices in Vancouver; these and others forge ahead, oblivious apparently to a ruined earth they leave behind. So, one finds narrow fiords, deep fingers of water rivalling those of Norway, fouled by run off of clear cutting and metal mining.

The power of the corporations, private and “public,” cannot be exaggerated. Here in Mendocino County in Northern California, the Fisher family (the Gap) Corporation’s Mendocino Redwood Company alone owns 228,000 acres of redwood timberland– and logs it. The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to a “multi-purpose management” mission including logging (chainsaw management), mining and grazing. According to the marvelous documentary study of the Tongass, “The Under Story” (2018), the Forest Service in the US spends far more on conducting timber sales and building roads than it does on reforestation and conservation. “If the wildest, yet-untouched areas of the Tongass, for example, are opened up to logging, it will likely mean even more federal dollars spent on building roads… by some estimates, road-building in the Tongass costs more than $180,000 per mile” at an even greater cost to our clmate.

The odds of saving the old growth remain highly unfavorable, though in the face of climate change this seems incomprehensible. And an array of national and regional environmental organizations has entered the field of deforestation and “forest defenders.” At the same time there are scores, perhaps more, bands of ordinary people fighting to save their own patch of this forest, heroic individuals in many ways, working in the trenches of the movements. And, increasingly, there are indigenous peoples, who for so long have had their voices at best muffled, most often belittled, stepping out with alternatives views of the natural world and how to live with it.

Who can stand under a giant redwood, amongst the largest organisms ever to exist here on earth and not be humbled.? Ordinary visitors as well as environmentalists have long been staggered by the sheer beauty of the redwood grove, together with the inspiration gained from walking amongst them. We are not alone in seeing this. In our age of Covid, Japanese therapists recommend shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” as having psychological benefits in the face of the pandemic.

We live today in an age of multiple crises, including one of extinction – what is to become of us? And of our lions and bears and bobcats and deer, of the owls and other birds and of all the creatures that we cannot see, yet make up this extraordinary ecosystem, if the trees are taken? Surely, habitat restoration is called for, not more destruction, lest this silent slaughter continue.

Right now, the crisis of climate change overwhelms all else as an existential danger, an ever-increasing danger to every aspect of our lives and to the earth itself. The Amazon, quite rightly. deserves whatever it takes to save it. So does this northern jewel of a forest, “our lungs,” our coastal temperate rain forest. Our Amazon. It is a fight that matters.

Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at winslow@mcn.org