Eugene Weekly : Outdoors : 6.28.07

Big Lifters
Redwoods raise massive volumes of water

If one of the tallest redwoods in Redwoods National Park were growing in downtown Eugene, it would be more than twice as tall as the tallest building here. For you (rich) football fans, consider: If you’re looking down on the field in one of the new luxury sky boxes at the very top of Autzen Stadium, you are 170 feet off the ground, which is not even halfway up the tallest redwood.

A mature redwood along the Boy Scout Trail. Photo: James Johnston

The real attraction of the redwood forest isn’t the gaudy height of the trees, it’s the dizzyingly rich variety and texture of vegetation in the cool, mist-drenched understory. Think ferns as tall as a person, moss thick enough to swallow your arm, and, of course, giant tree trunks disappearing into a high-arched ceiling of leaves and branches.

The unique experience that is a redwood forest is less than a four-hour drive from Eugene. To get there, drive south on I-5 to Grants Pass. Turn east on Hwy. 199 (Redwood Highway) and drive for about 75 miles to Jedediah Smith State Park, the northernmost unit of the Redwood National and State Parks, jointly managed by the Park Service and the state of California. Maps of all the parks are available at the visitor center in Hiouchi, also the jumping off point for the aptly named Stout Trail.

This 10,000-acre park, protected from logging in 1929, is bisected by the Smith River, the last major free-flowing river in California. Most of the rest of the park’s trails are accessed via the Howland Road, a narrow, pothole filled dirt track that winds between enormous tree trunks. The Boy Scout Trail and the Mill Creek Trail are highly recommended — it’s in this area that the Endor scenes for Return of the Jedi were filmed.

Understanding a little of the fascinating ecology of the redwood ecosystem can only enhance your experience. The trees themselves are marvels of evolutionary engineering. Despite years of study, scientists are unable to explain how the trees transport such massive quantities of water from the soil through wood into the absurd heights of the forest canopy (an average sized redwood may have 17 tons of water moving through its bark at any given time). On the rare occasions when biologists venture up into the canopy, they almost always discover new species. Most recently an as-yet-unnamed new species of pink earthworm was discovered in soil that had accumulated in the nooks and crannies of giant branches more than 200 feet off the ground.

You can almost picture the tomb-like silence of the forest shattered by a brontosaurus crashing through the underbrush. In fact, the redwood ecosystem evolved during the Jurassic period, and dinosaurs did make their homes in the same kind of forest you’ll be walking through. The redwood forest was once widespread over much of North America but exists in today’s more arid climate only in a thin strip of coastal forest where cool moist air from the ocean keeps trees damp during summer droughts.

Redwoods get as big as they do because they possess extraordinary resistance to insects and fire, both of which can dramatically limit the life expectancy of other tree species. This resistance is due in large part to the high tannin content of the wood. Ironically, the same properties that make the wood resistant to insects makes it ideal for outdoor building applications, and as a result, less than 4 percent of the historic old-growth redwood forest exists. The rest has been converted to beams, fences and decking.

Although the redwood forest of northern California has existed in its current range for more than 20 million years, and although many individual trees exceed 2,000 years of age, some scientists worry that global warming may spell the end of the redwood forest by burning off the coastal fog belt that the redwoods need to thrive or by altering the reproduction and behavior of pests.

Other experts look to redwood forests not as victims of global warming but potential saviors. The giant trees store mind-boggling amounts of carbon, the gas most responsible for warming. Restoring cutover redwood forests will suck literally millions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. Preliminary calculations put the value of one redwood tree for carbon sequestration at about $10,000.

Maybe it’s time to plant a few in the Autzen Stadium parking lot.