National Geographic explorer speaks at ISF fundraiser; old growth forest more productive, says Fay

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

Michael Fay, biologist and explorer-at-large for National Geographic magazine, whose 2000-plus mile transect of redwood country provided both scientific information and colorful anecdotes for National Geographic’s October feature on redwoods, spoke to a spellbound audience at a fundraiser for the Institute of Sustainable Forestry on Friday evening, Oct. 30.

With help from his hiking partner, Blue Lake-born forest activist Lindsey Holm, Fay presented a two-hour slide slow of the journey to a full house at the Veterans Building in Garberville.

Fay was commissioned by National Geographic to do a fact-finding hike from the southernmost redwood forest near Big Sur to the Chetco River in southern Oregon, home of most northern wild redwoods in existence. He chose Holm as his partner after she helped him literally disentangle himself from a fence on Pacific Lumber Company property while doing preliminary research for the transect.

The duo spent 333 days hiking 2,050 miles, largely off established trails. They filled 24 notebooks with meticulous notes, referencing the data they gathered to GPS points for accurate records. "This was a scientific trip," Fay stated. He was particularly interested in learning how different timber management practices affect the health and growth of redwoods.

Fay and Holm prepared for the trip by caching food and supplies in ammo boxes in 60 locations along their route, although they admitted to stopping for Chinese food when they walked through San Francisco. They wore hiking sandals rather than boots for the entire trip because, Fay pointed out, they had to cross many streams each day, and their feet dried quickly in sandals.

Ninety percent of the redwood range is in private hands, a fact that Fay did not truly realize until they began to run into "No Trespassing" signs as they left publicly-owned groves in the Big Sur area. After that Fay made calls to landowners to secure their permission to cross their lands, often acquiring good information about history and management practices as a consequence of introducing himself.

In Sonoma County the team saw their first clearcut, but they also met individuals who are restoring forests and creating new ways of adding value to redwood products.

Entering northern Mendocino, Fay and Holm saw their first signs of industrial marijuana grows in the forest. Here they also entered the Usal Forest, now owned by Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc. (RFFI), a non-profit corporation managing for sustainable timber. Fay had high praise for RFFI, describing their work as "awesome stuff," and urging the community to support them.

At Richardson Grove they found themselves in the "real redwood forest," Fay said. He showed several slides of giant, ancient redwoods near Bull Creek in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a stunning contrast to the spindly, overcrowded second and third growth on poorly managed private lands.

Coincidentally, Fay and Holm arrived in Scotia on the day Palco agreed to sell their mill and forest lands to Mendocino Redwoods Company. They were invited to spend a night at the Scotia Inn -- even though there was an outstanding court order to keep Holm off Palco land.

Proceeding north through both the Arcata Community Forest and land owned by Green Diamond Company, the team saw extreme contrasts in management styles. Finally, they ended the transect at what they believed was the northernmost redwood tree, near the Chetco River in Oregon. Later they learned that there is actually another tree, which they have not yet seen, slightly farther to the north.

After the transect and many discussions with people involved in all aspects of forest management, Fay concluded that sound management can restore the true old growth forest. In addition to its many environmental benefits, Fay’s research demonstrated that old growth forest, logged by single tree selection, can potentially produce a harvest of 2,500 board feet per year of high quality wood, far more than any other type of logging.

Fay mentioned the expanding world population several times during his talk and the question-and-answer session that followed. "Everyone on earth wants what we have," Fay said, "and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have it."

Throughout the discussion he emphasized his belief that the forest can be managed to provide wood for humanity’s needs as well as to sustain healthy ecosystems, watersheds, and wildlife habitat. He urged the audience to engage local foresters and timber companies in discussions about sustainable management.

Both Fay and Holm expressed belief that the managers of Humboldt Redwood Company, formed by Mendocino Redwoods to succeed Palco, are receptive to community input and intend to manage their forest lands sustainably.

One member of the audience noted that Fay had said very little about wildlife during his talk and asked what he thought about protecting endangered species like the spotted owl and marbled murrelet.

To the audience’s surprise, Fay’s take on species protection was unorthodox. "If I had a forest to manage, the last thing I’d think of is the spotted owl," he said. "It’s high on the food chain, it has an insignificant biomass."

He added that species are indicators of change, but protecting individual species does not lead to protection of the forest as a whole, whereas managing a forest to restore old growth will protect all the species within it. He pointed out that even Green Diamond, whose management practices he frequently criticized, gets its timber harvest plans approved by providing "little owl circles" within a large cut, to the detriment of the forest as a whole.

Asked about conversion of timberland to housing development, Fay told the audience when he gave a presentation earlier last week to the county Board of Supervisors, he’d also heard discussion of the county’s General Plan Update, which gave him some insight into development challenges the county faces.

The subdivision of large tracts of resource lands because of patent parcels is a serious threat to the integrity of the forest, Fay said. He described the breaking up of forest lands into 160 and 40 acre parcels to attract residential buyers results in "colonization of the landscape." He criticized timber companies, particularly Green Diamond, for liquidating their forests and then turning to subdivision to get the greatest remaining value from their land.

Asked if he opposed rural living and the restoration efforts of small landowners, he agreed that small owners can be good stewards as well as large landowners. He was concerned, however, that during the General Plan Update process, the concerns of small rural landowners have "played into the hands" of industrial timber.

Fay recognized that when small owners get together in watershed associations to manage their properties as a whole, they can do more good than landowners working individually. He praised the Southern Humboldt community for its leadership in restoration, adding, "If I was going to live anywhere in the redwood range, it would be somewhere in Southern Humboldt."

The event, which began with a dinner catered by Allison Mitchell and bread baked by Toni Ross, was put together in only one week by the board of directors of the Institute for Sustainable Forestry.


National Geographic explorer Michael Fay (standing, right) and his hiking partner Lindsey Holm (standing, left) narrate their adventures on the 2000-mile redwood transect to a full house at a fundraiser for the Institute of Sustainable Forestry on Friday, Oct. 30.