Magazine / The Ghost Forest: Racists, Radicals, and Real Estate in the California Redwoods

The Ghost Forest: Racists, Radicals, and Real Estate in the California Redwoods

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Greg King is an award-winning journalist and activist credited with spearheading the movement to protect Headwaters Forest, in Humboldt County, California. King’s articles and photographs have appeared in The Sun, Sierra, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, the Portland Oregonian, the Sacramento Bee, Mother Jones, and other publications.

Below, Greg shares five key insights from his new book, The Ghost Forest: Racists, Radicals, and Real Estate in the California Redwoods. Listen to the audio version—read by Greg himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. The fight to save the redwoods has a long and complicated history.

In 2009, I went in search of the history that seemed missing in my early versions of The Ghost Forest. That year I visited famed Sierra Club activist Martin Litton. Litton was 92 years old at the time, yet he held the room like a ship’s captain.

He told me about traveling to Washington DC during the 1960s to lobby in favor of legislation then circulating in Congress to create the nation’s first Redwood National Park. Halfway into his story, Litton stopped short. He looked off through the room suddenly in deep thought. Then he told me how strange it was that while he was lobbying in favor of the Redwood National Park bill, representatives from a famous “league” that had been founded in 1917 specifically to “save the redwoods” were visiting members of Congress to lobby against the bill. This set me on track to investigate the lineage of this heralded organization.

What I found was the first, longest-lasting, and most successful example of an economic phenomenon that today we call “greenwashing”—a discovery that would turn the entire century-long history of redwood preservation on its head. Another unexpected discovery about this group is that for the first six decades of the 20th century, its leadership would include some of the world’s most influential white supremacists, some of whose work, early on, would inform the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

2. Redwood lumber is not just any lumber.

When we think of lumber, we think of building houses, right? When most people think of redwood lumber, they associate the product with the construction of homes throughout the nation. While redwood was used for home building, that wasn’t its superpower. Redwood also has an amazing attribute that would doom the species to near-total exploitation.

One night I worked particularly late in my home office, in thrall to a new and riveting discovery. I emerged into the house in what my wife would call a frenzied state. My hair was on end and my eyes were wide. She asked me what I’d found.

“Without redwood, the empire we know today as California would look much different.”

“The stave pipes,” I said. “The redwood stave pipes changed everything.”

What’s a stave pipe? Imagine a giant tube up to 16 feet in diameter, made of specially milled lumber and bound by iron bands. The stave pipe was one of the several discoveries I made during my research. It turns out that redwood lumber is nearly impervious to rot, allowing redwood to be used in ways that no other wood could be used. For stave pipes and many other conveyances and tanks—including those used for petroleum and chemicals including cyanide solution—no other lumber would do.

By 1920, redwood stave pipes and tanks were stitched across the American West, the nation, and the world. Without redwood lumber, farms, cities, and especially hydropower plants—which powered all other industries—could not have expanded as rapidly or as forcefully as they did from the turn of the 20th century through World War II. Without redwood, the empire we know today as California would look much different.

3. In 1986, almost every acre of the redwood ecosystem was held by private companies.

Prior to the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act, nearly all of the great redwood forest belonged to the public, standing as one, giant two-million-acre Redwood National Park. But then, the Homestead Act, and especially the 1878 Timber and Stone Act, ushered in a forceful tide of corruption that resulted in nearly the entire redwood ecosystem being placed in corporate hands.

Nearly all of corporate takeover took place through fraudulent consolidation of U.S. land grants. The redwood frauds were led by some of the most powerful individuals in the United States, from Washington to Wall Street to the growing city-state of San Francisco. These crimes were never prosecuted, and today’s giant redwood lumber companies hold title that remains tainted.

4. My own family history with the redwoods is complicated.

I’ve always wondered how my ancestors would have felt about my redwood activism. My first name is Thomas. I’m named for my dad, who was named for his dad, who was named for his uncle, who owned one of the largest redwood mills on the Russian River, in Sonoma County, during the 19th century. That Thomas was named for his grandfather who’d emigrated from Castleblayney Ireland to Ontario Province Canada in 1823 to cut the great pines and oaks of that land for British warships and merchant vessels.

“I turned down that job once I’d visited one of the very last unprotected redwood groves still standing.”

Yet I, the descendent of this lineage, was among a small cadre of redwood tree-sitters who camped 150 feet up in redwood trees to keep them from being cut down. We blockaded bulldozers and logging trucks, attended meetings, published bulletins, and contributed to lawsuits against private companies and their regulators in the state of California. We even climbed the Golden Gate Bridge, hanging 250 feet above the roadway to make a point.

The thing is, I got into all this as a reporter. I’d won journalism awards and at one point was offered the editor’s position at a California newspaper. I turned down that job once I’d visited one of the very last unprotected redwood groves still standing, a grove that was about to be logged by a Houston company that was fueled by junk bonds. The inescapable call of a truly wild redwood forest is what happened to me while I was busy making other plans.

5. Our work to save redwoods put us at risk.

I live with grim memories of assaults and death threats. In 1990, my two closest friends and colleagues were nearly killed when a pipe bomb exploded in their car. The FBI tried to frame them for “carrying their own bomb.” In 2002, however, their attorney won a $4.4 million lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland California Police Department for violating the activists’ First Amendment right to free speech, and for violating the Fourth Amendment through false arrest and illegal search and seizure. To this day neither police agency has conducted an actual investigation into the bombing, and no one has ever been charged in the case.

To listen to the audio version read by author Greg King, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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