In the redwood groves

Redwood National Park dedicates a grove to forest defenders Edgar and Peggy Wayburn.

Peggy and Edgar Wayburn hold the commemorative plaque presented to them by Redwood National Park Superintendent Bill Ehorn. Photo by Mark Mardon.

“The last time we went up to Redwood National Park was in 1989,” says Edgar Wayburn as he guides his car onto the tarmac of a small airfield north of San Francisco. “During the battle, though, we used to go up a lot.”

In less than two hours, the Sierra Club’s vice-president and his wife, Peggy, are due at the park to take part in an event celebrating the Club’s centennial. Fortunately, despite some coastal fog, the weather looks perfect for flying. Waiting for us beside a four-seater Cessna is Woodward “Woody” Payne, a volunteer pilot with Project Lighthawk, the environmentalist air force known as “the wings of conservation.” We climb aboard, Woody passes out headsets, and the plane is soon en route to Arcata, California, not far from the park.

The “battle” Ed refers to was the fight during the 1960s and ’70s between conservationists and timber interests over the establishment and later expansion of Redwood National Park. Ed became a leader in the fight, and the Wayburns threw themselves into the cause, scouting the most suitable areas to be accorded federal protection. Their ardor sometimes led them to tread surreptitiously across private timberland that they had been expressly forbidden to enter.

“We’d hear a lumber truck coming and would dive into the woods or hide among the logs,” Ed recalls. Many of the loggers carried guns, the Wayburns knew, and didn’t much like conservationists.

Edgar and Peggy Wayburn in the grove named after them in Redwood National Park. Photo by Mark Mardon.

“This is where the Redwood Highway was put in the 1920s,” Ed says through the static of the headphones as we pass over the valley of the South Fork Eel River. About 60 miles from Arcata we get a good view of the North Yolla Bolly Mountains and the southern flank of the Trinity Alps, with Mt. Shasta prominent on the northeastern horizon. As we skirt China Peak, Peggy points to a huge clearcut scar on a hillside. “It’s been scalped,” she says sadly.

A momentary retreat of the coastal fog lets us slip into the Arcata airport, where we meet park ranger Aida Parkinson, who shuttles us north in her van on U.S. 101 along the shore. Logging trucks bearing freshly cut redwood sections pass us, heading south to lumber mills. Each carries several small- to medium-size logs, but Ed says the trucks will often carry only one huge log each. “Not much anymore,” Peggy corrects. “There aren’t that many big trees left.”

We pass three lagoons and a freshwater marsh before the highway turns inland, bringing us to the village of Orick beside the Redwood Creek estuary. The hills beyond are part of the national park, and we head toward them. Today’s ceremony will take place among redwood groves along Skunk Cabbage Creek and at Davison Ranch, properties recently purchased by the Save the Redwoods League and the California Department of Transportation and turned over to the national park. The cows were removed from the ranch, and elk have moved in.

First to greet the Wayburns upon our arrival at the ranch is Jean Hagood, a resident of Orick who has long kept her house open to Sierra Club activists. We join a group of about 30 others, including Wayburns’ daughter Laurie, and Marty Fluharty, chair of the Sierra Club Centennial Committee, who has arranged this event. Park Superintendent Bill Ehorn calls for all to follow him, and we head down a trail into the heart of grove R-10.

For a moment in the cool quiet of the trees, it’s possible to forget that 95 percent of all coast redwoods have been logged and that only a small fraction of the original ecosystem remains intact. Certainly the redwoods around us look exactly as Ed described them for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1973, after he wandered among “their deep brown and gray fluted trunks,” which soared above and all around, “solid and straight and somehow reassuring” for having stood in their places for at least five centuries.

It’s a distinguished lot that assembles around the edges of this steep, ferny glade: Doris Leonard, a longtime activist and wife of climbing great and former Club president Richard Leonard (absent today because of illness); one-time staff forester Gordon Robinson; two former Club presidents, Ed Wayburn and Richard Cellarius, and incumbent president Tony Ruckel; Redwood Chapter stalwart Lucille Vinyard; Club Chairman Michael McCloskey; and Michael Fischer, the Club’s fourth executive director. Many of these people fought in the redwoods campaign for decades.

Also here is John Dewitt, president of the Save the Redwoods League, a venerable organization whose relationship with the Sierra Club has sometimes been contentious, despite close links between the two groups. The League historically cooperated with the timber industry to buy up small, museum-like parcels of forest for inclusion in the California state-park system. In contrast, the Club sought federal protection for extensive ecosystems. The two groups locked horns in 1964, when the National Park Service first proposed the establishment of a redwoods park. The League and the Club differed over which watershed to protect – the relatively small but picturesque area of Mill Creek, or the much larger, more diverse expanse of the Redwood Creek watershed. In the long run, the Club’s view prevailed.

Calling for everyone’s attention, master of ceremonies McCloskey unveils five carved wooden plaques, each representing a virgin redwood grove along Skunk Cabbage Creek. These groves will be named in honor of the Wayburns, the Leonards, all Sierra Club presidents past and present, the Redwood Park volunteers, and Fred and Francis Speekman, two prominent contributors to the Sierra Club Foundation.

First to be recognized are Ed and Peggy. At the top of the slope, in front of a particularly massive old sentinel, Ed looks about at his fellow tree-huggers and clears his throat. He’s supposed to make a speech on the redwood campaign’s history, but has left his prepared comments back in San Francisco. Gamely, he launches into an extemporaneous reminiscence. “I’ve always been a sucker for redwoods,” he says, going on to recount how, in 1955, he and Peggy were made heartsick by the destruction along Bull Creek, which had its upper slopes logged and was then ravaged by a flood that sent debris roaring through the creekbed, ripping out hundreds of the trees. That’s when they resolved to devote themselves to preserving the remaining ancient forest. The effort was carried out locally, in Congress, at the Interior Department, and directly with President Lyndon Johnson. Their dream of a park was finally realized in 1968.

At 4:30 p.m., after all the speeches are made and lunch is concluded back at the ranch, we return to the plane with Woody. A strong headwind sweeps down the runway as we take off, and the Cessna lifts up quickly, banks, and soon is flying out of sight of the park, over Pacific Lumber Company clearcuts.


This article appeared in Sierra, May-June 1993