Big Sur
Redwood Preservation Project

Coastal redwoods in their southern habitats are different and in danger.  During the recent fires too many redwoods were lost because too little is known about them.

Big Sur is a 90 mile long mountainous coastal area comprised almost entirely of mountain watersheds with steep canyons.  Along streams and on north facing slopes redwoods grow.  The topography is mostly steep.  The mountains are young and still evolving.  An expansive network of earthquake faults riddles the range.  Erosion is steady and often tumultuous.  Coastal storms frequently punish the range.  Fires, ignited by lightning from coastal storms, ravage the range with regularity.  Rainstorms following fires bring monstrous mudslides.

Big Sur is a volatile land.  Surfaces in canyons rise and fall.  Yet, redwoods survive.  It appears that they do so by adapting to the individual habitats canyon by canyon.  In some canyons redwoods will grow clusters of branches on a changed surface, such as growing branches downward to the surface ground, then growing upward when the branches seek light.  In McWay Canyon this is conspicuous and the forest near the front of the canyon resembles the forest of Ichabod Crane.

Botanically, Big Sur is an incredibly rich area.  Many of the greatest pioneer naturalists poured over this coastal area making “discoveries” such as sugar pine, ponderosa, and Santa Lucia fir, and making the area scientifically famous.

  Southern Coastal Habitat Different

In Northern California only five percent of the original old-growth redwood population remains, and considerable habitat has diminished because of human impact.

Unlike their northern brethren, Big Sur redwoods grow in discontinuous patches. These outpost groves collect the flow of fog in stream valleys and along north facing slopes up to 4,000 feet.  These “great mists” lend a mystical quality to this coast throughout the summer season.  The fog creates a greenhouse-like envelope for the redwoods by increasing humidity and lowering temperatures.

Coast redwoods are specially adapted to rake delicate droplets of moisture from the ethereal vapors. This adaptation is so efficient that Big Sur’s redwoods harvest thousands of gallons of water every foggy morning. Thus, Big Sur’s redwoods make their own climate and their own “rainfall,” enabling them to survive where we would not expect  –even along watercourses that go dry in the summer. All they need is a valley where the summer fog flows.

In this land of little rain, redwoods, a temperate rain forest species, are the most visibly prevalent tree.  Because of deep submarine canyons offshore and ocean currents that draw cold upwellings from the depths, there is a lot of fog, and redwoods gain most of their nutrients from fog.  Their needles are exquisitely designed to trap and hold moisture from the fog, then drip that moisture on their immediate surroundings.  Arboreal duff from the trees drops there, too, and builds up to create a sponge-like, water-holding mat.

Foggy coastal areas have been virtually immune to fire.  But with the vegetation changes in the upper elevations, coastal redwoods are becoming more vulnerable to fire.  In the recent Basin Complex event, fire invaded nearly every canyon in the mid-coast.  Many redwoods were lost and others were mortally damaged.

    Genetically Distinct?

Genetic diversity of coastal redwoods in their southernmost habitat is known to be vast.  But not much else is known.  Just by casual observation of the external characteristics of these trees, this diversity is obvious.  From canyon to canyon these cloning colonies look different.  Each family of redwoods will have strikingly similar external characteristics.

We wonder if this is because of the long life of their isolated adaptation to each immediate environment.  We propose to document the differences with photography and a complete ecology report for each redwood canyon, and a representative study of the redwood colonies in higher reaches of the Santa Lucia coastal mountain range.

In Big Sur, the southernmost range of coastal redwoods, historic habitat and redwoods remain nearly intact.  That is, until recently.  Now the habitat remains mostly intact, but the population of trees is appears to be less.  Actual numbers and habitat identities are only estimated, and both need to be reliably documented.


    Mortal Redwood

We don’t know the actual age of each tree.  In these canyons many enumeration’s of a tree are often exposed by changes in the ground surface by earthquake or erosion.  Is it the same tree if one enumeration has grown from another which now only contains dead cells?  Or is this a kind of clonal sequence age?

Redwoods clone themselves in these environments, reproducing by asexual sprouting rather than by sexual pollination with seeds from cones.  There are many enumerations of one redwood in the canyons, so one tree which would appear to be many different trees would actually be the clonal expression of one tree with an age of 10,000, or 20,000 years or more.

These trees are remarkably resilient.  To avert a cancerous strain in the main stem, they can grow a burl as a refugium for good cells.  From this refugium they can wait out the cancer or grow a new branch which can become a main stem.

Also, at an early stage of its growth, a redwood often will create a burl with a bank of its genes.  This appears to be a way for the tree to sprout new trees with its genes.  In cases of massive environmental alteration, such as with fires and mudflows, these gene banks provide a way to continue their population.

As they adapt for the topography and disease, the redwood develops new genes for survival which are reflected in external characteristics.  In time, over many enumerations of the tree becoming a cloned family, all the redwoods in this family will appear very similar.

All of this is obvious.  Not much else is known about the redwoods in their southernmost habitat.  Most of what we think we know is inferred from what we know about their northern brethren.

Coast Redwoods, sequoia sempervirens, once covered an enormous reach across northern latitudes, and have presided in this region for more than 20 million years.   How they have survived in this southern outpost of their range is necessary to understand if we are to protect them.

The whole picture of this tree living here is an incredible scenario.  The land emerged from the sea with very little to attract such an amazing species as the redwood.  Other amazing species luxuriate in higher habitats.  But in the redwood habitats this tree has come to make a home for itself in a wild canvas of serendipitous choreography.  This tree, with its density and mammoth size, making it the greatest terrestrial biomass on the planet, grows in its inhospitable environment because of a chance encounter with a neighborly ocean.

The coast redwood family becomes a primeval forest in a rocky desert canyon.  As if to give back to the ocean, redwoods respire at night to replenish the understory and feed the springs and streams which flow to the sea.  When an enumeration of a redwood is toppled by wind, lightning or fire, it slowly embellishes the soil, houses animals and vertebrates, and nurtures other plants.



Historically, redwoods have prospered with natural protection in shady, moist canyons.  Before the modern era of fire suppression big fires occurred in rough intervals averaging seventy years or so.  Nowadays, fire occurs at much more frequent intervals.  Epic Big Sur conflagrations now happen in intervals of less than ten years.

In higher elevations fire occurred more frequently, about every twenty years, but these were light and served to enhance the reproductive abilities of plant communities. These also served to reduce fuels near redwood forests.

Through First Peoples and early Settler eras, patches of the Santa Lucia coastal range burned every year.  Settlers and miners increased the intensity of burning.  In some years there were big fires, notably 1894 and 1903.  The largest fire consumed 50,000 acres.  Once the U.S. Forest Service took control of the range in 1907, fire was suppressed.   At first, fires were held to an average of 8,000 acres burned each year.  With an ever increasing effectiveness, the total that burned each year was reduced to an average of only 400 acres by the 1960s.

Then, after seventy years of suppression, which allowed a massive build up of fuels, increasingly frequent and bigger fires began.  Some groves were burned to death.  According to Henson and Usner (1993) in The Natural History of Big Sur, conifer forests throughout the Coast Range have been reduced by wildfire (p. 236).  Restriction of other conifer stands has caused redwood colonies to diminish.  Conifer habitat that couldn’t regenerate killed trees has been replaced by scrub ecosystems that don’t nourish redwood habitat.

Many trees were burned simply out of ignorance &emdash;even in the recent Basin Complex Fire.  Even though the local fire manual instructs that redwoods be protected, many were deliberately set on fire during “backfiring” operations.

Redwoods have become increasingly susceptible to mortal fire as they are subjected to repeated fires and the debris build up that follows.  The brush against a redwood burns very hot and attacks the tree’s interior.

Redwoods that have burned internally to some degree are susceptible to very hot fires that can completely gut a tree.  Near Pheneger Creek an old redwood burned internally which was not visibly evident. But inside it burned very hot straight up and exited through an opening 35-40 feet up the tree and flames shot out like a blow torch. 

After the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, a geomorphologist proposed that coastal property owners construct “grizzly snags.”  The snags were proposed to stop or slow down erosion and debris flow. Even though it was known that redwoods don’t have taproots and are likely to move, the nets would be bolted to old redwoods on slopes.

Big Sur redwoods were logged extensively in low lying easily accessed valleys and canyons in the last years of 1800s and early 1900s.  Mills were established locally and shakes were cut by hand and shipped to Monterey and King City.

Somehow, a community will to save the redwoods emerged.  State Parks and Save the Redwoods League were invited to memorialize coastal redwood groves.  International designations of special recognition for these redwood ecological systems have been bestowed on these trees and their habitat.

When fire enters a redwood, through a “goose pen,'” “cat eye,” or from beneath, the tree the flammable interior is exposed.  After two or more fires, the tree can be burned from the inside and die.  This does not seem to be known by public agencies that fight fire.  Rather than protect redwoods, as all forest management plans instruct for fire suppression, these agencies allow redwoods to burn, and even “back fire” through redwoods.  In the 2008 fire, fires were set by fire fighting crews and sent upslope which causes the most intense and damaging fire.

        What we need to learn

This project, Big Sur Redwood Preservation Study, is proposed to learn how these redwoods have learned to survive here  –despite human influence on this fragile coast which has caused diminishment of their habitat and their numbers.

So isolated from their northern brethren are these redwoods that the classic questions of relatedness come to mind. Should these trees be considered a subspecies or special variety of the coastal redwood?  We don’t know that for sure because there has not been sufficient study.

  • How many redwoods are there in how many habitats in this southernmost extent of their range?
  • How do they differ from canyon to canyon, and how do they differ from the main body of redwoods in the northern counties of the State?
  • What comparable data from other periods corresponded with historic conditions?
  • If we can find this data, can we project future redwood populations? 
  • What scientific enterprises are going on now to understand the development of genetic diversity in other redwood populations and how they may be relevant? 
  • How can redwoods be protected from the ravages of too much, too-hot fire?

        The expert premise is that a certain sort of fire, light, frequent and not excessively hot – like the kind of fire Native American cultures husbanded – suppressed the buildup of hot burning fuel concentrations.  Therefore fire, in the right context and prescription, is distinctly a friend to the redwoods – under the right conditions.


The purpose of PelicanNetwork is to promote environmental sustainability.

The purpose of PelicanNetwork is to promote environmental sustainability.






























































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