Big Basin on the Mend

Resilience of Big Basin Redwoods State Park:  Even 2020 can’t defeat a forest that has survived ice ages, wildfires and logging sprees

People the world over are looking to 2021 to be a year of healing — from division, disease and, here in California, a devastating wildfire season. Nowhere is that truer than in Santa Cruz County, where five blazes ignited by a dry lightning storm on the morning of August 16 tore through the mountains, destroying nearly 1,500 structures and burning more than 86,000 acres. Nearly all 18,000 acres of the beloved Big Basin Redwood State Park were scorched in what came to be known as the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, including the park’s precious 4,400 acres of old-growth redwoods and the park’s headquarters built in 1936, which burned to ash along with almost all the other buildings on day two of the fire.

Upon news that the park had burned, social media lit up with messages of sorrow and remembrance from redwood lovers across the country. Big Basin, people were saying, was gone forever. A terrible loss had occurred, and we would have to learn to live without the beauty of California’s first state park.

But the eulogies for Big Basin’s redwoods were premature. Two months later — the very next breath, in Mother Nature years — tiny green sprouts had burst into sight throughout the forest. Along the redwoods’ huge blackened trunks and exposed roots, tender shoots started coming up, no bigger than moss at first but destined, some of them, to become enormous branches or maybe even big trees themselves someday, should the parent tree not survive. (Scientists have predicted that 10% of the old growth trees in the park will perish as a result of damages sustained from the fire, leaving 90 percent to carry on, battle-scarred but alive.)

Anyone who has wandered through a redwood forest knows what a fairy ring looks like:  a circle of redwoods growing around the ghost of a massive mother redwood that fell long ago, whether from age or fire or the saw. These younger trees come into being through “basal sprouting,” the term for when shoots come up from a tree’s root system, typically as a result of stress. Basal sprouting is common among broadleaf trees but exceedingly rare among conifers, and it’s one of the secrets to redwood forest survival. Redwood sprouts can grow up to 7 feet in a single year in a sprint toward the sunlight, rapidly rebuilding the forest after loss. What’s growing right now in Big Basin, through the process of basal sprouting, are the fairy rings of the future.

The “Father of The Forest” still stands at Big Basin Redwoods State Park – Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez

Joanne Kerbavaz, senior environmental scientist with California State Parks, notes that the sad fate of the park’s historic buildings stands in sharp contrast to the resilience of the natural resources. Many of the park’s iconic named trees, including the “Father” and “Mother of the Forest,” have survived even though nearby infrastructure went up in flames. “Redwoods are incredibly resistant to fire and resilient to the effects of fire, and we’re seeing that play out in Big Basin,” she says. “I can’t help but focus on a hopeful outcome with the forest system.”

Basal sprouts at the root of a redwood hints at the forest’s survival strategy: send up clones as quickly as possible around stressed trees. ©California State Parks, all rights reserved.

Built for Survival

First appearing in the fossil record across the Northern Hemisphere during the Jurassic Period (180-135 million years ago), redwoods began retreating from their vast ancient territory as the planet grew cooler and drier. Since the last ice age, their home has been a 450-mile strip of coastal Northern California and Southern Oregon that provides the moist, temperate climate they need to survive.

The indigenous people of California knew the redwood forests well. They used fire to shape the landscape, burning parts of redwood forests to encourage the growth of tanoak, which had the best acorns, and creating meadows to attract deer and certain plants. Between planned fires and lightning strikes, scientists estimate that some 4 million acres burned each year in California before Europeans arrived.

Redwoods had distinct advantages when it came to surviving these frequent fires: high water content, bark that can grow more than 12 inches thick, and tannin rather than flammable resin or pitch in their wood. Mature redwoods also have such high canopies that the crown seldom burns. These are the reasons most of the old-growth redwoods we see bear burn scars from fires nobody remembers: the fires scarred, but did not kill, the trees.

The European settlement of California brought logging to the ancient redwoods’ 2-million-acre domain. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, logging began in earnest in 1840 with the first mechanized sawmill and ramped up in 1880 with the steam donkey. By the turn of the century, 96% of the old-growth trees had been logged, with only oddly formed or inaccessible trees remaining, for the most part.

In May 1900, a party of civic-minded writers, scientists and citizens from San Jose and the Peninsula, concerned about rampant logging in the mountains, took a trip to see a grove of old-growth redwoods. Camped near Sempervirens Falls, they named themselves the Sempervirens Club and passed a hat to jump-start the purchase of the grove for protection. With help from the presidents of Stanford University and then-Santa Clara College, as well as the editor of the San Jose Mercury News, the Sempervirens Club persuaded the California legislature in 1901 to purchase 3,800 acres for the creation of the California Redwood Park, the state’s first. It was, of course, later to become Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Recovery and Reopening

In the nearly 120 years since coming under the protection of the California state park system, the redwood forest of Big Basin has made a remarkable recovery from the assault by loggers. Many first-time visitors probably don’t even realize that they are looking at relatively young second-growth trees. Beloved trails like the Redwood Loop, the Sequoia Trail and the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail lead past impressive redwoods and Douglas firs to beautiful forested vistas bearing no resemblance to the barren hillsides, slash, and drag marks left in the wake of uncontrolled logging.

Big Basin won’t be open to visitors for another year. Kerbavaz explains that there are just too many boardwalks, steps, handrails, culverts and bridges to be built before visitors can safely enter the park, and “hazard” trees must be felled so they don’t topple in high winds and wreak more havoc. Additionally, the natural resources need time to recover.

As a scientist, Kerbavaz is looking forward to seeing if more redwood seedlings than usual appear this spring, drinking in sunlight usually blocked by thick understory. She’s also eager to see what happens with knobcone pine trees, whose cones require temperatures of over 350 degrees open. “We expect to see a flush of new seedlings from those trees,” she says. Other than that, she notes, it’s hard to predict what the forest will look like in 5, 10, or 20 years.

“One thing we know is a high proportion of redwoods survive fires. One study showed that 95% of them survive,” she says. “They’re just going to look different for a while.”

Kerbavaz points out that in 1904, shortly after the state park designation, Big Basin suffered a fire that “devastated” the landscape, according to horrified witnesses. Today few people are even aware of that fire’s existence.

“We don’t have the data to look back on a regional scale and say, ‘Was there a fire like [the CZU fire] in the past?’ But I know with trees that stand for 2,000 years, they’ve seen a lot.”

Read more about the resilience of the Big Basin Redwoods State Park forest in Redwood Love.