Published: October 2009
Hidden Giants
After 333 days and 2,000 miles, wilderness savant Mike Fay found every last redwood. Now he wants to save them.
Text by Cliff Ransom

“I thought I’d be able to just Google it,” says biologist Mike Fay of locating the country’s southernmost redwood tree. Instead Fay and his hiking partner, activist Lindsey Holm, found themselves on the southern border of Los Padres National Forest in California, clawing their way up a steep-sided canyon.

“It’s thicker than hell. Impenetrable chaparral and poison oak like crazy,” Fay says. “After half an hour I get up to the top of this drainage where I see [what I think is] the southernmost redwood. Then I look around. Sure as hell, there’s another tree in a drainage farther south. So I’m like, damn, I’ve got to do this all over again. And I do. Then I see another tree even farther south. And it’s going on like this all frickin’ day.”

“You know where I found the southernmost redwood in the continental United States? Fifteen feet from California Route 1. I could have driven there.”

It was an inauspicious start to an ambitious project: to walk the length of the redwood range. For the next 332 days, Fay and Holm hiked nearly 2,000 miles, factoring in twists and turns, ups and downs. For Fay, the project was a California-style Megatransect, a domestic replay of his now famous 456-day trek across central Africa. The goal was the same—to gain a boots-on-the-ground understanding of a place in danger—but this time the venue was the tallest forest on the planet.

In the past 150 years, 95 percent of all redwoods have been cleared. The 5 percent that remain are still being liquidated. To Fay, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. Coastal redwoods are the highest reaching organisms on Earth. The most ancient tree, some 2,200 years old, sprouted well before the birth of Christ. The forest existed in the time of the dinosaurs and today contains more standing biomass acre for acre than the Amazon. Yet it has been reduced to mere patches on a map. Fay and Holm set out to wander every last grove, conducting the first complete survey.

In the Santa Lucia Range, Fay found trees far south of traditional redwood territory. “We’d end up in these little tiny canyons,” he says. “They’re only a hundred yards wide, but there’s a redwood forest with virgin trees. No one ever cut up there. It was too gnarly and too far up. Not even the dope growers go there.”

From the Santa Lucias, the pair marched north past Big Sur, then into the groves around Santa Cruz. Since redwoods rely on fog for up to 40 percent of their water, they never grow more than 50 miles from the coast. Fay and Holm stuck to this range, even around San Francisco, where scientists expected a gap in the redwoods (turns out, there are some in Berkeley).

Because Fay and Holm agreed to camp the entire way, passing up a roof even when offered, they resupplied at 45 food caches placed along the route. By the time they hit the heart of redwood country in northern California, they had met a slew of characters: tree-climbing scientists who reach the forest crown with ropes and study the barely known world of the redwood canopy; loggers who practice sustainable timber harvests; private homeowners, ranchers, and rich landowners.

Speaking to everyone he could, Fay began to wrap his mind around the redwood range—and to see its potential. The original forest, he says, was “the mother lode, an insane amount of wood, like 300,000 board feet per acre. But there was no thought to regeneration. There was no management. So now you’ve got all this second growth coming up that’s not worth much. If we could rebuild this forest, we could have a sustainable yield that’s 20 times what we have today.”

Combining smart cuts and watershed repair with new incentives like carbon credits, Fay says, is the path to restoring this once great forest. Loggers can remove more wood from a healthy forest, and the higher quality of wood from older trees commands a better price. It’s a win-win-win.

“We’d meet up with these loggers, and we’d be talking turkey with the best of them, like board footage and prices,” Fay says. “They realized pretty quick that we weren’t the typical hippie conservationists who show up, walk for 20 minutes, and think they know everything. And that word spreads. We wound up getting emails from people we didn’t even know saying, You’ve got to get down to this grove. We can put you up.”

Such collaboration between loggers and conservationists might have been unthinkable back in the early 1990s, when redwood-related violence struck the small communities of northern California. Today, Fay says, that confrontation has mellowed, and many loggers want to preserve the forests as much as conservationists.

Almost as evidence, on the final day of their trek, Fay and Holm were trying to track down the northernmost redwood. They had crossed the California line the day before and walked into Oregon’s Chetco Valley. As Fay tells it, a logger drives up, and “It turns out he’s the son-in-law of the guy who owns like 250,000 acres in southern Oregon. So we’re bullshitting with him for an hour or so, and I say, ‘So you got all the land up here, right?’

“And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been logging it for the last 27 years, and I know every frickin’ little spot in this forest.’

“And I’m like, ‘Any redwoods out here?’

“And he’s like, ‘Nope. Not one. You see that spot down there? That is exactly where they end.’”

After nearly a year in the forest, the biologist and the activist relied on a logger to complete their quest. A more fitting end—or better yet, beginning—is difficult to imagine.