Little Lost Man basin. Credit: Tyler Williams.
By the turn of the century, San Francisco’s progressive Sempervirens Club was gaining a small foothold in opposition to the juggernaut of redwood carnage, and a handful of societal elites were funding land grabs of their own, in the name of preservation. Congressman-philanthropist William Kent established and named Muir Woods in 1906, and a decade later a seminal redwood-saving road trip was undertaken by paleontologists John C. Merriam and Henry Osborn and controversial ethnographer Madison Grant. Their drive up the developing Redwood Highway — today’s Highway 101 — brought them past the giant trees of Bull Creek Flats, and this forest glen became a top priority for the newly formed Save the Redwoods League. The grove finally gained protection in 1931 when John D. Rockefeller donated $2 million for its acquisition. It was the single biggest victory of the preservationist movement at the time, but it would only be 15 years before it also became their biggest lesson.
Winter rains come in waves along California’s North Coast, tapping tropical moisture sources to spew inches of water in a matter of hours. During these episodes, the coast mountains become exceptionally dynamic. Landslides of mud slew downhill, big trees topple from gusts of wind upon loose saturated soil, rivers rage and claw at their banks. This has been going on for centuries. But, by 1955, the mountains surrounding Bull Creek were denuded, and, although the eye-popping trees of the valley were protected by law, an apocalypse began to unfold during a particularly drenching storm.
Scientists Douglas Jager and Richard LaVen’s assessment of the resulting flood paints a clear picture:
“The 1955 flood entrained a sawmill cold deck, cull logs, charred stumps, slash, houses, car bodies, propane tanks, mattresses, tires, and a few coffins, mixed them liberally with the products of erosion, and deposited them in the lower six miles of the Bull Creek channel.”
Dozens of big redwoods were lost due to bank failure, and the once quaint little creek was altered into a wide plain of sediment. The golden trophy of redwood preservation was ingloriously tarnished in a cake of mud.
Hastily constructed roads and clear-cut hillsides were the primary culprits for the destructive flood. With the heavy rain, erosion ran unchecked from a freshly exposed landscape that was once held together by a web of root and bush and raindrop-shielding canopy. In preservation terms, it was apparent that simply safe guarding the biggest trees was not enough. The Bull Creek flood prompted a more holistic view of old-growth stewardship. Save The Redwoods and California State Parks sprang to action, and, by the late 1960s, most of the Bull Creek basin was in some form of park management.
The new Bull Creek acquisitions were still underway as a second major flood came in 1964. This one had a far greater reach than the ‘55 flood, destroying not just the rehabilitation work that was underway on Bull Creek, but also damaging bridges and other infrastructure throughout the region. Questions about indiscriminate logging were now recognized not just by the conservationists but even among the general public.
This was the last chance to preserve an entire intact watershed of old-growth redwood. There were still a few out there. But, the wheels of change are grinding, and, by the time Redwood National Park was being pieced together between 1968 and 1978, the last of the old-growth valleys fell to the saw.
Ninety minutes north of Bull Creek, the basin of Redwood Creek became the most contentious part of park expansion, not just because there were big trees there but because the threats of upstream erosion were very real. Abandoned logging roads collapsed during floods in 1972 and in 1975, damaging some of the coveted big redwoods downstream. After a protracted battle, the Carter administration finally obtained the lower third of the watershed for park land in 1978. Like so many valleys behind the redwood curtain, much of Redwood Creek was logged before the legal deal was signed.