Saving America’s Living Monuments

Horace Albright tells the story of a campaign to save “the Big Trees” for the public.

Man standing in front of a Redwood Tree

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


When newspapers began printing reports in 1852 of the massive redwoods found along the West Coast, Americans took notice. Whether it was the fact that they were unique to the United States, their longevity, or their sheer size and strength, these giant sequoias stirred in us a sense of pride and patriotism. U.S. naturalists, for example, would have none of it when a British scientist wanted to name the giant redwood after the British general who defeated Napoleon. In fact, the redwood trees in California’s Mariposa Grove were among the first beneficiaries of federal protection when President Lincoln signed “The Yosemite and Big Tree Grant” in 1864, ceding land from Yosemite and Mariposa to the state of California.

But not all the nation’s redwood forests benefited from such protection. Although the Sequoia giganteum, the giant redwood, was of poor quality for lumber, the Sequoia sempervirens, the coastal redwood, was highly prized. The housing boom that accompanied the California Gold Rush turned acres of redwoods into homes. The rebuilding effort after a massive earthquake rocked San Francisco and left it burning for days also depleted the redwood forests, as did another housing boom after World War II.

Conservationists had their work cut out for them, but work they did. In the feature that follows — from the Post of February 7, 1953 — Horace Albright, the second director of the National Park Service, tells the story of a campaign that raised more than $5 million to save 60,000 acres of “the Big Trees” for the public.

Today, roughly 5 percent of California’s virgin redwood forests remain, thanks to the ongoing efforts of conservation groups like the Sempervirens Club, the Save the Redwoods League, and others.

How We Saved the Big Trees

By Horace M. Albright with Frank J. Taylor

February 7, 1953


The mighty redwoods would be practically extinct today — if it hadn’t been for a 30-year crusade of dickering, swapping, money raising, and political trading. Here, by the ex-boss of our National Parks, is the story behind that garnering of $5,000,000 and the saving of 60,000 acres of sequoias.  

One day last summer Bernard M. Baruch, who delights in philosophizing on park benches, found himself in a unique setting. On his 82nd birthday, the sage elder statesman sat on a log beneath the world’s tallest living thing, a 364-foot redwood known as The Founders’ Tree in California’s fragrant, cathedral-like Humboldt State Park, and cogitated.

“I have sat upon many park benches, but never before on one in such a setting as this,” mused Baruch. “In the shade of this majestic tree, a man may refresh his spirit, drawing upon the strength and beauty of this living column.”

Many people have drawn strength from these forest giants, some of them thousands of years old. One distinguished visitor, Sir George Campbell, a British representative at the birth of the United Nations in San Francisco, even urged his fellow delegates to “meet outdoors in the great redwood forests”

Most of the people who experience this spiritual lift take the Big Tree groves for granted. The Big Trees were always there; they always will be. It comes as a jolting shock to learn that, except for the dedicated 30-year battle of a small group of Big Tree enthusiasts, most of these magnificent groves would have been stumps by now. Also, to discover that there are still some Big Trees yet to be saved from the lumbermen’s saws.

Along with other zealots, I have been up to my eyebrows in the intriguing, and at times baffling, hobby of saving the Big Trees. Outside of national parks, we don’t want to save all the Big Trees, only the so-called “museum stands.” These are the occasional groves so outstanding in beauty, setting, size, and age that they should be preserved and protected for posterity. We think our grandchildren and their children ought to be able to enjoy these samples of the primitive beauty of the land as it was before the white man applied his ruthless civilizing process to the continent.

Now you would think it would be fairly easy to set aside a few groves of Big Trees out of the vast primeval forests that once blanketed much of our land. It wasn’t. It has turned out to be one of the most difficult projects ever attempted. In fact, nothing short of a crusade could have recovered a small part of the heritage we allowed to slip away through negligence and chicanery.

I was first caught up in this cause in 1915, when I was assistant to Stephen T. Mather, founder and first director of the National Park Service, and the most zealous tree saver of us all. Later, succeeding him as director, I was in a position to spearhead the drive for a while. Since I quit public service in 1933 to head the United States Potash Company, I have devoted time and energy to helping complete the job. Being in the mining business, which utilizes something left for us beneath the earth by time and nature, I feel it my duty to help restore some of our natural resources for future generations. I still keep in touch with national and state park affairs and serve on boards and committees of conservation organizations, including the Save-the-Redwoods League. Not a year passes without some tree-saving project having my attention, and I am in constant touch with Newton B. Drury, secretary of the Save-the-Redwoods League for 20 years, director of the National Park Service for 10 years, and now chief of the California state-park system.

It took a lot of dickering, swapping, money raising and political jockeying to recover the thousands of acres of forest land that have been restored to the people. The Founders’ Tree, under which Bernie Baruch sat, is named for three farsighted visionaries, Pres. Henry Fairfield Osborn, of the American Museum of Natural History; Dr. John C. Merriam, of the University of California, later head of the Carnegie Institution in Washington; and Pres. Madison Grant, of the New York Zoological Society. I came near being the fourth horseman in this founders’ group, when, in the summer of 1917, I met Osborn, Merriam, and Grant at the Bohemian Grove, a small but impressive stand of redwoods saved from destruction by the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. They asked me to join them in a scouting trip into the redwood lumbering belt, where they heard that the Big Trees were being wiped out like so many cornstalks. Unfortunately, I was unable to go.

When Osborn, Merriam, and Grant returned from the scenes of devastation, there was fire in their eyes. They lost no time in organizing the Save-the-Redwoods League, with the enthusiastic aid of Steve Mather, former Congressman William Kent, and leaders of California’s Sierra Club. Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, was the first president, and today his ashes rest in Lane Grove, a memorial to him amid the redwoods. Starting with $100 in the kitty, these men launched what is undoubtedly the greatest private conservation movement on record, one that has raised over $5,000,000, for the most part matched with state funds, to purchase some 60,000 acres of sequoias for the public. Although the league was interested mainly in saving redwoods, its example led to the recovery of many acres of other museum stands of virgin timber — sugar pine, yellow or ponderosa pine, Douglas and other firs, spruce, Eastern hardwoods, swamp cypress, even desert saguaros and Joshua trees — all over the country.

To most people, the Big Trees are the sequoias, popularly called redwoods. There are two kinds of sequoia — the gigantea and the sempervirens. Remotely related, the two types of redwood have quite different growing habits, which added to our problems in saving them.

The gigantea, or Big Tree, which is the bulkiest and oldest living thing, survives from pre-glacial days only in damp, sheltered glades from 3,000 to 8,000 feet high on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range. They have massive trunks insulated with spongy, reddish, almost-fireproof bark, and some of them are nearly 40 feet in diameter. Shallow-rooted, they balance on the surface, probably bulking over 3,000 tons. They sprout only from seed, and mature only after a millennium of growth. There are estimates of about 17,000 gigantea, 10 feet or more in diameter, growing in 70 small groves, extant out of ancient forests that are believed to have once grown widely in every Northern Hemisphere continent. These, generally speaking, are not only quite inaccessible to loggers, but the trees make inferior lumber, because of the brittleness of the wood.

The sempervirens, or coastal redwoods, on the other hand, thrive in the foggy, low regions from the Oregon border to below Big Sur, and fully 60 miles south of Monterey. Too numerous to count, they make excellent lumber, which is highly prized and high-priced. They are easily accessible by road and by railroad, and have been lumbered for a century. Not so thick of girth as the gigantea, they are taller and more graceful. Their grayish-brown bark is also almost fireproof. They grow in a dense, nearly unbroken forest that blankets valleys and hillsides in a narrow belt along the Northern California coast.

In one respect, the coastal redwoods are miracle trees. Soon after a monster is felled, its stump sends out hundreds of shoots. Within half a century a dozen survivors grow into marketable timber trees 100 feet tall. Hence their name, “sequoia everliving.” This reproductive facility made it all the harder to acquire stands of coast redwoods for park purposes, because timber owners are reluctant to part with redwood lands, even those that are cut over. They regard a stand of second-growth redwoods more highly than money in the bank.

When the Save-the-Redwoods crusade was launched in 1917 to protect some of these giants from the ax, there were only four small groves in public ownership. The state of California had one small grove set aside in Big Basin, near Santa Cruz, for a public park; Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties each had a small grove; and the Federal Government owned Muir Woods National Monument in the sheltered canyon at the base of Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco.

The Muir Grove had been bought by Congressman William Kent, who presented it to President Theodore Roosevelt for a national monument to thwart the plans of a local water company, which planned to flood the canyon for a reservoir. Kent had introduced a bill in Congress to authorize the purchase by the Federal Government of a sizable coast-redwood grove for a national park. When this was pigeonholed, Kent and his friend Mather concluded the only way to get another Federal grove was to raise money privately and buy it. With the Save-the-Redwoods League, they plotted to that end by stationing a large open automobile in the redwood area for what they called their “$10,000 tour,” a courtesy trip for anyone of means who might be inspired by a ride through the Big Tree groves to reach for his checkbook and help purchase a few trees.

To point up their sales talk, Mather and Kent took the tour themselves, with amusing results. On the Eel River in Humboldt County, they undertook to inspire some money-raising on a local level. Carried away by his own eloquence, Mather pledged $15,000 for himself, and an equal amount for Kent. This took Kent completely by surprise, but, being a man of means as well as a good sport, he wrote out his check to match Mather’s. That fattened the bank account of the Save-the-Redwoods League.

Later, in 1921, when the league was urging the California legislature to appropriate $300,000 to match private donations for the purchase of park areas, I was on a committee with Kent, Drury, and Dr. William Frederic Bade, president of the Sierra Club, to journey to Sacramento to appear before a joint senate-assembly committee considering appropriations. The legislators quickly endorsed our project, but thrifty Gov. William D. Stephens was so lukewarm, we feared he would veto the bill. Kent had known Stephens intimately when both were congressmen from California, so we decided to call on him.

The governor explained that the state was poor and the schools needed money, and he just couldn’t see spending the $300,000 for some trees. Kent leaped to his feet, pounded on the table, and shouted, “Hell, Bill, shut the schools down! The kids would enjoy it and it would only take them a year or two to make the work up! If these trees all go, it will take two thousand years to make them up!”

The governor signed the bill. The state funds enabled the league, which grew rapidly to 4,000 members, to double its purchases. Each of the league members contributed yearly, and there were some fat donations, particularly after the founders had lured some of their well-to-do friends into taking “the tour.” The $5,000,000 ultimately raised by the league, matched by state money, has bought 60 separate stands of trees along the Redwood Highway.

Mather hit the jackpot in 1926, when he induced John D. Rockefeller Jr., with his wife and three of his sons, to take the tour. After the trip, Mr. Rockefeller pledged $2,000,000 to purchase the Bull Creek Grove, near Dyerville, generally regarded as the most stately and beautiful forest in the world. A shy man, he declined to have the family name attached to the grove, and it has taken a quarter of a century, during which he has contributed many millions for tree buying in Yosemite, the Grand Teton-Jackson Hole country, Great Smokies, Acadia National Park and other areas as well, to persuade him to let the California Park Commission officially rename the Bull Creek stand The Rockefeller Redwood Forest.

Today the screens of big trees saved by the league line much of the Redwood Highway, making it one of the world’s inspiring scenic drives. But for the zeal of the Save-the-Redwoods League, it might have been a pavement running through 200 miles of desolation. Fortunately, the larger redwood companies played ball with us and kept their logging crews away from the highway until the league could raise money to buy the groves selected for purchase.

Saving the Big Trees in the Sierra Nevada was a more complicated task for several reasons. Some of these groves were privately owned, some were in national parks, a few in national forests. Though the giant redwoods made poor lumber, they always grew among stands of pines, firs and cedars coveted by the lumbering interests, and it was almost impossible to cut these trees without damaging the sequoias. Anyway, a Big Tree forest without pines, firs, cedars, and native shrubs all growing naturally and in a primitive state would not be worth saving. So everything had to be acquired.

Few Americans understand the peculiar status of their public domain. They assume that if timber is in the national forests, it is safe, but forget that the United States Forest Service is an agency charged by law to sell timber and to see that it is cut scientifically and profitably — except for occasional “primitive areas” which have been set aside to save primeval forest for inspirational and recreational uses. The conservation agency charged with protecting natural wonders, sublime scenery, and public forests unchanged for posterity is the National Park Service. One of the ironies of the situation is that millions of acres were allowed to slip from public ownership back in the ’80s and ’90s for less than two dollars an acre; today it is with difficulty that we buy the same tracts of timber back for $1,000 an acre, or even more. Many Big Tree groves were fraudulently filed upon in the easy-go days when the Federal Government was eager to settle the West fast. The giant sequoias almost always grow in or near damp glades, where their roots can pump up millions of gallons of water in the course of a year. In the spring and early summer, these glades are swampy. So many Big Trees were finagled into private hands under the infamous Swamp and Overflow Act — since repealed — which encouraged private enterprisers to drain swamps and turn them into productive farmlands.

Many were the wiles and stratagems of the timber hunters, as William B. Greeley, former head of the United States Forest Service, points out in his book, Forests and Men: “Agents of the General Land Office finally checked some S. and O. claims in California, whose swampy character seemed to coincide most strangely, 40 by 40, with choice stands of redwood timber. The locator had attested to the marshy nature of the ground by a sworn statement that he had crossed it in a bateau. What further proof could any reasonable official ask? His affidavit neglected to include a minor detail that the bateau was mounted on axles and wheels, and drawn across the sections of dry land by a yoke of oxen.”

Luckily, the first lumbermen who attempted to turn the Sequoia gigantea into boards found that they had tackled more than they could handle. The Big Trees were simply too huge, as became evident in a ghastly way in the Converse Grove on the western edge of Kings Canyon National Park. Here, 40 years after the lumbering was attempted, lay giant trunks scattered over an alpine basin, shattered into many pieces as they crashed to earth. The lumbermen departed, leaving the logs on the ground, after felling once-majestic trees that were giants when the Christian Era began.

After that debacle, the giant sequoia groves were safe from destruction for a time, for the selfish reason that it did not pay to make lumber of them. As John Muir, the implacable mountaineer, naturalist, and founder of the Sierra Club, once remarked, “No doubt these trees would make lumber after passing through a sawmill, just as George Washington, after passing through the hands of a French cook, would have made food.” Nevertheless, Big Trees are being lumbered this year in the Dillon Grove on the edge of Sequoia National Park, one tree having yielded over 7,000 grape stakes. Spurred by high prices, lumbermen are splitting the huge trunks with enormous wedges, driven by bulldozers, then hauling them off to the sawmills.

The first museum stand of these Big Trees earmarked for posterity was the Mariposa Grove, now in Yosemite National Park. It was ceded by Congress in 1864 to the state of California, becoming the first state park in the United States. It was returned to the Federal Government in 1906. Two landmarks in this grove — the Wawona Tree, so huge that sightseeing busses drive through it, and the Grizzly Giant — are rated by botanists as among the oldest living things on earth.

Sequoia National Park was created in 1890, specifically to save several fine Big Tree stands, but the superlative grove of the area, the Giant Forest, was already in private hands, as a result of a filing under the Swamp and Overflow Act. Almost half a century passed before the people got it back. By that time the Giant Forest was cluttered with shacks, an eyesore in one of Nature’s noblest temples. In 1915, Steve Mather obtained an option to buy the grove for $50,000. By the time Congress got around to appropriating the money, the option had expired and the owners were demanding $20,000 more. Fearful that the price would go still higher, Mather took his troubles to Pres. Gilbert Grosvenor and the trustees of the National Geographic Society, with the result that the society made available the funds to complete the purchase of this magnificent property. The General Sherman Tree, probably the largest in the world, is in the Giant Forest.

Mather made other purchases out of his own funds and with the aid of gifts from friends. Several of these deals took place concurrently with the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills scandals, which got Mather’s superior, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, into much trouble because he had accepted financial assistance from oilman Edward L. Doheny. Mather used to boast that he “took money from Doheny.” When pressed to explain what he did with the money, Mather always replied, “I bought Big Trees.” Mather, Doheny, Sen. W. F. Chandlery of Fresno, and George Eastman, the camera magnate, put up the cash to purchase the forests along the roads in Sequoia National Park.

By the time the National Park Service was created in 1916, logging railroads had pushed into the Yosemite National Park area, threatening devastation along all three approaches — the Wawona, the Big Oak Flat and the Coulterville roads. Mather, when he took over as director of the National Park Service, could foresee the day when travelers to Yosemite’s grandeur would have to motor more miles through devastated mountainside. Unable to persuade Congress to buy back the timber the Government’s land agents had virtually given to lumbering interests, Mather utilized authority granted in a 1912 Act of Congress and undertook to swap trees along the much-used Wawona road.

The plan was to trade the lumber companies out of screens of sugar pines, yellow pines, cedars, red, white, and Douglas firs by offering them other timber lands inside the park, in areas not visible from the roads. Although the lumber companies agreed in theory to the program, it wasn’t so easy to work out in practice. The loggers demanded bonuses for changing their operations, for moving their railroads and camps, for selective cutting within the park, and for going to the remote areas.

The screens of trees we wanted varied from 200 feet to half a mile in width, depending on the terrain and the view. We couldn’t have the strips too narrow or the timber might be blown down in violent storms; we didn’t want them too wide or the timber would cost too much. It took four years to work out the swaps to save some 10,000 acres of carefully chosen stands of trees. We gave the lumber companies a lot more than they gave us, but we got the Big Trees we wanted, all the way along a new mountain highway, then projected and since completed. The south entrance to the park was saved.

That left the north entrance, via Big Oak Flat, still in danger of devastation. Much of the mountainside outside the park was already cut over, and the loggers had left a scenic mess, if I ever saw one. Unfortunately, we didn’t have comparable timber to exchange on this side of the park, so the swapping idea was out. While working on this pressing problem, Director Mather’s health failed, and then it was up to me to save the timber along these two roads. I had to do it fast or the fine forests would be beyond salvation. The only way to preserve them was to buy the timber back at around five dollars per 1,000 board feet for trees, mostly sugar pine, that we could have bought for two dollars per 1,000 ten years before. It would take a lot of money — over $3,000,000 — to do the job. Even so, in retrospect it was a bargain; fine sugar pine today is worth $45 to $50 per 1,000.

First I talked with Rep. Louis Cramton, of Michigan, and with other congressional leaders who controlled the purse strings, and asked them if they would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to match, dollar for dollar, any money I could raise from private sources. This looked like a bargain to them, so they told me to go ahead. While I was wondering where to turn for money, Nicholas Roosevelt, New York Times writer and wilderness enthusiast, visited Yosemite National Park. He wandered afoot among the huge pine and fir forests, took pictures of the areas being devastated by the loggers, and reported what he had seen so graphically in the Times that it aroused John D. Rockefeller Jr. to quick action. He offered to match, dollar for dollar, whatever the Federal Government put up to buy the trees.

We had the money, but we still didn’t have the trees, because there were two big lumber interests involved, and they were hard traders. One was Jim Tyson, an old-time timber operator and as tough a dealer as I have ever encountered. The other, Alexander Fleming, was a benefactor of California Institute of Technology, who took the attitude that the more dollars he could extract from the Rockefellers, the more it meant for his favorite charity. Luckily, when he had just about bogged down and the fate of the trees was dismal indeed, the San Francisco bankers who had financed the lumbermen and who knew they were losing money at the time on their logging operations cracked down and forced them to accept our offer of $3,300,000 for 15,560 acres of timber. Mr. Rockefeller put up half and Congress voted the other half. Thus we were able to restore to Yosemite National Park much of the valuable land and timber lost in the earlier days.

Farther north are the Calaveras Big Tree Groves, majestic stands of giant sequoias, intermingled with tall and stately sugar and yellow pines, firs, and cedars. Although the Calaveras Groves were not designated park areas, we had planned to get these fine trees in public ownership since 1924, when Mather and I first went in on horseback to see them. Discovered by A.T. Dowd, a miner, in 1852, the Calaveras Big Trees were famous long before Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove and Sequoia’s Giant Forest were known.

The first reports of the gold seekers as to the size of the Calaveras trees were regarded as tall tales. To prove the reports true, five loggers spent 22 days felling one of the giants, after which they smoothed off the stump to make a dance floor twenty-five feet across. The bark from a section of this giant, thirty feet in length, was skinned off the log and sent to London, where a room was built of it in an effort to convince skeptics. Thus the North Calaveras Grove became one of the wonders of the world for early-day travelers to visit. It was made a state park in 1932.

What the thousands of visitors to this grove didn’t know was that a few miles distant, in the Stanislaus River watershed, was another stand of sequoias even more magnificent. This is the South Calaveras Grove, owned by the Pickering Lumber Company, of Kansas City. The South Grove was in no critical danger in 1924, when we visited it via foresters’ trails, so we concentrated our efforts on saving trees about to be felled. Today it is a different story. As a result of the postwar building boom and the increased demand for lumber, the loggers are on the very edge of the South Calaveras Grove. In fact, it is in deadly peril, and saving it is our major objective right now.

In the North Calaveras Grove deal, the Save-the-Redwoods League put up $72,000 and the Calaveras Grove Association raised $32,000. The state matched this money out of a $6,000,000 fund set aside several years ago to acquire sites for state parks. The South Calaveras Grove deal is even more involved. The standing timber has skyrocketed in value, and this means we have to raise millions where we used to raise hundreds of thousands. More than $2,000,000 in cash may be required, half of it to come from private donations, half from the state’s fund. The United States Forest Service is helping out by ceding to the state of California a strip of sugar-pine-and-fir acreage for a parkway between the two groves of sequoias. The Forest Service will also swap other timber for sugar pines owned by the private lumber interests lying immediately north of the South Grove. The sugar pine has been called “our most handsome tree” and “The Queen of the Sierras.”

The spectacular success of the Save-the-Redwoods League inspired similar tree-saving drives in other states. In fact, the movement gained such momentum that in 1921, Mather organized in Des Moines the National Conference on State Parks and set up a small division of the National Park Service to aid state park drives. He kicked off one of the first of these personally around a campfire on Mt. Rainier, where the Washington State Park plan was born in 1921. The Save-the-Trees drive in that state concentrated on the approaches to Mt. Rainier National Park, and on the Olympic National Park, in which thrives a unique rain forest of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and hemlock, giants reaching 200 feet into the sky, with trunks 10 feet through. One Douglas fir in Olympic Park is over 17 feet through, and the largest Alaska cedar ever found, located in this park, is 20 feet in diameter. The annual rainfall of 140 inches a year accounts for the growth.

Usually these state drives gave birth to state parks, but occasionally to a national park. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains more than 500,000 acres, with upward of 200,000 acres covered with virgin forests consisting of 130 species of native trees, including many hardwoods. It was acquired with a $5,000,000 contribution from John D. Rockefeller Jr. in honor of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, matched by a similar sum from the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. This great park was officially dedicated in 1940.

Ten years later, Mr. Rockefeller saved an 1,100-acre tract of virgin Eastern forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. When our option on this tract, which also included the superb Linville Falls and Gorge, was about to expire without his offer to contribute one half the purchase price being matched, he wired me to acquire the property even if he had to meet the entire cost. He did and the sum was $95,000.

There are still notable stands of native trees in peril, and the danger is that with so much accomplished, the people will become complacent and say we have enough trees in public ownership. Idaho may have enough, Washington may have, and likewise Maine. But with our fast-increasing population, we need more public forests in more states. We don’t want to save all the redwoods, or all the sugar pines, or all the hardwoods. All we hope to do is to keep intact for as long as the trees live the finer groves in which public enjoyment outvalues manyfold the dollar earnings from harvesting timber.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *