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Old Trees

Last week I wrote about the proposed timber harvest plan on the edge of the Little River Airport property. In that piece I said something to the effect that most of the people opposing this particular plan couldn't find their way out of the very same woodlands they are seeking to protect. That comment derived from a walk I took into the Airport property in August. Not only were several of my fellow hikers thoroughly turned around after tromping a couple of hundred feet into the brush and woods, there's another impression that pops up consistently whenever I'm among blind environmentalists. Yes Virginia, there are blind environmentalists; not in the literal sense, but a guilt ridden, mindless cadre of Mendo-lib followers. I'm talking about the sort who think every logging operation is a clearcut, that every logging operation that happened before they got here and stopped a couple was a clearcut.

The first 25-30 years of logging near the Mendocino Coast was accomplished by men with axes, chopping down huge old growth redwoods that stood very close to our coastal streams. The logs were rolled, often with jackscrews, into the rivers then floated down to holding areas called booms and on to the sawmills located at or near the mouths of the rivers. The first sawmill on the Albion started operations in 1852 more or less at the same time as on Big River. By 1856 Alexander Macpherson had sawmills operating on both the Albion and Noyo Rivers.

Clearcutting was a practical impossibility in these early decades, primarily due to the lengthy process of cutting down a ten to twenty foot diameter tree with nothing more than an ax. An individual tree could produce thousands of board feet of lumber, if felled deftly so that it landed as smoothly and gently as possible. Good choppers were highly prized in the woods. Until the very recent past choppers (still called that long after chainsaws became the norm in the woods) were paid by the board foot, meaning the more mill-able lumber they preserved when falling a redwood or fir the more they earned. Just as in society in general the woods has/had a class system: choppers were at the head of that class.


This leads us to another reason early woodsmen couldn't clearcut. In any heavily timbered stand, attempting to fall all the large timber would have lead to trees crashing one on top of the other, smashing much of the valuable lumber before it ever reached the river let alone the sawmill.

The axes themselves usually weighed between three and four pounds, often double-bit (a sharpened blade on each side), with hickory handles five to ten inches longer than the average big league baseball bat, and costing upwards of a dollar. John Reilly, who later settled in Anderson Valley (the Reilly Heights sign can still be spotted alongside the road about halfway between Floodgate and Philo), renowned as one of the fastest fallers around, chopped down a 19-foot diameter redwood alongside the Albion more or less single-handed in three summer days.

Not long after, in the early 1880s, John Dolbeer of Humboldt County invented something that changed the nature of logging. That innovation was the steam donkey. The contraption looked something like a backwoods still or a boiler engine. Its mechanical engine could be moved into the woods by a single horse or oxen. Dolbeer's first model had a 150 foot rope which was wrapped around a spool on the “donkey.” The four and a half inch thick rope was spooled out to a log which the donkey engine then pulled back to it. Picture the most rudimentary CAT or tractor. Improvements in the steam donkey by 1900, led to faster removal of logs from the woods, which in turn allowed more and more trees to be felled in a given area. Thus by the first decade of the twentieth century, something approaching clearcutting began to happen in certain areas of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties.

Steam Donkey
Steam Donkey

Needless to say, there were no real studies done to determine how much of the West Coast was covered in old growth forests before the arrival of European-Americans around the time of the California Gold Rush. The first college educated foresters did not appear on the local scene until after World War I; Walker Tilley being the first employed by the Albion Lumber Company. The Great Depression provided a nearly generation-long respite in the logging industry, long enough for significant forestry studies to establish that approximately 55% of California's productive forest land was still covered by old growth timber. By 1992, forestlands in general within California had shrunk by more than 20% (approximately four million less total acres than in the Depression era study) and the percentage of timberlands forested by old growth trees had been reduced to a mere 19%.

Obviously, those numbers have declined further in the intervening decades. Some current estimates put the percentage of old growth redwood at just 4% in our Northern California coastal forests. Approximately 83% of old growth timber on the West Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) exists within National Forests, National Parks, or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property. State parks hold another one percent of old growth. Native Americans control about 1.5% and private landholders own approximately 14%.

Is there old growth timber on the Little River Airport property? The problem here is definition. There is no clearcut definition of just what constitutes “old growth” by the powers that be. Anyone who has followed my writings on local forest practices knows that I am far from a fan of Mendocino Redwood Company, but their corporate definition of old growth is one of the closest to a common sense meaning:

1. Any redwood tree 48” diameter or greater at breast height (dbh), established prior to 1800;

2. Any Douglas-fir tree, 36” dbh or greater, established prior to 1800;

3. Any tree established prior to 1800 (conifer or hardwood), regardless of dbh, with a preponderance of species-specific old growth characteristics;

4. Any tree (conifer or hardwood) established prior to 1800 that cannot be replaced in size or ecological function within 80-130 years regardless of dbh or presence of old growth characteristics. Generally, this fourth trigger is applicable to areas of exceptionally low soil quality, such as pygmy forest, pygmy transition soil, serpentine soils, or rocky outcroppings.

Readers should be aware that those who seek to protect the larger trees in the Little River Airport property may glom onto this final definition because the land in question exists near pygmy transitional soil. However, from my experience, and the experience of my forebears who chopped, sawed, and chainsawed redwoods to the ground, the redwoods within the Little River Airport timber harvest plan exhibit the characteristics of older second-growth trees, right down to some examples of the classic “fairy ring” trait of second growth circling around a burnt out stump that once was their old growth ancestor. In addition, anecdotal historical recollections of my ancestors and their peers more than suggest that what is now the Little River Airport property was significantly logged decades before its lesser pygmy and pine areas were cleared for an airstrip during World War II.


  1. Marshall Newman September 12, 2014

    In 1959 or 1960, my parents, siblings and I took a tour of the Union Lumber Company in Fort Bragg. Back then it had a huge room with a high pressure water gun that removed bark from redwood logs. The logs rolled in through a door that must have been 15 or 16 feet tall and the old growth, virgin logs literally filled the space, fitting through with only inches to spare. It was likely around the end of virgin redwood logging on the Mendocino Coast: I have not seen logs so big at a lumber mill since (though some logs I saw in the log deck at the mill just south of Cloverdale a couple of years later were close).

  2. John Taubeneck June 7, 2018

    Where can I get a copy of the photo of the steam donkey above?

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