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Red Gold Brings Its Own Rush

Redwoods that fall in state preserves remain protected by law. But 'a good little stick' brings a gleam to the eye of Oral Martin Whitlow Jr.

March 19, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

REDCREST, Calif. — Don't call Oral Martin Whitlow Jr. a river pirate. He's no poacher either. This fourth-generation woodsman says he's in the redwood salvage business, when the opportunity presents itself.

And he would be happily salvaging a giant redwood on this wintry day if park rangers didn't harbor the foolish notion that the towering trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park belong to the state -- even after they topple into the swollen Eel River and begin to float away.

"They'd have you in handcuffs and in the crowbar motel before you know it," Whitlow says. That's his way of explaining why he left his chain saw at home.

Still, Whitlow admires "a good little stick" when he spots one in the Eel. He angles his jet-powered river sled toward one resting on a gravel bar, expertly coming alongside the hulking trunk. His calloused hands run over the reddish bark to take its measure.

"See? No knots," he says. Clear, vertical grain. Five feet in diameter. His eyes close as he does some figuring. Milled right and sold on the right market, this slab of old-growth redwood could fetch $60,000.

"That's red gold," he says.

The gold rush for old-growth redwood is long past, of course. About 3% of California's native stands of giant redwoods remain, most of them protected in public parks and reserves like this one, an hour's drive south of Eureka.

Such protections make old-growth redwood all the more valuable -- and enticing -- not just to unemployed loggers in this chronically depressed region but to rural residents whose families have made a living from the forests for generations.

Park officials say the protected forests are under siege. Redwood National Park has documented dozens of incidents of redwood theft or vandalism in the last five years. One woodworker was convicted last fall of cutting down a redwood in an area where seven others previously had been felled.

State park officials don't collect such records, but park rangers from the Oregon border to the mountains above Santa Cruz play a continual round of cat and mouse with poachers trying to truck off parts of coastal redwoods, the tallest trees on Earth.

Poachers slip into the protected forests under the cover of darkness and fire up chain saws to cut off the toes or knobby knees of the giant redwoods. They are after the burls, the intricately whorled growths. The swirling grain of this wood, when carved into bowls, sculptures or tabletops, forms bird's eyes and other beautiful patterns.

The amputations normally don't kill the trees, but poachers are not above cutting down a tree to get a burl that is too high to reach from the ground. Two stout redwoods were felled recently in the heart of the park's primeval Rockefeller Forest. One, dated by its rings, had a history stretching back to the American Revolution. The other was a sapling before Christopher Columbus reached the New World.

The poachers got away, but left without their prized burls. One of them, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, rests in the park's maintenance yard as confiscated evidence. Park officials estimate it would be worth about $4,000 to the redwood curio shops that ring the park.

Others fill their pickups with any parts of old-growth redwoods they can get because of the usually tight rings and hardiness of these trees, which grew slowly over hundreds of years in the dense forest. The lumber from these trees is prized because it resists rot and holds up longer than other types of wood.

Thieves pound wedges into fallen tree trunks, splitting off pieces suitable for fence posts or rails.

Whitlow insists that he would go after a park tree only after it had fallen into the river and headed to the ocean. He has been rescuing trees from the river since the 1950s, he says, and has made thousands and thousands of dollars.

The problem is that state officials have declared all of the park's trees off-limits to scroungers. Trees that fall in the forest or even ones that drop into the adjacent Eel River, which flows through the park, play an important role in nature's cycle, ecologists say.

On land, they provide a reservoir of moisture and organic material that replenishes the forest floor. In the river, they create deep, cool crevices that help young salmon and trout survive hot summers.

"Let nature rule," says Steve Horvitz, superintendent of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. "That's what the parks are all about."

Each tree, he says, has value beyond the number of board-feet it can supply. Every year, millions of visitors come to see the ancient coastal redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, which grow taller than the Statue of Liberty and live as long as 2,000 years. Visitors tend to lower their voices when they approach a grove of ancient redwoods as if entering a cathedral. Even the fallen trees have the allure of ancient ruins.

This sort of nature worship drives Whitlow, well, up a tree. This is God's larder, not his museum, he says.

What does Whitlow see when he takes in an old redwood? "Dollars and cents," he says

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