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 An update from California on coast redwood

Bill Libby, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2007.

To quote one of our redwood foresters ‘Redwood remains the most valuable species in California. Redwood has unlimited markets for products. Once established, redwood plantations have low silvicultural costs throughout rotation. Redwoods have exceptionally high soil stabilisation properties...Redwood is disease and insect resistant in contrast to all other commercial species being grown in California.’  It is thinking like this that, in the past decade, has made redwoods the species of choice where coast redwood can be grown.

California is experiencing a housing slump, resulting in decreased overall production of timber during the past year. However, a recent report from Mendocino County indicates that redwood has continued its rising trend of the past several years, with mill output of up 10% in 2006. This contributed an increase in product value of US$24 million for Mendocino County mills. In Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, the two counties with the most redwoods, redwood logs sold last year for US$199 million and US$90 million respectively.

Markets for redwood outside of California have greatly contracted. This seems most likely due to the California market absorbing most of the available redwood timber.

Increasing redwood areas converted

The movie Sideways stimulated increased interest in pinot noir wine, with repercussions in our redwood region. Viticulturists have identified the climate of coast redwood forests as being ideal for raising the pinot noir grapes, creating pressure to convert redwood forests to vineyards of that grape. Additionally, redwood forests continue to be invaded by lifestyle developments, with even larger areas being acquired by several conservation organisations for wildlands, parks and reserves. Most of these conversions result in a cessation of redwood log production, although modest but increasing numbers of redwood logs flow from lifestyle and urban sites.

Three new and surprising tallest trees

During June and July 2006, two tall tree searchers located three redwoods taller than the previous known tallest tree – Icarus at 112.8 metres, Helios at 114.4 metres and Hyperion the new champion, at 115.2 metres.

We now know of 137 redwoods over 106.4 metres (350 feet) tall. Of these, 129 are growing on alluvial soils and only eight are on hillsides. But all three of these newly found skyscrapers are growing on hillsides. This has altered our thinking about where redwoods grow well, and where to look for additional tall trees.

Hyperion had some other surprises for us. Upper crowns of redwoods usually have scale-like sun leaves, rather like those of a giant sequoia. But the upper crown of Hyperion, exposed above its neighbouring trees, has sprays of broad needles, rather like the shade leaves of most redwoods. Furthermore, its top has not yet flattened, but is still adding height for who knows how long and to what final height. Hyperion is a pretty big tree, with a basal diameter of 4.6 metres. Its diameter is 2.1 metres at the base of the live crown, which occurs at 60 metres up the bole. Its wood volume is calculated to be 510 cubic metres. We currently have no idea as to its age.

A survey of redwood improvement and planting California’s five largest timber growing organisations together own about half of the 800,000-hectare native redwood forest, the remainder being owned by a huge range of public agencies, municipalities, private organisations, families and individuals. Several decades ago, the redwood region began the shift from logging the original forest to managing and logging second growth and now even third growth redwood forests.

As it was increasingly realised that redwood is our most productive, most valuable, and safest species to grow, attention has recently shifted from just accepting those redwoods nature continues to provide, to actively planting and growing more and better redwoods. These five timber growing companies are leading the way. One began redwood tree improvement in 1973, and the rest have begun programmes in the past decade. So far, a minority of the smaller landowners in the region is joining them in aggressive redwood growing enterprises.

Bill Libby is a semi-retired consulting forester living in Orinda, California.

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