Rumors were abundant in California's conservation circles that there was a secret forest of old-growth redwoods somewhere along the Sonoma Coast, but that no one had set foot in it because it was privately owned and maintained. The forest, it was said, contained trees older than some found in Muir Woods National Monument.
Such a story is probably as close as conservationists get to conspiracy theories or myths, but this one turned out to be true. Last June, the California-based Save the Redwoods League, a 100-year-old nonprofit that protects the state's redwoods and sequoias, announced that it had acquired the forest from the Richardson family following a decade of negotiations.
"The property always had a sense of legend, an aura around it, because no one had seen it — not even in 2018," Sam Hodder, CEO of the Save the Redwoods League, told Outside.
The property will open to the public in 2021 as the Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve, named for the family patriarch who died in 2016.
The land has belonged to the Richardson family since the 1870s when it was acquired by Herbert Archer "H.A." Richardson after he moved to California from New Hampshire. At one time, Herbert owned 50,000 acres of forest in western Sonoma County and 8 miles of coastline. The family has maintained the forest, despite still owning and operating a timber business in the forest.
Harold Richardson took ownership of the forest in the 1960s and kept the forest protected. He avoided cutting down any old-growth trees, focusing only on the dead or dying.
"Harold thought of himself as a timberman and logger, but he also was a proud steward of the land and a conservationist at heart," Dan Falk, one of Harold Richardson's great-nephews who inherited the land. "He made sure to harvest only the amount of trees he needed to get by. He constantly taught us about stewardship, hard work, living simply and not being greedy."
While negotiations between the Richardsons and the Save the Redwoods League were conducted while Harold was alive, the deal was finalized after Harold's death, when the new owners of the forest realized that the inheritance tax was going to be too expensive for them.
The Save the Redwoods League paid $9.6 million for the forest, most of it raised through donations, and it also returned 870 acres of coastal land to the Richardsons. (A separate member of the family had sold the land to the organization in 2010.) The Richardsons will also be allowed to continue their timber business on the 8,000 acres of forest surrounding the new reserve.
The reserve, which the Save the Redwoods League will operate itself rather than turn it over to the state or the federal government, will encompass 730 acres of pristine forest, which is roughly 30 percent more land than John Muir National Monument and, it contains 47 percent more old-growth redwoods than Muir.
Using laser light sensors from an airplane, the Save the Redwoods League counted 319 trees towering more than 250 feet, with the tallest standing at 313 feet — which is 8 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Muir's tallest tree is only 258 feet. And then there's the McApin Tree (pictured above). The tree is 1,640 years old — Muir's oldest tree is a baby at only 1,200 years — and its trunk is as wide as a two-lane street, roughly 19 feet.
According to the Save the Redwood League, many of the trees are hollowed out at their bases due to fires and they have thick, gnarly bark. These and the trees' other features make them valuable to wildlife in the area. Threatened species, like the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, rely on the forest for food and shelter, particularly the murrelets, which nest in the redwoods.
Bats, salamanders and fish also call the preserve home.
In addition to the area's importance simply as beautiful land to be preserved, Outside points out that the land could be valuable for studying how redwoods deal with a warming planet since the trees in the preserve grow further from the coast than other redwoods.
Efforts are underway to survey the preserve and its wildlife to create trails for the public. Scenic, non-intrusive overlooks will give visitors the chance to see that wildlife. The league intends to emphasize conservation and education, particularly in regards to the cultural importance the land has to the Kashia Band Native American tribe.
The preserve, which is located just under 100 miles north of San Francisco and a few miles inland from the Sonoma Coast, isn't being envisioned as a major tourist draw. Concerns about overtourism in Muir has led the league to aim for a lighter human footprint.
"While any diffusing of some of the pressures of Muir Woods is a good thing, I don't see the reserve as being a heavily trafficked place," Hodder said to Outside. "It will be more of a local and regional park for people to enjoy."