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 Saving the Redwoods In August of 1991, the California Department of Parks and Recreation received a letter from a man who had just visited Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California. The Humboldt redwood trees are the tallest living things on earth, towering over three hundred feet into the air—higher than the Statue of Liberty. The sight of these immense trees is truly overwhelming, and the tourist had been suitably impressed. But during his visit to the forest he had been “shocked” to come across a bronze plaque honoring Madison Grant as a founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League. His letter to the Department of Parks cited passages from The Passing of the Great Race and pointed out that Grant’s “racist writings are so abhorrent to basic American principles that they discredit anything honorable the man may have done in his lifetime.” The cogently argued letter concluded that “honoring Madison Grant with a plaque on public property is as historically bizarre as erecting a monument to Adolf Hitler for his part in founding the Volkswagen Company. Please have it removed.”1 The issue raised by the letter is rather profound. Do the racist views of someone who lived in a different era— an era with more primitive scientific knowledge and signi ficantly different values—discredit any positive contributions the racist may have made? The question is pertinent because Madison Grant, founder of scientific racism, did make so many positive contributions, of which the greatest (and certainly the most improbable) was saving from the voracious saws of the powerful lumber companies the celebrated redwood trees of California. They were more like gods than anything I had ever seen. John Masefield, poet laureate of England, after seeing redwoods for the first time The “Historic Camping Trip” In August 1917, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn traveled to California to attend the summer encampment of the exclusive Bohemian Club. This annual gathering of the Golden State’s movers and shakers took place in the Bohemian Grove, the club’s forest enclave sixty miles north of San Francisco . The two New Yorkers soon became engaged in conversation with a fellow member of the Boone and Crockett Club, John C. Merriam, chairman of the Department of Paleontology at the University of California. Merriam was renowned for his excavation of the La Brea tar pits and the numerous fossils of sabertoothed tigers he found there. He was also a staunch eugenicist, and Grant was quite fond of him. “I regard Dr. Merriam as one of the most delightful persons that I have met,” Grant confessed to a friend, and in nominating him for the Century Association Grant declared baldly that Merriam was “one of the greatest living Americans.”2 The three men marveled at the beauty and the height of the redwood trees that had been preserved in the Bohemian Grove. Merriam told Grant and Osborn that in the 1840s the reports of the first exploring parties describing the redwood trees were so fantastic that they had not been taken seriously. In 1854, an entire tree had been shipped to New York and put on display, but it had been considered by most to be a hoax. And he reminded them that the Baptist church in Santa Rosa they had passed en route from San Francisco, with seating room for three hundred people, was built from the lumber of a single redwood tree. At this point, an eavesdropper assured them that the more extensive but rarely seen redwood groves of Humboldt County in the northern part of the state not only had taller specimens than the Bohemian Grove but possessed a “mystery and charm unique among living works of creation.” Intrigued, it did not take long for the three Boone and Crocketteers to decide to embark on an excursion to see the trees up close (an excursion that came to be known in the conservation community as the “Historic Camping Trip”). Thirty years later, the director of the National Park Service would marvel that “one of the great dramas in the history of conservation”—that is, the saving of the mighty California redwoods— had originated in that conversation in the Bohemian Grove.3 Grant, Osborn, and Merriam departed early the next morning, driving up the coast along a newly opened highway through Sonoma and Mendocino Counties until they arrived at a place known as Bull Creek Flat, about two hundred miles north of San Francisco in the redwood region...


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