The ghost forest Racists, radicals, and real estate in the California redwoods

Greg King

Book - 2023

The definitive story of the California redwoods, their discovery and their exploitation, as told by an activist who fought to protect their existence against those determined to cut them down. Every year millions of tourists from around the world visit California's famous redwoods. Yet few who strain their necks to glimpse the tops of the world's tallest trees understand how unlikely it is that these last isolated groves of giant trees still stand at all. In this gripping historical memoir, journalist and famed redwood activist Greg King examines how investors and a growing U.S. economy drove the timber industry to cut down all but 4 percent of the original two-million-acre redwood ecosystem. King first examined redwood logging in... the 1980s--as an award-winning reporter. What he found in the woods convinced him to leap the line of neutrality and become an activist dedicated to saving the very last ancient redwood groves remaining in private hands. The land grab began in 1849, when a "green gold rush" of migrants came to exploit the legendary redwoods that grew along the Russian River. Several generations later, in 1987, Greg King discovered and named Headwaters Forest--at 3,000 acres the largest ancient redwood habitat remaining outside of parks--and he led the movement to save this grove. After a decade of one of the longest, most dramatic, and violent environmental campaigns in US history, in 1999 the state and federal governments protected Headwaters Forest. The Ghost Forest explores a central question, an overhanging mystery: What was it like, this botanical Elysium that grew only along the Northern California coast, a forest so spectacular--but also uniquely valuable as a cornerstone of American economic growth--that in the end it would inspire life-and-death struggles? Few but loggers and surveyors ever saw such magnificent trees, ancient sentinels that, like ghosts, have informed King's understanding of the world. On a lifelong journey, King finds himself through the generations, and through the trees.

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2nd Floor New Shelf 333.7516/King (NEW SHELF) Checked In
New York : PublicAffairs 2023.
Main Author
Greg King (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xiii, 457 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 423-437) and index.
  • Maps
  • Prologue
  • Part 1. Stumps
  • Part 2. Empire
  • Part 3. A League of Their Own
  • Part 4. The Empire Strikes Back
  • Part 5. Home
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix: University of California Regents of 1917
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Redwood lumber is extremely valuable. Accordingly, the ancient forests of Northern California were gobbled up by Gilded Age industrialists, ruthlessly logged with cavalier disregard for the ecosystem. Journalist and activist King has spent his career reporting on the destruction of these forests and acting to preserve what's left of this majestic American treasure. His first book is an extensive record of American expansionism, limitless greed, greenwashing, and eugenics mixed with more recent efforts to halt it. King draws on his own experiences and work, along with the resources at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, to detail the enormous heist of public lands through fraud, corruption, and regulatory capture as the timber industry pillaged and clear-cut the redwoods. He makes a strong case that the Save the Redwoods League, which boasts of its conservation efforts, is, in fact, an industry-friendly con that doubled the exploitation by buying back the land at incredibly inflated prices, often with taxpayers' money. King presents a well-written and gripping exposé of the real history of Northern California, including the timber industry's spin and deceit.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The lumber industry, abetted by the government, reaped massive profits while ravaging California's redwood forests, according to journalist King's damning debut. King describes how the large-scale clearing of redwoods began after 1878, when lumber companies abused a federal law meant to transfer publicly owned land to homesteaders and seized millions of acres of forest at prices far below market rate. Decrying government officials who have enabled the forests' destruction, King criticizes the California Department of Forestry's pro-business slant (since its establishment in 1973, it has argued on numerous occasions that clearing land is somehow good for wildlife) and the Board of Forestry's toothless statutes that create the illusion of environmental protections while permitting deforestation to continue. The author focuses much of his ire on the Save the Redwoods League, formed in 1918 by prominent eugenicists as an ostensible conservation group that instead covertly worked to further industry interests, constituting "the nation's first and most successful example of... 'greenwashing.' " King's dogged research turns up the closed-door deals and nefarious legal schemes that led to the destruction of 96% of redwood forests, providing a disturbing chronicle of how lumber companies flouted laws and came out on top. The result is a sobering accounting of the forces environmentalists are up against. (June)

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Review by Library Journal Review

This passionate book recounts how the ancient redwood forests of Northern California were cut down during the 20th century and describes protests carried out against lumber companies. King (coauthor, Rumours of Glory), a journalist and activist grew up in Sonoma County, CA, among majestic stands of the largest trees in the world. His historical investigation turned up widespread corporate theft of forest land in the state; strong, lightweight and rot-resistant, redwood lumber was in demand for building the modern infrastructure of the West. King also uncovered a false-flag operation, the Save the Redwoods League, which co-opted public dismay at clear-cutting operations but merely preserved strips and groves. During the 1980s, King joined nonviolent protests against further destructive clear-cutting. He was arrested and received death threats while opposing company goons, loggers, and sawmill workers. When lawsuits by the Sierra Club began to affect logging operations, governments bought back some areas as parks, where redwood ecosystems might begin to regenerate. VERDICT King's engaging narrative exposes the maneuvering of lumber companies that plundered redwood forests for decades, with the collusion of powerful individuals in politics, academia, and civil service.--David R. Conn

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A history of the efforts to preserve "one of the world's greatest natural phenomena--the unique redwood belt." Early on, award-winning journalist and activist King points out that only 4% of the original 2 million acre ancient redwood ecosystem remains standing. As shocking as this statistic may seem, the number of old-growth redwoods remaining today would be much fewer were it not for the efforts of King and other activists. Beginning around 1850, settlers in California began commercially logging redwoods, and the destruction remained largely unchecked for generations even in the face of public outrage. "The rise of the United States, and especially of the western states," writes the author, "to world economic and military dominance was paved, sometimes literally, with the life of the redwood forest." Having grown up in Humboldt County, King was familiar with the lore of the great redwoods that once stood in his hometown, a grandeur that future generations would not have the pleasure of knowing. In the 1980s, while working as a journalist reporting on redwood logging, the author recalls being brought to tears at the sight of a clear-cut section of forest, a moment that forever changed his life. King goes on to share his continued efforts to preserve the redwoods of California, particularly the Headwaters Forest, despite facing arrest and numerous threats to his safety and life. The author's strong passion and dedication to the cause can be felt throughout the text. Following the near-death experiences of two fellow activists, King felt the true story of redwood logging needed to be told, and he succeeds in his quest "to preserve the record and to honor the countless individuals who, for more than a century, have dedicated their lives to protecting redwoods." His haunting, sometimes inspiring narrative is sure to move anyone interested in trees and nature. A disheartening yet wholly engrossing, urgent account of redwood preservation. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.