Every year, more than a million people visit Muir Woods, one of the most popular attractions in the San Francisco Bay Area and the country, to walk among the giant redwoods and experience a unique slice of forest still containing the ancient trees.
Until last June, few people knew that even taller and older redwoods soared just 2.5 hours north of San Francisco, off the coast of Sonoma County, on land owned by a family who rarely let people in on their secret stash of exceptional trees.
“The property always had a sense of legend, an aura around it, because no one had seen it—not even in 2018,” said Sam Hodder, CEO of the Save the Redwoods League, a 100-year-old nonprofit that works to protect California’s redwood and sequoias.
News of the forest came out last summer when the league announced it had acquired the land from its owners, the Richardson family, after nearly a decade of trust building and quiet negotiations. Now named the Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve, the forest is set to open to the public in 2021. Researchers have discovered that it’s one-third larger than Muir Woods, with trees much taller and older, including the McApin Tree—at 1,640 years old, it’s the oldest-known redwood south of Mendocino County and has a trunk diameter as wide as a two-lane street. That’s compared to the oldest tree (roughly 1,200 years) in Muir Woods.
For years, rumors about the trees existed among conservationists, but virtually no one knew exactly what the property contained. “On my first day on the job, volunteer leaders took me aside to tell me about the prize of all conservation projects,” Hodder said. “But because [the family was] so private and took so much pride in the land, we never expected it to happen.”
The 730 acres of old growth that make up this new reserve had been part of the Richardson Ranch: 8,000 acres that operated as a vineyard, cattle ranch, and regional timber business. The timber mill, still in operation today, sits just a mile down the road from the ranch.
The land has been in the Richardson family since the 1870s, when Harold Richardson’s grandfather, Herbert Archer “H.A.” Richardson, acquired it after moving west from New Hampshire. At one point, the elder Richardson owned 50,000 acres of forestland in western Sonoma County, including the entire town of Stewarts Point and eight miles of coastline, and employed more than 100 men. During this time, California was coated with redwoods and sequoias—it’s estimated the trees made up more than 2.2 million acres of land from southern Oregon to Big Sur. Today, they account for only about 113,000 acres in the state.
The Richardsons maintained the trees during a time when the vast majority were being cut down and overharvested by other timber mills. Since logging began in the 1850s, 95 percent of old-growth coast redwoods have been cut down. Of the 1.6 million acres of redwood forest left, only 7 percent are old growth.
Harold inherited the land in the 1960s and maintained his ancestor’s efforts toward conservation, taking just enough timber to make a living. He left the old-growth trees alone—chopping only those that were dead or dying, said Dan Falk, one of Harold Richardson’s great-nephews who inherited the land. “Harold thought of himself as a timberman and logger, but he also was a proud steward of the land and a conservationist at heart,” Falk said. “He made sure to harvest only the amount of trees he needed to get by. He constantly taught us about about stewardship, hard work, living simply, and not being greedy.”
Talks started between the Richardsons and Save the Redwoods about ten years ago when the family began to consider ways they could continue their timber business and maintain their land in the future. The deal was finalized after Harold passed away in 2016, at the age of 96, and the inheritance tax proved too expensive for the new owners to keep up with. His obituary read that he is “survived by his Old Growth Redwood forest” and then listed his relatives.
In the end, Save the Redwoods paid the family $9.6 million, raised largely through donations, in addition to giving them back 870 acres of coastal land near Stewarts Point that the league had acquired in 2010 from a separate member of the Richardson family. On that property, the league negotiated three easements that will conserve it in perpetuity—with those, the timber business can continue to operate, but with certain restrictions. In addition to the land the family got back, the Richardsons will continue to own and operate their business on the 8,000 acres of surrounding forest.
While the final outcome was a bit complex, Save the Redwoods believed the innovative solution was a win-win—the family could avoid paying taxes they couldn’t afford while continuing their business, and the league could manage the largest batch of unprotected old growth left in the world.
“It was a true trust-building exercise,” Hodder said. “Harold wasn’t particularly comfortable with government regulation or conservation. But as we went through, he became more comfortable with the transaction and eventually blessed it.”
Harold was known to have an aversion to outside intervention—he saw it as his job to be the steward of the land and took it seriously, said Stephanie Martin, senior project manager and wildlife biologist at North Coast Resource Management, which is contracting with Save the Redwoods to study and survey the reserve.
“Harold was kind of a conservation cowboy. He was known to just come out here and drop a match and let the fire resolve itself for the health of the trees,” Martin said, noting that while this tactic would be pretty much unheard of today, it was a smart move in those days, as Harold knew that fire is a natural and healthy part of how redwood forests survive and grow.
Martin is heading up the surveying of the land and its wildlife to better understand where to lay trails when the park opens to the public in two to three years. The property could also be critical for researching how climate change affects redwoods, because these trees are growing farther from the coast than most other redwoods.
“They’ve been able to figure out how to survive in the warmer, drier environment with less of a fog layer, so these may be the redwoods of the future,” Martin said.
Save the Redwoods will manage the park rather than turn it over to a state or federal system. When the reserve opens to the public, it will be the largest redwood park in Sonoma County. The league wants to emphasize educating visitors about forest ecology and the land’s cultural importance to the Kashia Band Native American tribe.
Blueprints are still in early stages, but the group plans to include several walking trails and wildlife-viewing overlooks, all designed to be as undisruptive as possible to the ecosystem.
Given recent concerns about overtourism and the toll it can take on natural landscapes, Save the Redwoods is envisioning more of a light-touch approach with this redwood reserve. National parks and other popular outdoor attractions have started to make changes to help mitigate damage that too many visitors can make. In January, for example, Muir Woods began requiring that visitors obtain secure time entry tickets to cap the number of tourists, which has risen by 30 percent over the past decade.
“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. “It will be more of a local and regional park for people to enjoy.”
In the end, it was a difficult but necessary decision for the Richardson family to give up their long-cherished land, said Falk, who looks back fondly on his childhood spent playing, fishing, and camping in his private, majestic natural playground. He said he finds comfort in the fact that the land will be preserved for generations to come.
“I remember that when I’d go out there with Harold as a kid, he wouldn’t say more than two or three words,” Falk added. “He’d just tell us to quit talking and listen to the woods—to hear the sounds of nothing and everything and be part of the land.”