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Taking a stand: saving the giant redwoods.

At first sight a historical article on trees in California seems to fall somewhat outside Catholic Insight's range of interests. We print it because it is a good story, because it contradicts the ignorant who argue that the "Church" has been callous about the environment (which is balderdash), and because the crime of cutting down thousand-year-old trees continues in Canada today (see photo, p.15). Editor

A priest, a photographer, a lawyer, and a newspaper editor would seem unlikely allies, especially when their alliance involved saving some exceptional trees. And especially when you consider it was 1900 and to many people the trees in America's forests seemed inexhaustible.

At that time, few viewed the cutting of trees for lumber as exploiting the forests. Most people saw value in terms of the wood they contained. Timber interests perceived them as a fortune waiting to be harvested. Uniqueness, beauty, and the environment were distant considerations.

Nonetheless, the four men--Andrew Hill, Father Robert Kenna, S.J., D. M. Delmas, and Harry G. Wells--came together at crucial moments, and pushed forward the effort to save the California Coast redwoods from extinction through destruction by timber cutters.

The trees are as rare as they are huge. They can have a life span of up to 2000 years, can grow to the height of a 35-story building, and can easily be 25 feet wide. But they grow only in a narrow strip along California 's northern coast. In late 1899, Andrew P. Hill, a well-known artist and photographer, was commissioned by a London magazine to take some photographs of the giant redwoods.

Hill paid an entrance fee just to get into the Fremont Big Tree Grove in the San Lorenzo Valley of the Santa Clara Mountains. It was a privately owned stand of giant trees. When he started taking pictures of the mammoth trees, however, his photographic plates were confiscated. The grove's owners claimed exclusive rights to photos of the trees.

Public ownership

Frustrated and angry, Hill believed the natural wonders should belong to everyone. That day he set his mind on achieving preservation, and public ownership, of the trees.

Hill knew he would need help making his vision come true. He brought together a circle of friends, and they became infected with his dynamic enthusiasm. "Save the Redwoods!" became the slogan for the small but energetic group of public-spirited citizens.

The group's first open meeting was held on the Stanford University campus, and during the discussion they learned of a much larger grove of trees 20 miles north of the Fremont grove. Known as Big Basin, it was a marvellous stand of giant trees that were thousands of years old. It was, how-ever, right in the path of the sawmills that were already at work less than two miles from the trees.

Hill and a small group of men and women, including Father Kenna, went to see the Big Basin trees. It wasn't an easy trip. They travelled by rail, and then by horse-drawn wagons over a steep, rugged mill road that ended at Semperviren Creek.

They spent several days exploring, and taking pictures of the trees. It was a wilderness of ferns and huckleberries, oaks and stately firs, and a myriad of flowers and wildlife. On the night of May 18, 1900, gathered around their campfire, they reaffirmed their commitment to saving the area. They named themselves the Sempervirens Club.

Worth 1000 words

The club got an icy reception from the California Legislature when it urged the appropriation of $250,000 to buy the Coast Redwood lands at Big Basin, and turn it into a state park. The Sempervirens Club then nominated Hill to go to Sacramento, the state's capital, to convince lawmakers of the value of their plan.

Hill recognized the truth in the axiom, "A picture is worth a thousand words." When he arrived in Sacramento in early 1901, he had dozens of photographs of the trees to show the politicians. Hill first contacted Lieutenant Governor Alden Anderson. Anderson directed him to Grove L. Johnson, an influential legislator, who was impressed enough with Hill's photos and the Sempervirens Club's cause to sponsor a bill in the legislature to save the trees.

While Hill managed to convert a number of influential politicians to the cause, he knew it wouldn't be enough because there was strong and significant opposition to the bill. He reasoned the cause needed more concentrated support.

Hill noticed that the Catholic members of both the Assembly and Senate made up a significant minority in the legislature. Typically they voted together. He decided to seek the Catholic votes for the park.

He turned to Father Kenna for help. Though Hill wasn't Catholic, he and Kenna had been classmates in high school, and had remained friends through the years. Kenna, a Jesuit, was president of Santa Clara College (now Santa Clara University) from 1899 to 1905, and already a member of the Sempervirens Club.

Kenna used his influence to obtain firm support for the Big Basin Park bill from Catholic legislators. At the same time he was instrumental in getting the "Save the Trees" message to Catholic congregations throughout the state, requesting them to write their legislators to support the bill.

Save this forest-now

On February 18, 1901, prominent San Francisco attorney D. M. Delmas addressed the California Assembly. His primary task was to convince assembly members that they should vote for passage of the Big Basin Park bill. An excellent orator, Delmas said, in part:

"Man's work, if destroyed, man may again replace. God's work God alone can recreate. Accede, then, to the prayers of the people. Save this forest. Save it now. The present generation approves the act; generations yet unborn, in grateful appreciation of your labours, will rise up to consecrate its consummation."

He also told the legislators that France and Germany, as well as the states of New York and Massachusetts, had budgeted money to buy forest lands for the purpose of preserving them. "California," he said, "should do no less."

As the bill progressed through the legislature, its opponents were unable to stop it but were successful at attaching conditions to it, including a new contract for the land. The major requirement was that a responsible person had to guarantee $50,000 against the State's possible inability to make the initial payment for the land on time.

Hill, having no idea where the money would come from, nonetheless assured timber owners and legislators that he would have a solid pledge for the money. Again he visited Father Kenna.

It was nearly midnight when Hill knocked on Kenna's door and explained what he needed. Father Kenna telephoned his nephew, James Phelan, who had given financial support to other worthwhile causes. Phelan guaranteed that the entire $50,000 would be available if needed. Fifty thousand dollars, no small sum today, was a huge amount of money in 1901.

When he left Father Kenna's residence, it was nearly one o'clock in the morning. Though the money was assured, he needed a way to prove to legislators that it had been secured. He realized that Harry Wells, editor of the San Jose Mercury, could help him. A story in the newspaper about Hill having raised money would be convincing enough. Since no streetcars were running at that hour, Hill walked four miles to the newspaper's main office.

By the time Hill got there, the paper had already gone to press. Thinking quickly, he persuaded Wells to run a special edition of 150 copies just for him. That special edition was identical to the regular issue of the paper except for one thing: a front-page editorial, written by Hill, announcing fulfillment of the conditions set for passage of the bill.

With the 150 copies of the Mercury in hand, Hill caught the 4:30 a.m. train for Sacramento. That morning each legislator found a copy of the Mercury on his office desk. The Assembly passed the California Redwood Park bill by a vote of fifty-five in favour to one nay vote.

Father Kenna and the Senators

Father Kenna had also travelled to Sacramento later that morning and spent the day talking to various senators, effectively lobbying for passage of the bill. Despite the Assembly's approval of the bill, a poll of senators showed just seven of them favoured creation of the park.

At Hill's request, and through the help of Senator Shortridge of San Jose, Father Kenna was allowed to address the Senate. Kenna later wrote of his speech:

"My remarks, though very simple, were given an earnestness that made the Senators accept them as the sentiments of my heart. I said in part: 'These redwoods are preeminently Californian, unique in their species and situation.... I beg you to stay the hand that would harm those that still remain...'"

Father Kenna was apparently pretty convincing because, when the Senate vote was taken, it was nearly unanimous in favour of the park.

It was feared that Governor Henry T. Gage might veto the bill, but he didn't, and in 1902 the State purchased 3800 acres in the heart of Big Basin.

Thousands of people visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park each year. They come to admire the huge trees, the very same trees that inspired Hill and the Sempervirens Club to work for their preservation. If it hadn't been for their relentless efforts, Big Basin Park and other places like it could easily have been lost forever.

Shortly before Father Kenna died in 1912, he wrote of Hill: "(He) was the right man for the difficult and delicate work.... (H)is one object was and protect those magnificent redwoods. (His) open, above-board talk was an enigma to many old political lobbyists who tried to block his work...(and) advised him to go home, for there was no hope for the passage of his pet bill."

Obviously they were wrong.

At a banquet held by the Sempervirens Club, Hill acknowledged Father Kenna's contribution to the creation of Big Basin Park, including his having twice served on the Redwood Park Commission. He also recognized the support that the newspapers of California had given to the park. He was especially thankful to Wells and the San Jose Mercury. The paper had published over 400 articles about Big Basin and the struggle to create it.

After the park was opened, several of the older, taller trees were given official names to honour those who helped preserve them. The first tree named was the Santa Clara Tree, named for Santa Clara College and its president, Father Robert Kenna. And today, the Santa Clara University yearbook is entitled The Redwood.

Richard Bauman is a freelance writer based in California.
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Author:Bauman, Richard
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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