“This is one of the most extraordinary conservation opportunities that we’ve seen in generations,” said Sam Hodder, president of the Redwoods League, as he stood one recent day next to a tree that forest biologists believe is the thickest and possibly the oldest of the 1,450 ancient trees in the grove: at 19 feet in diameter, the so-called McApin tree is wider than a two-lane road.“
Family’s legendary grove of old-growth redwoods preserved
A sprawling forest of ancient coastal redwoods in Sonoma County — a grove so magnificent it matches the majesty of Muir Woods National Monument — is being acquired under a land deal that will ensure its protection and allow the public to walk among the giants.
For decades, there had been whisperings of the existence of an untouched swath of old-growth trees on privately held lands near Cazadero — a story that had taken on almost mythical proportions.
Fable is becoming reality Tuesday: San Francisco’s Save the Redwoods League is announcing it is purchasing the grove, which, at 738 acres, is a third larger than Muir Woods and has 47 percent more old-growth trees.
The transaction is complicated, involving a land swap and $9.6 million in payments, but it means the largest swath of unprotected old-growth redwoods in the world will be preserved.
“This is one of the most extraordinary conservation opportunities that we’ve seen in generations,” said Sam Hodder, president of the Redwoods League, as he stood one recent day next to a tree that forest biologists believe is the thickest and possibly the oldest of the 1,450 ancient trees in the grove: at 19 feet in diameter, the so-called McApin tree is wider than a two-lane road.
The league didn’t know much about the ancient trees east of Tin Barn Ridge until the organization bought nearby Stewarts Point in 2010 from the same family that has now agreed to make a long-awaited deal to sell their cherished private grove of coastal redwoods.
Using laser light sensors from aircraft, Redwoods League surveyors counted 319 trees taller than 250 feet and climbed five of the biggest. The tallest is 313 feet, eight feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, Hodder said. The tallest at Muir Woods is 258 feet. The tallest coast redwood in the world is the 379-foot-tall Hyperion tree, in Humboldt County’s Redwood National Park.
“The unique element of this property is that it’s an undisturbed ancient forest ecosystem,” Hodder said. “This is a special place. We want people to see it. … There’s a lot we can’t save, but we can save this.”
The purchase will allow the league to create the “Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve” and open it to the public. But it is only possible because of the extraordinary efforts of the previous owners to protect it from the ax.
Known until now as the McApin Ranch, it has been owned for a century by the Richardson family.
Herbert Archer Richardson, an entrepreneur who acquired tens of thousands of acres and as many as seven sailing ships during his lifetime, came to the area in about 1876 and established himself at nearby Stewarts Point.
It was a time when the magnificent coastal redwoods were being chopped down to build the cities of the West Coast, and Richardson quickly established himself in the timber trade. He employed over 100 men, transported lumber on his railroad, which snaked along the south fork of the Gualala River, and loaded it onto sailing ships bound for San Francisco.
He owned a sawmill from 1900 to 1912 and bought the forest owned by a man named McApin in 1918, the same year Save the Redwoods League was founded. The land he owned, including nearby Stewarts Point, was eventually handed down to his grandson, Harold Richardson, who valued the old-growth trees more than he valued the money they would fetch.
“He was a conservationist himself his whole life,” said Dan Falk, 38, Harold’s great-nephew and the president of Richardson Ranch LLC. “He’s harvested timber, but he knew he had to protect and preserve his land. It’s his legacy. That’s why we named the property after him.”
The World War II veteran, who died at age 96 in 2016, never had children, so the land was passed down to his niece, two great-nephews and his longtime employee. His obituary, published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, illustrated how devoted he was to the trees, saying “he is survived by his Old Growth Redwood forest” before naming his surviving relatives.
“To be honest, nobody even knew what was out there. It was just sort of a legend because the family is very private,” Hodder said. “It was a hidden gem, and the McApin tree was kind of the family treasure.”
Besides the $9.6 million payment, raised mostly from donations over a two-month period, the family will get back 870 acres of coastal headlands and wooded hills at Stewarts Point, which the league purchased from the family for $11.25 million in 2010.
That land, including some old-growth and a small community, also has a special place in the hearts of the Richardsons. It comes with conservation easements that prohibit development and allow the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians to visit, dive for abalone, collect mussels and harvest kelp like their ancestors.
The family will keep 8,000 acres of redwoods surrounding the newly formed Richardson reserve. Falk said the family didn’t want to sell, but property and inheritance taxes were so extreme — costing as much as 60 percent of the ranch’s net worth — that they felt they had to go through with the deal.
It is just this sort of financial burden on small rural families and landowners that has forced many others to pay their bills by harvesting old-growth trees, he said.
“It’s very difficult to let it go, but the Richardson family and Harold Richardson have always been land conservationists,” Falk said. “We know that the organization that is buying it will protect it in the same way we protected it and open it up to the public to enjoy like we enjoyed it.”
The property, which includes Haupt Creek, a fish-bearing stream and tributary of the Gualala River, was the largest remaining unprotected old-growth redwood forest still in private ownership.
Once trails are built and public access is established, the Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve will be the largest redwood park in Sonoma County. The last one, the Grove of Old Trees, was established in 2000, but it is only 48 acres.
Redwoods cover 1.6 million acres across the state, but 95 percent of the old-growth trees were wiped out in the 150 years after the California Gold Rush, leaving only 113,000 acres of the oldest and largest coast redwoods.
The tree-ring record — a historic catalog used to track climatic and weather events — has traced the history contained in old-growth wood back to the year A.D. 328. One tree in Redwood National and State Parks, near Crescent City (Del Norte County), is 2,520 years old, league scientists have said.
Hodder stopped underneath a tree called the Bison tree, which has a big burl 30 feet up its trunk that looks like a buffalo. He said teams of scientists will study this tree and others while docents lead tours through the grove over the next two or three years.
It is important, he said, because the tree rings in the ancient groves tell a tale about the weather, fire and even catastrophes like volcano eruptions over thousands of years. They are the secrets Hodder and his colleagues believe are a key to ecosystem survival as the climate changes.
“The redwood forest is the key ingredient of the California ecosystem moving forward, and we’re being an agent in our own future and that can inspire the world,” said Hodder, standing next to a fallen 1,000-year-old log and looking out at the giants all around. “This is the foundation from which we can regenerate the broader forest ecosystem.”
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @pfimrite