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California's Old Growth Redwood Forests Soothe, Inspire

April 22nd is Earth Day, an annual observance meant to raise awareness of the need to protect and preserve the global environment, and the planet's rich diversity of life. Of all the species of life on earth, none are as grand a symbol of life's majesty and diversity as the giant redwood trees of Northern California and the coastal ecosystem in which they have grown for tens of millions of years. VOA's Adam Phillips reports from one of the West's last old-growth redwood forests.

It is midday in California's Año Nuevo State Reserve, home to one of the last original stands of old-growth redwood trees left in the West. These giants can stand ramrod straight nearly 120 meters high before their branches of needled leaves form the crowns, mostly obscuring the sun. After one's eyes adjust to the dim golden-green light, the first thing one notices is the hush.

"These trees are very unique, and any human being that walks amongst them for a while ... realizes how magnificent this forest is," says Gary Strachen, who has been a park ranger here for more than three decades. "These huge, huge, huge trees... they do give off a spirit, and they inspire. And I think humans worldwide now have realized that it's important to keep and protect ancient forests like this."

Redwoods are "survivors," says Ranger Strachen. And for him, they convey a sense of the prehistoric era in which they originally flourished. "If we were to see a dinosaur walk through this forest, I wouldn't blink an eye," adds Strachen, who often comes here even on his days off.

These ancient forests are found only in the areas of California near the ocean, where they can collect the so-called "fog drip," explains Portia Halbert, an environmental scientist for the state. "The fog collects on the little needles of the tree and then it drops on the tree roots and the plant is able to live in our Mediterranean climate."

Mediterranean climates have rain about seven months a year followed by five months of sunny days. Halbert explains fog drip allows the trees to survive the long, dry periods.

Unlike most trees, which have deep roots to reach underground water, redwoods rely on the moisture that pools on the forest floor. Redwood roots extend only about one meter into the ground. In a stand such as this, the roots of the trees intertwine, forming a web that keeps these tall trees upright.

As a result, Halbert says, "You'll have trees that are more likely to fall down when adjacent trees fall down because they've lost that support of their neighbors."

When those trees do fall, they tend to stay where they are and to decompose very slowly. That's because insects, which normally eat and break down fallen trees don't like tannin, the chemical that gives redwood bark its deep russet color.

But all woodlands need some way to clear out dead wood and other debris. Redwood ecosystems rely on the lightning fires that naturally occur every 50 to 75 years.

The blazes begin above ground, often travel down to the shared root systems beneath the groves, then upward inside the trunks where they continue to burn, eventually hollowing out the entire middle portion of the tree.

"One can stand inside a redwood tree and look up and see the sky. But the tree is totally alive because its living tissue isn't damaged," explains Halbert. "The bark is protected on the outside and the inner tissue is protected on the inside."

Today, there are birds in the skies above the trees, such as the giant pileated woodpecker whose sound Strachen likens to a sledgehammer, and the Marbled Murrelet, a web-footed seabird that spends most of its time far offshore in the Pacific Ocean. It was once a great mystery where this bird nested. But in 1974, scientists learned that it actually flies up to 80 kilometers inland to lay its eggs in the tops of old growth trees like these.

"If you are sitting in here at dusk or early in the morning, it will be all quiet and all of a sudden ... you will hear a whistling sound and see this black streak that looks like a stealth jet," says Strachen, "and it will be flying so fast right through the canopy."

The Marbled Murrelet is nearly gone from nearby Oregon and Washington states as their old growth forests have been logged out. But vigorous efforts in California to preserve habitats like this have allowed this endangered bird to continue to thrive in the Golden State.

Ranger Strachen says that everyone should be exposed to the magic of these natural wonderlands. "I am a firm believer that every leader in the world should be made to sit in an ancient forest and just sit there and just think. It is a place where you find peace. It is a place where you think clearly."