Redwood Forest Sequoia sempervirens Stout Grove

Climbing Redwoods - Potential Impact

Illegal, Recreational and Research Climbing.

Continued from: Coast Redwoods Information

by Mario D. Vaden - Copyright 2009 - 2011

The Wild Trees by Preston Book Review, character Steve Sillett, Michael Taylor

Some people have expressed interest about climbers in redwood canopy, and the effect they may have on redwoods and upper canopy ecosystem. Maybe even more so after Preston's book was released in 2007, on the coattails of redwood canopy research. If you don't have a copy yet, click here for redwood book suggestions and ordering info.

Note: do you have an itch to climb tall evergreens in the Pacific NW? Here are two places to contact for details. If those change, let me know: Pacific Climbing Institute of Eugene, Oregon ~ 208 miles NE of Jedediah Smith redwoods and New Tribe & Climbing Northwest of Grants Pass, OR ~ 72 miles NE of Jedediah Smith redwoods

Climbing Redwoods .....

This essay is about climbing in protected old growth redwood forest. Not so much to provide a yes or no answer, as to stir up thoughts. Basically, legitimate scientific climbing should be near inconsequential, but it's included too. Keep other species in mind too.

This topic began with more paragraphs about recreational climbing in old growth. In time, that changed. I concluded that the work and practices by researchers was a good example to help set the boundary between needful climbing, and excessive climbing: between beneficial and recreational: between consequential and inconsequential.

The work and training involved with canopy research climbing can really help determine the boundary between cultural neccessity and personally indulgence.

Maybe we should start with one thing about climbing and research. I was shown a bit of data about wood growth in old redwoods, gained from measurements of trunks and leaders. It showed that some ancient redwoods are putting on more growth in recent decades than in the previous century or two. That is valuable information useful for education and forest management. And it's these kinds of results that show the difference between scientific climbing and recreational climbing when it comes to old growth forest like protected or rare redwoods. Research climbing is virtually essential for learning, whereas recreational climbing is optional for enjoyment.

Location of the largest redwoods in California - big tree hunters

At least 3 kinds of climbers climb tall redwoods of northern California: recreational, tree sitters, and research . . . . . and redwood tree sitters won't fit the mold for this page. In various forests, there may be a 4th kind of climber for the purpose of documentary video and photography.

Recreational climbers are generally prohibited from climbing into canopy of national and state redwood parks. But a few illegally sneak into redwoods without permission. Photos and videos have appeared from some, online.

Most recreational climbers climb legally. Check TCI Climbers International. The information and forum show a glimpse of recreation climbing.

Any real concern for redwood parks would be a minority who illegally climb redwoods. One potential consequence would be damage to scientific experiment, and another would be disruption to rare or endangered species.

The illegal climbers are disadvantaged. They will be entering virtually blind to the knowledge of which redwoods may have scientific study equipment up in the crown, or on trunks, like sensors.

Then there are research climbers who study redwoods, birds, wildlife and epiphytes. These folks have a window of time to climb during the cool season and are granted required climbing permits. The scientists and research climbers are advantaged. They are in a position to know which redwoods have sensitive gear, and have more study statistics at their disposal.

Whether redwoods are climbed by recreational climbers or research scientists, that canopy is going to experience some degree of wear and tear. Ranging from minor and inconsequential, to what I refer to as canopy trails. It simply not possible to climb and have zero impact, or "leave no trace behind" in the purest sense of the idea.

I've completed 1000s of pruning projects myself, and one thing was essential to accomplish those: access and movement. Arborists have to move their body or tools through the canopy. That requires extracting limbs and debris, accompanied by inadvertent removal of moss and lichens due to standing and squeezing through gaps. Often, canopy trails were required. If none existed, some had to be made.

After years of hiking, I compared trails in the forests to canopy trails. In parks, frequent use of trails keeps paths clear. People stomp emerging plants, pulverize leaves and toss fallen branches. The more a trail is used, the more smooth it becomes. But when trails are abandoned, plants, debris and creatures eventually cover the paths.

Maintaining open trails is desireable as long as environmental problems like erosion don't become significant. But what about redwood forest canopy? Even if it's a research climber, how much of a canopy trail would you say is reasonable?

Animated knots by Grog on Redwood climbing

As with urban trunks and branches, redwood crown access for scientific research study requires a person to move through the canopy. Certainly caution will be employed. But however delicately a climber moves, they must grab branches, wrap ropes over limbs, stand on bark and slide clothing against buds and lichens.

(Using cambium savers ... how did you and it get it up there in the first place - LOL)

It's not possible to move through a redwood without changing it. Again, the forest researchers have an advantage with this. As a group, they have more experience, gear and training at their disposal. And they are educated to recognize common and rare species. In a way, just as Astronauts are trained to successfully enter space, forest scientists who climb, are trained to successfully enter old growth forests.

(Note: seen Grog's Animated Knots? Click the image to the right and choose The Knot List in the menu. Pick a knot, all animated. Use you pointer to replay frame by frame again and again)

Since most legitimate redwood climbing operations by botanists have been closed-door events, research climbing may be more secretive than the Ninja climbing.

Researchers may mount straps, cables, solar panels, miniature probes: you name it. For all this climbing, the person is not floating on air the whole time, although it sometimes seems that way when they are suspended on ropes or limb walking. These redwoods can be climbed to study lichens, birds, salamanders: with specialists climbing at intervals from days to years apart.

For all this activity, the wear and tear from research climbing seems to be almost nil. I've had a chance to watch a few of them them climb on occassion. Although not exact, the result is about as close as this gets to no-trace-left-behind.

I'm not supplying an answer of should or should not, or right or wrong on this page. I could easily support several levels of activity. It's not my forest or my call. It's our forest.

The reason for writing this is the clear fact that the discussion does not boil down to just laws alone. There are people who view some old growth redwoods as gods. Others see them as mountains to be conquered. One naturalist emailed me that even if they knew where the tallest redwood was, they would not walk near it because it was holy ground to them.

Now ... what if climbers don't penetrate the crowns of redwoods for research, how will new information be gained? The answer is simple. 3 letters: N .. O .. T

But does it matter? If we choose to have trails across the ground, why not establish a few trails through ancient redwoods? And we must concede that access is neccessary to gather research data and images.

Pertaining to conopy ecosystem impact: wherever ropes are anchored, or there is rubbing or friction, reproduction of lichens or mosses can't develop the same. Any bud broken can't become a main stem in a following century. The ancient redwoods we see, are virtually the result of 100% hands-off. Does it matter?

It all depends on choice. If you maintain an attitude that people should keep their filthy little scummy hands off primeval redwoods, then shame on the climbers. But if you prefer to advance forest management with an alloted amount of skilled climbing, why can't that be successful too? Should we be concerned over twenty pounds of branches, when a wind storm can easily remove fifty thousand pounds worth of main stems?

Human curiosity feels the need to measure the tallest redwoods every year. But why not measure those redwoods every 20 years? Realize that instruments are monitoring moisture, light and sap flow yearly. And that data should be compared to increments of growth. Researchers are gathering the data and interpretting it, and should be the best people to decide how frequently certain redwoods need to be climbed.

How about non-scientific measurement, like a new champion ...

My thoughts about measuring new champions, is that lasers are so accurate these days, it's virtually non-essential to climb to measure. A person on the ground, if they can see the top, can get the height within a couple of centimeters. So if a new tallest of a certain species was not going to be studied, but was a museum piece giant of the plant kingdom, climbing could skipped altogether.

It wasn't until after several visits to groves, and reviewing a bunch of documents acquired about climbing research, that I began to consider frequency of climbing: whether it should occur less, the same, or more. Compared to other forests, the oldest redwood groves seem to have quite a few more epiphytes. But what they have overhead is a drop in the bucket compared to surrounding ground vegetation. A botanical publication listed 454 kilograms of fern mat for Lost Monarch, and 677 kilograms of fern mat for Atlas Redwood. Barely more weight than 5 landscape trees from a nursery in 40 gallon pots. On trees weighing what ... 1 to 2 million pounds? Proportionately, its like a few closets in the Empire State Building.

Let's go another direction with that last one ...

You will agree that giant redwoods, spruce or fir are very special to some people? Is it understandable that other small, or exceptionally large communities of plants or lichens are special to other people? Is there a reason that a largest single stem organism is more special than a small organism on that same large organism?

Tree story. Tree climbing books and videos. Gerald Beranek.

(Note on redwood climbing history: the image shows Gerald Beranek, who reached old growth redwood canopy prior to the 1980s. Beranek is also included in my The Wild Trees book review. This contrasts historical adventure with more recent scientific approach. Mr. Beranek was definitely bottled and brewed in California. I enjoyed A Tree Story, told by Beranek.

My mind-set used to be that the oldest redwoods are museum pieces ... why not just apply a 100% hands-off approach to this limited group of groves along the west coast. Not religious ... just appreciative of the unusual nature of it. But I saw that my mind had built boundary between the limits of what is excess and what is need in regards to what happens in old growth redwoods.

And the more I think about this, and the more I learn, the more the boundary changes. Sometimes the boundary moves. Sometimes it grows in size.

Again, researchers don't climb and throw caution to the wind. Care will be employed. I'd expect the average researcher to be impacting redwoods much less than many of the best recreational climbers. As you compare their climbing, motives and research against the innevitable minor wear and tear in the redwoods, see what conclusions you reach.

I think that the careful example and habits of the scientists legitimately climbing the redwoods, eliminates the need for two dozen paragraphs about illegal or ninja climbers.

By realizing how much experience and how many operations the botanists have been involved with, we can understand almost immediately how disadvantaged the illegal climbers are: what a potential risk they can pose, even if that risk is accidental damage to hidden equipment.

If recreational climbers violate laws to climb redwoods, odds are they will not respect the equipment and experiments taking place either.

Focusing on the illegal climbing again ...

If recreational climbers began to climb redwoods illegally, especially a few outstanding specimens, the "canopy trails" I mentioned in the beginning, would eventually become well-worn. And these canopy trails would increase with size after a while. Just as more hikers stomp-down the trail, so do would more climbers wear the branches and trunks smooth. The canopy soil would not just fail to accumulate, but the material that could have accumulated, would be diminished intead.

It would literally become a free-for-all if there were no restrictions. Presently the illegal climbers seem to be very few.

Ideas about permits for recreational climbers & redwoods:

It's evident that some recreational climbers sneak into redwood parks to climb tall redwoods. And certainly, more would like to climb the redwoods of the west coast. Do you suppose that providing recreational climbers with permits could have it's good side? I'm not talking about unlimited seasonal permits. But a dated one-time permit for a single climb, with the condition that the climber could not re-apply for at least 2, 3 or 8 years. One reason this came to mind was that Ninja climbers may not know if they picked a redwood which may be a bad choice in regards to ecosystem or bird nesting. A permit system could divert impact away from redwoods and areas of concern.

But maybe that would defeat the atmosphere of what the public redwood parks are about.

The redwoods almost seem to overlap the stutus of our national wilderness areas.

Thank you for reading,

Mario D. Vaden