Why you should care
Because these women fought to save America’s giant trees.
On a trail off the mystical redwood-lined Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County, California, an old gray plaque commemorates a major milestone in the fight to save the redwoods. Back in 1924, the movement to preserve the giant trees on Northern California’s coast hit a critical juncture: Many of the county’s female environmentalists were locked in a stalemate with the Pacific Lumber Co. over a piece of land in the Dyerville Flats.
The environmentalists, led by Laura Perrott Mahan, wanted to turn the land into a public park. The plot was owned by the lumber company, and the courts declared that no logging could take place on it until the issue was resolved. So on Nov. 10, 1924, when Mahan caught wind that Pacific had violated the court’s order and started logging again, she wasn’t having it. She called the press and recruited a group of women to meet at the contested grove, where they surrounded the trees, putting themselves in the path of the loggers.
These women were well ahead of their time.
Darren Speece, author
The women’s actions may seem unremarkable today, but at the time direct action as a form of environmental activism was unheard of, says Darren Speece, author of Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics. “These women were well ahead of their time,” he says. In the early 20th century, women’s roles were largely limited to the domestic sphere, but around the turn of the century, women all over the nation had started pushing at those boundaries by forming tight-knit special interest social groups, which is how the Humboldt County Federation of Women’s Clubs came about in 1909.
Years before the male-dominated Save the Redwoods League was formed, members of the Humboldt County Federation of Women’s Clubs, led by Mahan, had officially started talking to the Chamber of Commerce in Eureka, California, about creating a public redwoods park in Humboldt County, Speece says. “They were trying to figure out how to get the state to build a railroad to connect Eureka to San Francisco to make it easier for people to visit the redwoods. They even convinced their congressman to introduce a bill for a national park in Humboldt County,” he says.
That effort stalled in 1915, and for a few years, there was no major environmental activity. But in 1918, the local Humboldt movement was revived when the Save the Redwoods League was formed. On Aug. 8, 1919, the founders of Save the Redwoods came to Eureka to present their ideas on preservation. They were surprised by the overwhelmingly supportive response of the locals in this remote little town, given that it was the epicenter of the lumber industry.
Dorceta Taylor, professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan, applauds the conservation efforts of these women, but says that doesn’t mean these trailblazers were without fault. While studying the history of redwood conservation in California, Taylor often wondered aloud: “Why aren’t we talking about the role of people of color?” The women glorified in history books are wealthy white women who, in Taylor’s view, did plenty for the redwoods but little to aid the plight of women of color in their midst. Further, the broader movement for saving the redwoods had some very dark, racist beginnings. Early pioneers like Madison Grant, a famous eugenicist, thought of redwoods as superior to other trees because they were the oldest and tallest, Speece explains. Redwoods were regarded as the white men of trees by the white men who loved them, who also felt they “ought to study these redwoods and see what we [could] learn from them,” he adds.
Racism is something that Taylor has also observed in broader environmental movements. While we glorify Lewis and Clark, for example, we rarely hear about York, Lewis’ slave who accompanied the expedition and did all the menial jobs like cooking, hunting and looking after medical needs. The environmental movement would have been more powerful if it had been more diverse, Taylor contends.
Still, Taylor appreciates the Humboldt women’s contribution. “Thank heavens there were people in the 19th century, flawed though they were, [who] had a larger and more long-term vision [of preserving nature],” she says. She credits them with making America a pioneer in environmental conservation — even if they failed to move the needle elsewhere.
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