How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago

Today marks the 160th anniversary of a seminal, but largely forgotten moment in the history of the conservation movement. The Guardian’s Leo Hickman reports

On Monday, 27 June, 1853, a giant sequoia – one of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring sights – was brought to the ground by a band of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of the 300ft-tall, 1,244-year-old tree, but finally it fell to the forest floor.

A section of the bark from the “Mammoth Tree”, as newspapers soon described it, had already been removed and was sent to San Francisco to be put on display. The species had only been “discovered” (local Native American tribes such as the Miwok had known of the trees for centuries) that spring by a hunter who stumbled upon the pristine grove in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada whilst chasing an injured bear. Word of the discovery quickly spread.

In the age of PT Barnum‘s freak shows, the speculators, mostly gold miners, had sensed a commercial opportunity. The section of bark – re-erected using scaffold, with a piano inside to entertain paying visitors – would later be sent to Broadway in New York, as would the bark from a second tree felled a year later. The bark of the “Mother of the Forest” – as the second tree was named – would even go on to be displayed at London’s Crystal Palace causing great excitement and wonder in Victorian England before it was destroyed by fire on 30 December 1866. (The bark of the original mammoth tree was also lost to fire as it lay in storage in New York in 1855. A fitting end, perhaps, as fire plays such a crucial role in the life cycle of giant sequoias.)

The fame of the trees was such that a hotel was quickly built at the site to host the influx of tourists. To entertain the guests, tea dances were regularly held on the stump of the mammoth tree and a bowling alley was built on the now prone trunk. (This page has a wonderful range of images of the Mammoth Tree and the Mother of the Forest.)

The remarkable, engaging story of these two doomed trees is too detailed to be told here, but what is worth recalling on this anniversary is the reaction their destruction caused in the media at the time – and its subsequent effect on some progressive politicians a decade later when they cited their felling and exploitation as an inspiration to establish what later came to be known as the US national park system.

Leo blog on mammoth tree : Tourist walking by 'The Father of The ForestTourist walking by ‘The Father of The Forest” in Calaveras Grove, California c.1880s. Photograph: Alamy

Was the outrage expressed by some in the popular media of the day evidence of the first stirrings of an environmental consciousness in the US? It would be wrong to assess such statements without noting the historical context of that age – a time of the “manifest destiny” when nature was viewed as a God-given resource for Mankind to exploit – but it is also hard to ignore the clear outrage and bemusement among some commentators that such magnificent natural specimens had been brutalised in this way.

According to Gary D Lowe, a local historian, author and “Big Tree” aficionado, the first-known negative commentary came a month before the tree was felled. An article in the Sonora Herald, a local newspaper, reported that Captain Hanford, the man leading the enterprise, “is about stripping off the bark”. The report went on: “This will of course kill the tree, which is much to be deprecated.”

On 27 June, 1853 – the same day the tree finally fell – a report in San Francisco’s Placer Times and Transcript also noted an article, again in the Sonora Herald, expressing regret that Captain Hanford was preparing for a “portion of the mammoth tree” to be sent to New York.

“Amator” [Latin for “friend”] is dreadfully shocked at the vandalism and barbarity of flaying that giant of the woods, and depriving California of its greatest “growing” exponent.

However, the same report also goes on to say that the stripping of the tree’s bark is “characteristic of California enterprise” and that Hanford’s efforts to exhibit the bark in New York will allow “millions of the inhabitants of the earth to see it, has rendered his adopted state a lasting benefit, given to science a page, and the world a natural curiosity”. So any sadness at the tree’s demise was counteracted by the boost to local pride.

Leo blog on mammoth tree : people on trunk of a giant tree in Calaveras County, CaliforniaTwo people standing on the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California. Photograph: Jeff Compasso/Alamy

But these were reports in local newspapers with little influence outside the communities they served. A far more significant report came that autumn when Maturin M Ballou, the Boston-based editor of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, one of the most widely read magazines of the day, printed an illustration of the “largest tree yet discovered in the world” on 1 October, 1853. The accompanying text said:

To our mind it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree…In Europe, such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but in this money-making, go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it, and the purchaser chops it down, and ships it off for a shilling show! We hope that no one will conceive the idea of purchasing the Niagara Falls with the same purpose!…But, seriously, what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood? In its natural condition, rearing its majestic head towards heaven, and waving in all its native vigour, strength and verdure, it was a sight worth a pilgrimage to see; but now, alas, It is only a monument of the cupidity of those who have destroyed all there was of interest connected with it.

Five months later, on 11 March, 1854, Ballou printed a further remark in his magazine:

A tree of such gigantic proportions as well might excite the wonder and curiosity of the world. Although the destruction of such a magnificent object was an act of vandalism not to be forgiven, yet the desecration has been committed, and it is useless now to reiterate our vain regrets.

However, the ripples of outrage took a further year – and the stripping of the Mother of the Forest – to really gain traction. Then came this editorial in the New York Herald, dated 17 December, 1855:

The finest, the most beautiful and symmetrical of these trees, (though not the largest) has been cut down…From this beginning, unless the Goths and Vandals are arrested in their work, the destruction of the incomparable forest will probably go on till the last vestige of it is destroyed. In this view, the point that we make is, that the State of California and the Congress of the Union should interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the wood of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country. We say that Congress should interpose, upon the presumption that these trees are public property, are on the public lands of California, and because Congress has already interposed to protect the public live oak forests of Florida from the rapacity of unscrupulous speculators…We repeat, that it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments of the capabilities of our American soil. Let it be the law that this…Mammoth Grove shall stand.

The next notable article was printed in the March 1859 issue (pdf) ofHutchings’ California Magazine. It was also later reprinted the following year in the popular tourist guide, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California:

In our estimation, it was a sacrilegious act; although it is possible, that the exhibition of the bark, among the unbelievers of the eastern part of our continent, and of Europe, may have convinced all the “Thomases” living, that we have great facts in California, that must be believed, sooner or later. This is the only palliating consideration with us for this act of desecration.

And then, in 1864, came the culminating moment when John Conness, the senator from California, rose in Congress to make a speech urging his colleagues to pass a bill that would see the now nationally famousYosemite Valley and its neighbouring grove of sequoias in the mountains above Mariposa secured and protected “inalienable forever”. In making his case, he directly referenced the fate of the felled trees at Calaveras just over a decade earlier:

From the Calaveras grove some sections of a fallen tree were cut during and pending the great World’s Fair that was held in London some years since…The English who saw it declared it to be a Yankee invention, made from beginning to end; that it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country; that it could not be; and, although the section of the tree was transported there at an expense of several thousand dollars, we were not able to convince them that it was a specimen of American growth. They would not believe us. The purpose of this bill is to preserve one of these groves from devastation and injury. The necessity of taking early possession and care of these great wonders can easily be seen and understood.

The bill passed and the “Yosemite grant” paved the way for the first official national park being established at Yellowstone in 1872. Celebrated conservationists such as John Muir would all later visit the stump of the original “mammoth tree” to reflect on both its fate and influence. However, the grove of sequoias at Calaveras – where the story of the US conservation movement arguably began – did not become a state park until 1931 following a decades-long fight to see off the desires of lumber companies.

Today, the trees are now safe from the “Goths and Vandals”, but not, alas, some of the side-effects of modern civilization: urban ozoneclimate changeuncontrolled frequent fires, to name but a few.

Leo blog on mammoth tree : Over 100 people stand atop of and around a logged giant sequoia treeOver 100 people stand atop of and around a logged giant sequoia tree, Calaveras County, California, 1917. Photograph: A. R. Moore/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Footnote: I first fell under the spell of the story of the Mammoth Tree five years ago – I feel it has many lessons for us today – and have been researching the tale, on and off, ever since, with the expert guidance of Gary D Lowe. Gary has written a number of booklets on the topic, including one about the Cornish plant hunter William Lobb who was in California at the time and, upon hearing of the tree’s discovery, rushed to the site to collect seeds and then took the first ship back to London to deliver them to his employer, Vietch Nurseries of Exeter and Chelsea. But that’s a whole other story… Please email me if you want one of Gary’s books, or know more about this wider subject.


Barack Obama pledges to bypass Congress to tackle climate change

Obama’s ‘we can’ attitude strikes a cord ‘for’ the environment!

US president says country is already paying price of inaction and backs nuclear energy and fracking in comprehensive strategy. The Guardian reports

Barack Obama has taken an historic step forward in confronting climate change, asserting his power as US president to cut carbon pollution and protect future generations from catastrophic global warming.

In a speech on Tuesday at Georgetown University, delivered outdoors on a sweltering hot day, Obama went further than any previous US president in outlining a comprehensive strategy for dealing with climate change. He also said he would continue to press the issue as a priority of his second term even in the face of implacable opposition from Republicans in Congress.

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” Obama said to a gathering of students.

Obama outlined a broad range of measures to cut greenhouse gasemissions and promote the development of renewable energy, protect coastlines and cities from flooding and sea-level rise, and encourage efforts to reach a global climate deal.

The over-arching goal was to put the US on track to meet its commitment to cut carbon emissions 17% from 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

But Obama’s boldest move by far was the decision to bypass a deadlocked Congress and issue an executive memo to the Environmental Protection Agency, calling for new rules curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Such measures were long overdue, Obama said. “Power plants can still dump limitless carbon pollution into the air for free,” he said. “That’s not right, that’s not safe and it needs to stop.”

Curbing emissions from power plants would be the single-most significant action against climate change in Obama’s power. Power plants are responsible for a third of America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The decision won Obama widespread praise from fellow Democrats and environmental campaigners. Al Gore said the address was the “best speech on climate by any president”.

Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate environment and public works committee, said: “The president is using all the tools in his tool box and I applaud him for that.”

As anticipated, however, the measure ran into fierce opposition from Republicans and industry, even before Obama had delivered his speech. But the president pushed back on the idea that he was overstepping by ordering the EPA to act. “The idea of setting higher pollution standards for our power plants is not new.  It’s just time for Washington to catch up with the rest of the country,” he said.

Obama also said he was willing to work across the political divide but would not tolerate attempts to cast doubt on the science underlying climate change. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society,” Obama said to applause.

The president took on another contentious issue – the Keystone tar sands pipeline, which campaigners have cast as the defining environmental issue of the day.

Obama gave no indication of how he will decide on the project, which would open up Canada’s vast store of carbon. However, he offered campaigners a measure of reassurance, saying climate implications would be critical to making a final determination. “The net effects of pipeline impact on our climate will be absolutely critical in determining if the project is allowed to go forward,” he said.

Elsewhere, Obama broke with campaigners, and even many of his fellow Democrats, embracing America’s natural gas boom, made possible through fracking, as a transition fuel. He also reiterated support for nuclear power.

Many of those who praised Obama for regulating power plants, such as boxer, urged him to take the next step and put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. There was no mention of such a measure in his speech.

But there was still overwhelmingly strong support among an environmental community that has often been frustrated and disappointed with the president on climate change.

“This is the change Americans have been waiting for on climate. President Obama is finally putting action behind his words,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club – although he went on to ask the president to stop the Keystone pipeline.

Obama claimed climate change as one of his core issues in his inauguration address. He stoked expectations even further in his state of the union address in February, telling Congress to act on climate change – or he would.

Since then, there have been mixed signals from the White House on climate change. The White House delayed a range of environmental rules, and Obama told supporters at a number of fundraisers that the politics of climate change were hard.

With Tuesday’s speech, however, Obama appears to have firmly adopted climate action as his own brand.

Administration officials briefing reporters on the climate plan said the White House hoped to propose the rules for existing power plants by June 2014, finalising the rules one year later. They said proposed rules for new plants could be forthcoming as early as September. That timetable could set in place mechanisms to deliver meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by the time Obama leaves office.

But there are bound to be legal and political challenges, and it was not immediately clear how stringent the new power plant rules would be. It was also unclear how the actions promised by Obama would play out in the long term.

Most analysts believed at the time that America’s original 17% emissions target was too low to avoid serious climate change. There was even greater uncertainty about whether America would be on track for the even more ambitious mid-century target of an 80% cut in emissions. That would depend on the stringency of the EPA measures, and how quickly the new rules could be adopted,

The significance of Tuesday’s strategy will only become apparent in time, said Van Jones, a co-founder of the activist group Rebuild the Dream and Obama’s former White House green jobs advisor.

“Cracking down on carbon pollution is very good and it is long overdue, but it’s going to take two years to produce the rules and then probably five years to litigate it so that is a big chunk of time,” Jones said. “That is a big chunk of carbon to go after there, but it is going to take a while before there is any effect. So celebrate, but be realistic.”

WATER : Jaffna aquifer depleting from overuse

The single limestone aquifer, which is the main source of freshwater in Sri Lanka‘s northern Jaffna peninsula, is gradually depleting through overuse, researchers say. ENN reports

“The area suffers from severe groundwater imbalance which might reach crisis proportions in the future,” Shanti de Silva, one of two scientists who carried out the research for the agricultural department of the University of Jaffna, told SciDev.Net.

At a presentation of the research results last month (18 April), de Silva called for a regulatory framework to optimise groundwater use in Jaffna peninsula — which was captured by the Sri Lankan army from separatist rebels in May 2009, ending decades of civil strife.

Originally published in Tropical Agricultural Research (in December 2012), the results showed that the potential recharge of the aquifer in the dry season was approximately 14 per cent of that in the wet season — showing up a serious contrast between the two main seasons.

“Water resources of the basin remain almost constant while the demand for water continues to increase. Moreover, due to uneven distribution of rainfall, water resources lack replenishment,” the report said.

Kusum Athukorala, who heads the Network of Women Water Professionals and is the winner of the 2012 Women in Water award, told SciDev.Net that with thousands of people returning to settle in the former warzone, groundwater extraction is bound to increase. “Since this will create more imbalances, some regulation will help prevent a future crisis,” she said.

The researchers recommend extraction of 50 per cent of the annual recharge to prevent a severe imbalance developing in the aquifer, the main resource for agriculture, domestic use and water supply on the Jaffna peninsula.

Aquifers are layers in underground rock, capable of trapping water that can be pumped out for domestic consumption, agriculture and industry.

Since high water usage was observed in farming, conservation practices need to be implemented to increase water use efficiency, including correct selection of crops and irrigation methods, the researchers said.

Farm-level organisations, policies to renovate existing surface tanks, restrictions on the use of mechanical pumps and regular monitoring of the ground water table are among measures suggested to reverse a worsening situation.

The researchers have also suggested construction of rainwater reservoirs in public places and sensitising farmers against over extraction as ways to ensure adequate replenishment of the Jaffna aquifer.

See more at SciDev.Net.

Aquifers in US Depleting, Contributing to Sea-Level Rise

English: Aquifer (vectorized)
English: Aquifer (vectorized) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The High Plains (also known as Ogallala) aquifer underlies more than 170,000 square miles of the United States. Aquifers are water storage areas that are made up of bodies of permeable rock that contain and transmit groundwater. The High Plains aquifer serves as the principal source of water for irrigation and drinking in the Great Plains, serving over two million people. However, substantial pumping of the aquifer for irrigation since the 1940s has resulted in large water-table declines.

Depleting aquifers of groundwater can lead to serious consequences as pumping water out of the ground faster than it can be replenished can permanently dry up wells, reduce water in lakes and streams, and deteriorate water quality.

Yet, since 2000, depletion of the High Plains aquifer appears to be continuing at a high rate, with no plans of slowing down. The depletion during the last 8 years of record (2001—2008, inclusive) is about 32 percent of the cumulative depletion in this aquifer during the entire 20th century.

Groundwater withdrawal rates (fresh water, all...
Groundwater withdrawal rates (fresh water, all sources) by county in 2000. Source: National Atlas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The High Plains aquifer depletion is just one example in a new U.S. Geological Survey study that reveals most of the Nation’s aquifers are being depleted at an accelerating rate.

The study, Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900-2008) comprehensively evaluates long-term depletion volumes in 40 separate US aquifers.

“Groundwater is one of the Nation’s most important natural resources. It provides drinking water in both rural and urban communities. It supports irrigation and industry, sustains the flow of streams and rivers, and maintains ecosystems,” said Suzette Kimball, acting USGS Director. “Because groundwater systems typically respond slowly to human actions, a long-term perspective is vital to manage this valuable resource in sustainable ways.”

The study reports that from 1900 to 2008, the Nation’s aquifers, decreased by more than twice the volume of water found in Lake Erie. Also, groundwater depletion in the U.S. in the years 2000-2008 can explain more than 2 percent of the observed global sea-level rise during that period.

While the rate of groundwater depletion across the country has increased markedly since about 1950, the maximum rates have occurred during the most recent period of the study (2000—2008), when the depletion rate averaged almost 25 cubic kilometers per year. For comparison, 9.2 cubic kilometers per year is the historical average calculated over the 1900—2008 timespan of the study.

See more at the USGS Newsroom.

Happy (Natural) Mother’s Day

English: Bison bison. Original caption: "...
English: Bison bison. Original caption: “scientists are helping users of American rangelands meet the challenge of managing multiple uses sustainably.”) Français : Un bison, image prise par Jack Dykinga pour l’USDA. Légende originale de l’USDA: Les scientifiques aident les utilisateurs des pâturages américains à relever le défi de la gestion multiusage durable. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Today is Mother’s Day in the US and is a chance to honor and give thanks to mothers, both human and those of the animal variety!

In nature, mothers come in all shapes and sizes and are equipped with a wide range of different parenting styles. We’ve selected a handful of moms with unique and fascinating methods for raising their babies from keeping little ones close for years to kicking them right out of the nest before they can even fly!
Furry and ginormous, American bison mothers live with their young in hierarchical herds led by one dominant female. Within three hours of being born, the newborn calves are able to run about but are guarded closely by many of the herds’ mothers who will charge any intruders. Talk about safety in numbers!

Our fine, feather mom, the long-eared owl, takes on the more ‘distant’ parenting approach. In a behavior known as ‘branching’, chicks leave the nest before they are able to fly and reside in surrounding vegetation, roosting separately, and thereby potentially reducing predation. While the young are capable of flight at around 35 days, both parents continue to provide food for several weeks after fledging.

Read more at ENN Affiliate, ARKive.

Let’s Celebrate the 5th Annual National Public Gardens Day!

National Public Gardens Day
National Public Gardens Day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The annual tradition of celebrating public gardens on the Friday preceding Mother’s Day weekend will continue this year on May 10, 2013 as communities throughout the United States celebrate National Public Gardens Day. ENN reports

Presented in partnership between the American Public Gardens Association (APGA) and irrigation product and service provider, Rain Bird, the annual day of awareness invites communities nationwide to explore the diverse beauty of their local green spaces and to take advantage of the conservation, education and environmental preservation resources public gardens provide.

The 2013 National Public Gardens Day will be celebrated by more than 500 North American botanic gardens, arboreta, museums, zoos and entertainment gardens with special events, tours and activities.

“Public gardens are treasures of the communities they serve,” said Casey Sclar, Executive Director of the American Public Gardens Association. “Whether the gardens are in urban centers or in rural communities, they not only provide recreation and beauty, but are also indispensable resources in education, the environment and culture. It is important to take time at least once a year and pay tribute to these pillars of the community and educate the public about the importance of plant and water conservation.”

National Public Gardens Day is supported by a national awareness campaign that utilizes broadcast public service announcements, media partnerships, national spokespeople, media tours and contests to drive local and national exposure to the importance of building sustainable environments through plant and water conservation, education and community engagement.

“The impact that public gardens and green spaces have on our communities cannot be understated, and as a presenting partner and co-founder of National Public Gardens Day, Rain Bird recognizes the need to bring awareness to how public gardens serve as invaluable resources for water conservation,” said Dave Johnson, Rain Bird’s director of corporate marketing. “National Public Gardens Day is a perfect opportunity to celebrate public gardens and underscore how they ideally support our company’s Intelligent Use of Water philosophy by demonstrating how green spaces can educate and inspire us while contributing to the health of our environment and the conservation of the world’s most precious resource.”

In celebration of botanical gardens, arboreta, conservatories, educational gardens and historical landscapes, many of the APGA’s 500 member institutions will mark the day with special events and activities for schools, families, garden enthusiasts and other visitors. Many of the activities will continue through Mother’s Day weekend, offering visitors time to enjoy the beauty of the gardens while learning about each garden’s commitment to education, research and environmental stewardship.

For more information on National Public Gardens Day, visit

The world’s largest ‘waste dump’ is found in the Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean
The Pacific Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


If you were to travel from the United States of America to Japan, you would most likely encounter what could be described as the world’s largest waste dump: a 100,000 tonne expanse of debris floating around a large region of the Pacific OceanENN reports 

The total area of this phenomenon has been said to equal the size of continental U.S., but the truth about its true size remains unknown.

Captain Charles Moore first discovered the ‘Pacific garbage patch‘ in 1997. The area in which rubbish gets caught up is known as a gyre, which can be described as a large-scale circular feature made up of ocean currents that ultimately traps waste and moves it around the region.

Plastics constitute 90 percent of all trash in the world’s oceans with 20 percent of this waste being dumped from ships and oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

Plastic is of course, a very useful product; durable and stable, yet it is these very properties that deem it troublesome in marine environments.

“The polypropylene and the polyethylene that make up the majority of floater plastics and consumer plastics are just a little bit lighter than water. So if it’s rough they get pushed down under. When it’s really calm, all these bits and pieces can float to the surface,” Charles Moore told the Earth Island Journal.

To Moore, it is clearly a land-based problem and he believes that what drives the market and what subsequently runs off the streets into our oceans is all part of the same problem.

A one-liter plastic bottle, when in seawater, can reduce to so many small pieces that it is possible a single fragment could be found on every beach in the world. The entire marine food-web is suffering as a result. The breakdown of plastics into small pieces allows them to mimic the prey of all marine animals, from zooplankton to whales. When plastic is so prevalent that it fills up a creature’s stomach, it turns off the desire to feed. If an organism doesn’t put on fat stores for reproduction and migration, its population will crash. Floating plastic will even act as transport for some organisms, introducing them to areas where they could be problematic to resident species.

Seventy percent of the plastic waste sinks to the ocean floor and this mass of waste causes considerable damage to bed-dwelling organisms. In the worst case scenario—suffocation.

Plastics are also very good sponges, as such they are often used in oil clean-ups. But Moore explains that “petroleum-derivative toxins are sticking to these plastics, delivering these toxicants to marine creatures from the very base of the food-web to the top, in addition to killing millions by entanglement”.