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Saving the Titans

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CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — A giant coastal redwood tree that typifies the almost mythical Grove of Titans has been rising toward the heavens for about 1,000 years, yet all that effort is in jeopardy from a few years worth of selfies.

Left virtually alone in the quiet recesses of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near the Oregon/California border, this tree for centuries thrived within a soft forest floor, with thick ferns ringing its base like a giant green skirt in these rainy north woods without any human path to them.

But the grove’s reputation for housing several of the biggest coastal redwoods on Earth has put that in jeopardy in less than a decade. A steady stream of visitors have trampled the forest floor, stripped the ferns from the base of the redwood and exposed roots now transformed into footholds.

“Essentially people are using these roots as stepping stones to get as high as they can to get a good photograph,” says Joanna Di Tommaso, development director for Redwood Parks Conservancy.

Instead of fighting the grove’s big-tree worshippers and the habitat degradation that comes with them, the park and its supporters have decided to embrace the grove’s growing reputation by creating an infrastructure that will simultaneously put it on display and protect it.

This group of stakeholders plans to create a legit trail to the grove and develop an elevated walkway through it so visitors can safely experience redwoods with names such as Del Norte Titan, Lost Monarch and Screaming Titans without risk to the grove itself.

“We really need to find a balance between providing access to this place — since people clearly want to visit — and protecting this place, as well,” Di Tommaso says.

But protection comes with a price tag — $3.5 million — for construction, rehabilitating a visitor-usage study, as well as developing interpretive materials to tell the Grove of Titans story.

The conservancy is joined in the project by the California State Parks Department, the National Park Service and the Save the Redwoods League, which will match all donations — up to $500,000 — made by Dec. 31. People interested in donating can do so through www.savetheredwoods.org/titans.

“It’s a tall order,” Di Tommaso says. “But we have lots of support. We’re really confident we’ve found a really great solution for this place.”

The grove is home to three of the 10 largest coastal redwoods by volume, including Lost Monarch, which is the largest multi-stem coastal redwood ever found — 321 feet tall and 26 feet wide, with a wood volume of 42,500 cubic feet — enough wood to build 40 2,000-square-foot houses.

Not only are the trees mammoth, they’re uniquely clustered in this relatively small grove.

“This is one of the most dense collections of giant redwoods they’ve ever measured,” Di Tommaso says.

The grove, near the northernmost range of coastal redwoods, are very dependent upon the coastal fog belt, and they take advantage of this area, which gets the heaviest annual rainfall of anywhere in California.

Also, coastal soil-type shifts near the Oregon/California border start to allow other conifers to out-compete these slow-growing leviathans that now cover just 5 percent of their natural range, with Jedediah Smith State Park a rare stronghold.

“These trees are just incredibly adapted to their specific environment,” Di Tommaso says. “They’re fire-resistant. They’re insect-resistant, and they just do so well with so much rain.”

And with it, so much anonymity.

The Grove of Titans was discovered May 11, 1998, by botanist Stephen Sillett and big-tree hunter Michael Taylor while studying redwoods, and their location remained largely a secret until someone in Oregon published the grove’s GPS coordinates and directions to it on the Internet in 2011. The race to see them was on.

The grove had no trail, but it could be found by bushwacking off the park’s Mill Creek Trail. Visitors began slogging through the ferns and duff, making tracks to find the grove.

“There’s no trail access, so people want to treasure-hunt for these trees,” Di Tommaso says. “It makes it a special place.”

Now parks officials estimate that about 50 people a day visit the grove during summer months despite signs urging visitors not to venture off-trail, creating a network of impromptu rogue trails that crisscross the grove.

All of the people coming in here have trampled the forest duff, threatening the health of these massive trees that don’t do well with soil disturbance.

“Redwoods have a very shallow root system, and we know that the fine roots really close to the surface are affected by that,” Di Tommaso says.

Park managers and the nonprofits are heavily into fundraising now, with plans to start construction sometime in 2019, with the raised path welcoming visitors possibly as early as 2021.

“In a couple years after that, you can come back and see the forest regenerating,” Di Tommaso says. “And you can experience the Grove of Titans safely.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriterFreeman.

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Joanna Di Tommaso, director of Redwoods Park Conservancy, walks though the Grove of Titans in Jedidiah Smith State park. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune