Oakland’s Redwood Retreat
Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland, California – includes related article on nature camp
“The Oakland Hills, being exposed immediately to the influences of the sea winds and fogs, once bore a group of redwood trees . . .” (Written in 1893 by naturalist Dr. William Gibbons)
So gigantic were those redwoods that mariners steered by them, lining up their ships with the tallest two–from 16 miles out–as they navigated through the Golden Gate.
For generations the San Antonio Redwoods, a small grove in the East Bay redwood forest, stood in noble splendor on these hills above the sea. Some towered over 300 feet. An overwhelming demand for lumber to build the cities of San Francisco and Oakland between 1850 and 1860 drove prices upward, and away to the woods with their mighty axes went many a fortune hunter. By 1860, all the giant trees had been cut.
The original forest of coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) covered an area of about five square miles extending from the western slopes of East Oakland to Moraga Valley. Reforestation was unheard of in that day and age, but these persistent stump-sprouters got things going on their own. Today the second and third generations of San Antonio redwoods grow protected in a lush 500-acre urban forest known as Joaquin Miller Park.
A redwood forest in Oakland? It is indeed a wondrous thing to look down upon a city of nearly 400,000 people from a vantage point of cool, green, sweet forest. In this peaceful retreat stretching across the hills that overlook the Bay, city dwellers may escape from concrete to soft footpaths.
The park grew out of one man’s dream. Joaquin Miller, who became known as “The Byron of the Rockies” and “The Poet of the Sierra” for his extensive literary works, came to California around 1850. Dabbling in occupations from Indian fighter to pony-express rider to author to horse thief, he also was a tree lover and planter.
In 1886, Miller purchased 70 barren acres in the hills above Oakland. Then he planted trees–75,000 of them. The Oakland Parks Department bought this land from Miller in 1919, with the provision that his wife and daughter could live out their lives in homes he’d built for them there.
Later, in 1928, nearby land was being eyed by developers, but action by the Save-the-Redwoods League helped to protect these trees, and the land was later purchased by the City of Oakland. This acreage, together with Miller’s original property and nearby Sequoia Park, comprise Joaquin Miller Park today.
Miller envisioned his land as a retreat to nurture his creative spirit. While living in his small home at the foot of the park, he wrote articles on the worth of trees, to inspire public interest in planting. These writings resulted in California’s first Arbor Day, November 27, 1886.
Miller planted the original 70 acres in Monterey pine, cypress, olive, and, reportedly, the first eucalyptus trees in California. Today’s tree plantings in Joaquin Miller Park, which is owned and operated by Oakland’s Office of Parks and Recreation, involve many national, state, and civil organizations. They include the Sierra Club, California Writer’s Club, California Conservation Corps, East Bay Conservation Corps, and the 415 Society.
Since 1980, a project to replace non-native eucalyptus with redwoods has gained much support from organizations such as the Save-the-Redwoods League and Health Net, a California health-insurance company. Grants from both groups are helping with the purchase of seedlings, plantings, and drip-irrigation installation. Each year, four acres of eucalyptus come out and 100 redwood seedlings per acre are planted in their place.
Why all the fuss? Well, the oil in eucalyptus leaves makes them highly flammable, and the trees’ shedding builds up a huge layer of tinder-dry litter. Redwoods, on the other hand, have a high moisture content that discourages fires.
“The eucalyptus create a fire hazard for the cities in the East Bay,” says John Dewitt, executive director of Save-the-Redwoods.
Few of today’s residents remember the fire of 1923, when a power line fell on eucalyptus trees in Tildon Park, to the south of Joaquin Miller Park, setting off the worst blaze since the one associated with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Martin Matarrese, parkland resources supervisor, says the main focus of the program is to remove the largest block of eucalyptus, growing in the fog belt along the upper end of Miller park only about a mile from the largest native redwoods. (The theory is that the redwood groves may have been much larger during prehistoric times, when a moister climate could better support them.)
To wander through this park among the cool, foggy redwoods and madrone and coast live oak, high above the city of Oakland, is to know why Joaquin Miller was inspired to write here. Did he know the peacefulness his forest would later bring? Perhaps. When Miller Park’s redwoods reach the climax stage centuries from today, will ships entering the Golden Gate still recognize them as sentinels?
Carrie Pepper, American Forests Magazine