FLOODS and fires, logging and mining, wagon trains and Indian wars, this giant has looked down on a lot of history. Back and back, past the American Revolution and the Crusades and the coronation of Charlemagne, adding layer upon layer to its 44-foot girth, pushing upward to its height above 360 feet. No wonder scientists named it Sequoia sempervirens, or ``Always living.'' Here in the Tall Trees Grove of Redwood National Park, the world's tallest tree is protected by US law, and even the United Nations has designated the park a ``World Heritage Site.'' That the UN should have taken this symbolic step of honor seems logical, for many languages other than English are spoken - or rather, whispered - in redwood country, where beauty predates nationality or even modern humanity.
But outside the peace and quiet of the national park, the redwoods are embroiled in political, economic, and legal conflict. The actors range from radical environmentalists (131 of whom were arrested as they tried to stop logging last summer) to a Texas-based corporate raider with ties to convicted felons Michael Milkin and Ivan Boesky, from well-to-do urbanites donating large sums for the preservation of redwood groves to rural millworkers and loggers who have worked the woods for generations.
What it all boils down to is the redwoods' dual worth: they are not only among the most awesome living things, they also are among the most sought-after as a source of beautiful lumber.
``There's been no end to the controversy,'' says Tim McKay, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, Calif. He advocates the establishment of ``biosphere preserves'' and much stricter limits on logging. The situation will remain in ``crisis,'' Mr. McKay says, without a political solution ``that will help to guide conservation and development for the next century.''
On that point, at least, timber industry executives agree.
``Without political leadership, there's going to be an enormous collapse,'' says John Campbell, president of Pacific Lumber Company, the largest private owner of redwood forests. ``The whole regulatory scheme has slowed down dramatically to the point where it is very, very difficult to get harvest plans or environmental impact reports approved.''
There are polar-opposite assessments of the state of the redwood today. Environmentalists say the pre-settlement groves of ancient trees have been reduced to a fraction of their original area (from 2 million acres down to about 300,000 acres).
The timber industry says there are more redwoods today than when logging began over a century ago. Millions of seedlings are planted every year (as required by state law) and redwoods are the fastest growing softwood tree in the US, shooting up as much as 130 feet in 30 years.
The difference is between ``virgin'' redwoods - the oldtimers known to have lived as long as 2,200 years - and the youngsters planted in recent decades. One person's ``forest'' is someone else's ``tree plantation,'' which may not provide the same kind of habitat necessary for troubled species like the marbled murrelet (a seabird) or steelhead trout.
California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), as soon as he was elected last fall, promised to ``work to preserve additional old-growth redwoods in California's north coast.''
``We must ensure that their management is based on sound biological and ecological principles,'' Governor Wilson said in a letter to state Board of Forestry chairman Carlton Yee.
Wilson's statement was described by the Sierra Club as ``a very encouraging sign.'' John Campbell of Pacific Lumber says the governor ``is showing leadership for the next century.'' There are still many difficult legislative and legal details to sort out, however. (See related article.)
Some 160 millions years ago, redwoods flourished over much of the Earth. They have been in California in their present form for an estimated 20 million years. John Dewitt, executive director of the Save-the-Redwoods League in San Francisco, describes them as ``a unique and beautiful relic flora from the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.''
About 1 million years ago, weather changes and glaciers reduced the redwood's growing area to a narrow coastal belt stretching from southern Oregon to the Santa Lucia Mountains south of Monterey Bay. Here, they thrive in a unique combination of alluvial soil, mild temperatures, heavy winter rain, and summer fog.
Not long after logging started to become intense about 100 years ago, the first public efforts to preserve the redwoods began. The first state redwood park was established in 1902, and the Muir Woods National Monument was dedicated five years later.
The Save-the-Redwoods League was organized in 1918 to solicit private donations to purchase the groves that were to become the core of the California Redwood State Park system. Timber companies (including Pacific Lumber) cooperated with the league, often delaying planned logging until the organization could buy the old-growth stands and in some cases donating land.
In 1968, Congress created the Redwood National Park. Although the park included 30,000 acres, many still believed that that was not enough to protect the surrounding watershed on which the preserved ancient redwoods relied.
Ten years later, Congress and President Jimmy Carter expanded the park area to 78,000 acres and ordered the rehabilitation of cutover lands. The cost for all the redwood parks to that point was about $1 billion.
Meanwhile, the environmental movement brought ideas of ``ecosystem preservation'' and ``biological diversity'' up against traditional economic, political and aesthetic considerations. The ancient redwoods should be preserved, many now believe, not just because they are unique and beautiful but because they are an important indicator of more general environmental health.
``The processes of fragmentation and increasingly intensive management create erosion and a reduction in biological diversity,'' Tim McKay of the Northcoast Environmental Center told a congressional hearing last month. ``Without well-distributed reserves that provide for ecosystems large enough to maintain themselves, science will have a hard time in the future determining what environmental health is.''
Mr. Dewitt, who's been working full-time on behalf of the redwoods for 27 years, figures it will take another 75,000 to 90,000 acres of preserved parcels (mostly second-growth forest land and adjoining watershed meadows) to complete the 32 existing parks.
That, says Dewitt, would make the groves ``ecologically sound and perpetuate them for 10,000 years into the future.'' A long time, even by redwood standards.