A Redwood Grows in St. Helena
By Kelli White
All three hundred of them died. The original batch of Monte Rio seedlings, selected from a forest in the Russian River Valley, could not thrive just thirty miles inland in St. Helena. The issue was not the soil, nor the treated wastewater with which they were irrigated; theirs was a climate problem. It seems that Napa Valley’s famously chilly evenings, the result of the diurnal shift that makes fine wine possible, were too cold for the tiny redwoods.
California also has a climate problem. Which is why Paul Asmuth planted the seedlings in the first place.
As one of the world’s greatest marathon swimmers, Paul resembles the trees he spends his days cultivating. His tall strides tamp down the grassy undergrowth in his grove as he points out the morphological differences between clones, most of which hail from the Las Posadas State Forest in Angwin, California. “There’s Luna,” he gestures with boyish excitement at a more exotic one, “those seeds actually orbited the moon on the Apollo 14 mission!”
As he walks, Paul explains that redwoods used to grow all over the Northern Hemisphere as far back as the Jurassic Period, before getting nearly wiped out in the last ice age. Now they are almost completely confined to a relatively small, 450-mile band that runs from southern Monterey County to just north of the California-Oregon state line. Laterally, the majority hug the Pacific, where the trees rely on both moisture and the thermal insulation provided by the daily fogs.
The Las Posadas Forest hosts among the farthest inland (30 miles) ¬– where the ocean’s influence is effectively absent. It is here, in 2012, that Paul found the clones which could better adapt to the dry days and cold nights of St. Helena.
Ten years later, his grove now stands 35 feet high.
Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the second most genetically complex organism on earth. These remarkable trees boast 27 billion base pairs of DNA (nine times more than humans). As the world’s tallest and longest living tree, it sequesters more carbon — and does so more quickly — than any other plant on earth, making it an important leverage in our climate’s recovery plan.
Before he planted his grove, Paul visited St. Helena’s wastewater treatment plant, invited by the mayor because of his position on the advisory committee at the luxury Napa Valley resort, Meadowood; the hotel’s wastewater system fell under Paul’s purview.
In the perennially drought-stricken state of California, wastewater management is a massive issue. Nationally, wastewater treatment plants process roughly 34 billion gallons a day. Post-treatment, the majority of wastewater is released into local waterways. When the Napa River is low, which is most of the year, St. Helena has little choice but to spray its effluent (liquid waste) onto an adjacent fallow field.
Though required by the dry conditions, this approach has some side benefits: it helps recharge the groundwater and harnesses the metabolic powers of local vegetation to process nitrogen and phosphorus, the most common residuum of the treatment process. Because nothing comestible (edible) can be planted adjacent to the spray zone, there is a fallow buffer between the field and the neighboring vineyards. It was this 15-acre “buffer” that Paul pointed to for his grove.
According to a press release issued by Save the Redwoods League, an acre of ancient redwoods can store up to 890 metric tons of carbon. While ancient redwoods represent only a small portion of existing redwoods, the ability of younger forests is also impressive. The trees that grew following the timber boom of the mid-1800s have already captured an estimated 339 metric tons of atmospheric carbon per acre, and California and Oregon contain 1.5 million acres of such redwoods.
“Currently, Earth’s forests and soil absorb about 30 percent of atmospheric carbon emissions,” writes NASA, “partially through forest productivity and restoration. While deforestation has occurred throughout human history, the practice has increased dramatically in the past 50 years.”
A study released by Nature journal estimates that over 15 billion trees are harvested each year, and that “the global number of trees has fallen by approximately 46% since the start of human civilization.” With each passing year, restoring and protecting our forests becomes increasingly urgent.
Carbon sequestration is only one of the benefits that redwoods provide. Their broad, shallow, and interlocking roots prevent soil erosion. The shade they create helps keep the soil cool, which preserves moisture and microbial life. They produce oxygen and have also proved remarkably resistant to fire damage. And, especially important in arid St. Helena, they contribute to the cleaning and cycling of water, helping to preserve what we have.
Paul’s redwoods are fairly salt-tolerant, meaning they’re able to be irrigated with the city’s effluent, which they later transpire, or breathe out, as pure H2O. According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, a single redwood can transpire as much as 500 gallons of water per day.
In turn, this transpiration cools the air inside the forest, an effect which is palpable to visitors. Step inside the St. Helena grove and moist air envelops you. The dappled light created by the stories-high canopy is soothing, as is the fresh woodsy air. Select medical professionals believe that regular immersion in such an environment can improve one’s health. Known as forest-bathing, or “shinrin-yoku” in Japanese culture, these nature walks are thought to reduce blood pressure and positively affect the hormonal system.
In light of all this, it’s little wonder that reforestation has become such a hot topic in climate-change circles.
It’s an easy idea to love, both on the individual and corporate level. Multiple airlines are offering customers the chance to “offset their carbon footprint” by paying to plant a tree, as are certain hotels. Even the popular commerce app Shopify has introduced a pop-up feature that virtual merchants can use to encourage their customers to donate money toward trees.
And while some of these reforestation efforts are doing truly good work, such as Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods, which replaces decimated native Koa plantings, others seem to be either thoughtlessly executed or downright harmful.
According to Mimi Casteel, Oregon winemaker and former Forest Service ecologist, the “carbon accounting goldrush” is a “house of cards that is about to fall down.” What Mimi is referring to, specifically, is the recent trend for corporations to buy “carbon credits” to administratively counteract their business' CO2 emissions.
Instead of paying a fine to the federal or state governments for violating environmental standards, they buy credits from a company that earns them through reducing emissions, which supposedly creates an incentive cycle. An extreme example of this is Tesla, which earns credits for producing electric vehicles, then sells billions of dollars-worth of these credits each year. Their clients? Automotive giants and others in and around the fossil fuel space.
Mimi feels carbon credits are a bizarre solution that just allow companies to greenwash their practices without reducing their environmental impact. “With a lot of these bigger tree-planting projects like what hotels and or airlines invest in,” Mimi explains, “there’s not a lot of evidence that they ultimately contribute much regarding carbon.” Much of the problem lies in the forest management practices. “Most offset tree-planting projects are very poorly managed, are monocultures, are planted in wrong places, or the trees are not taken to full life cycle, so the impact is not what it is supposed to be.”
A key consideration here is the difference between reforestation and afforestation.
Reforestation, ideally, restores a native ecosystem that had been converted to other uses, like housing or agriculture. Afforestation is the planting of trees where there historically weren’t any, such as on grasslands, which can be environmentally destructive, no matter how good the intentions.
“The best version of this kind of project,” suggests Mimi, “is where it’s a local effort, with a tree that is from that ecosystem, that supports the resilience of the local watershed, and where the trees come to maturity in the full view of the people that invested in it.”
Which brings us back to Paul.
This past February, Paul, his wife Marilyn, and his nonprofit partner, Sustainable St. Helena, launched phase two of their redwood forest project. The vision has evolved slightly since its inception, with the current city council wanting to incorporate hiking trails and grant the public access. Paul merrily agreed and designed the layout of the new 10 acres to include wide aisles for recreation.
A local farming company, Silverado Farming Company, donated the labor, and their employees toiled alongside Paul’s colleagues, friends, and members of the community. Toddlers toddled in the grassy field while the sound of shovels slicing damp earth filled the air. And at the end of that crisp but sunny weekend, nearly 2,000 baby redwoods were in the ground. During a break in the action, Paul walked a small family through the original block of trees from 2012. He doled out handfuls of tender needles and encouraged them to rub their hands together and smell the oil. “That’s the pure essence of redwood, there. Some pine but also a lot of citrus,” Paul described as if writing a tasting note. This is wine country, after all.
Now that the second big batch of seedlings is in the ground, Paul is adding oaks and other native species to the mix. He didn’t need his online courses in Forestry from Mississippi State to teach him the importance of biodiversity; the forest showed him that directly. “One of the biggest ah-ha moments for me was the day I noticed the ladybugs.” Paul smiles broadly in remembrance. “The trees weren’t that big yet but suddenly there were ladybugs everywhere. Then I noticed the bird nests and the voles, and the large mammals hunting. I realized this formerly fallow land suddenly had a lot of action!”
It’s tempting to call Paul’s forest a self-contained universe, but it’s actually the opposite. The trees break up the vinous monoculture of the valley floor; the animals and insects that hunt and take refuge there interact with the surrounding areas; and the people that enjoy the park will take that good feeling back into the broader community. What started as a creative use of one vacant wedge of land has evolved into much more. “It’s my secret hope to create a successful model that can be repeated throughout the West,” Paul confesses.
Even at 15 acres, it’s likely that the St. Helena community redwood forest won’t move the needle much in terms of carbon sinking, soil health, or water quality. But at least it’s a step in the right direction, and hopefully one that will inspire other communities to follow suit.
California has a climate problem. Paul Asmuth has a small solution. But better small and real, than big and fake.