Trespassing bushwhackers are causing significant damage to the surrounding forest
Molly Enking – Smithsonian Magazine
“The world’s tallest living tree, a 380-foot-tall Redwood named Hyperion, is now off-limits to visitors. Eager tourists who attempt to seek it out anyway could face fines of $5,000 or up to six months in jail.
The new rules are an attempt to curb destructive tourism that has damaged the surrounding forest. In a statement last week, the National Park Service (NPS) begged tree enthusiasts, bloggers and bushwhackers to stay on designated trails and respect the closed area’s fragile ecosystem.
“As a visitor, you must decide if you will be part of the preservation of this unique landscape—or will you be part of its destruction?” asks the NPS.
At the crux of the issue is bushwhacking: visitors leaving designated trails to seek out specific trees, like Hyperion, which is located in California’s Redwood National Park. Researchers first found the tree—and identified it as the world’s tallest—in 2006. But since then, reports SFGate’s Sam Moore, so many people have left the trail to seek it out that the surrounding forest has been severely damaged.
Redwoods’ root systems are incredibly shallow for the trees’ size, reaching only about 12 feet into the ground. They rely on drawing water from undisturbed detritus on the forest floor, like pine needles, which collect moisture from the forest’s thick swirling mists.
“The usage was having an impact on the vegetation and potentially the root system of the very tree that people are going there to visit,” Leonel Arguello, Redwood National Park’s chief of natural resources, tells SFGate. “There was trash, and people were creating even more side trails to use the bathroom. They leave used toilet paper and human waste—it’s not a good thing, not a good scene.”
In addition to causing damage, tourists who reach Hyperion are likely to be disappointed. The tree is not impressive when seen from below, particularly compared to other massive redwoods visible from the trails, says NPS in the statement. Seeking out the “tallest” tree is also a futile endeavor, since one tree is unlikely to stay the tallest for long.
“A view of Hyperion doesn’t match its hype,” reads the statement. “Hyperion’s trunk is small in comparison to many other old-growth redwood trees and its height cannot be observed from the ground. … There are hundreds of trees on designated trails that are more impressive to view from the tree’s base.”
Hyperion is named for the Titans in Greek mythology, and it is estimated to be between 600 and 800 years old. Still, it is much younger than the world’s oldest living trees, which began growing more than 4,000 years ago.
Tourists aren’t the only threat redwoods and their ecosystems are currently facing: Since 2015, massive wildfires have damaged an “unprecedented” number of trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, according to NPS. Giant sequoias are extremely difficult to kill, but recent wildfires have reached “a tipping point.” In 2021, multiple raging wildfires in the area killed 10 to 14 percent of the world’s giant sequoia population.
“Sequoias evolved to survive, and even thrive, in fires,” wrote the New York Times’ Vimal Patel last year. “But the ever-increasing intensity of fires in California has become too much for them.”