How One Woman and Her Nonprofit Are Saving Our Forests
Think of it as the most unlikely result of Occupy Wall Street: the creation of an environmental nonprofit called For the Wild. It was 2011, and Ayana Young, then a Columbia University ecology student, was feeling “empty, a cumulative sense that something just wasn’t right.” Young was overwhelmed by the earth’s disintegrating health—the climate chaos, the mountains of trash, the mass extinction—but felt like she had no way of voicing it. That’s when she saw the protestors in Zuccotti Park. “They put a vocabulary to what I was feeling,” she says. “I was finally in a community that was talking about the things that I was struggling with for so long.”
So Young became an advocate. Incensed and passionate, she dived deep into everything she could about the environment and its plight. The biggest detriment to our earth’s health is human supremacy, which “isn’t looked at nearly enough,” says the now ecologist. To put a fine point on it: “Why are humans somehow entitled to all the resources in the world?”
For the Wild is the tangible result of Young’s ferocious advocating. She describes her nonprofit as “a love song to disappearing wild places.” It merges restoration and conservation efforts with storytelling and education. There are localized ground projects, like the 1 Million Redwoods Project, a hands-in-the-dirt collective effort to renew and protect North America’s Cascadia bioregion—a swath of forest land running along the Pacific coast from Northern California to south-central Alaska. And there are wide-reaching media efforts, including the For the Wild podcast, which has evolved into a platform for critical discourse and coalition-building among people committed to social justice, wilderness conservation, and ecological renewal. “It keeps us focused on supporting the frontline communities that are the heroes of the regenerative movement,” Young says.
We reached out to Young to talk more about what’s keeping her and her amazing nonprofit incredibly busy and how we can protect what she refers to as “the living libraries of our forests and biodiversity.” Young, who lives in Northern California, speaks with clarity, urgency, and humility about ways to honor and sustain our bioregions. “I see what’s happening on a mass scale,” she says. “I don’t have all the answers. I may not have any. What I do have are commitment, focus, attention, resources, and love.”
A Q&A with Ayana Young
The 1 Million Redwoods Project is an initiative to renew and protect the biodiversity and resiliency of the temperate rain forests in Cascadia through holistic research, biomimetic reforestation, land conservation, and nurturing living libraries of native seeds and fungi.
In the honeymoon phase of my love affair with the temperate rain forest, I was a commercial mushroom hunter. During this time, I was treading through diverse forest expanses and witnessing firsthand the devastation wrought by human development, industrial logging, and extreme resource extraction. Over 90 percent of native temperate rain forest has been lost. Most of what remains is managed heavily for timber production. I became acutely aware of the difference between the vitality of intact old-growth forests and the lifelessness of monocropped plantation forests.
From that point forward, I began searching for how best to support these ravaged ecosystems. The idea for the 1 Million Redwoods Project was an inspiration that came to me through spending time listening deeply to the forest: I was to plant the grandchildren of these threatened ancient forests.
We are embodying a whole-systems approach to the 1 Million Redwoods Project, planting a diversity of species and bolstering reciprocal relationships between species. Every ecosystem component, from soil microbe to canopy-dwelling epiphyte, is vital to the health and adaptability of a forest, and we want to lean in to that. We have biodiversity enhancement test plots in Northern California and Oregon where we aim to reforest the land through a succession of native seeds and fungi planting. This work is guided by experts in the field, including forest ecologists Peter Wohlleben, Suzanne Simard, and Sally Aitken and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus.
It’s been a wild ride. We’ve had to navigate how to engage in reforestation without following conventional methods that extract resources. I’m talking about irrigation systems and plastic pots derived from fossil fuels, excessive water usage, and imported soil with ingredients extracted from far corners of the planet, like coconut core, peat moss, glacial rock, and perlite. In conventional forestry, the reforestation of logged land has primarily focused on a small number of profitable species, which are planted with damaged roots, laden with chemicals, in compacted soils. We wanted a different approach entirely.
As we continued to learn about how severely industrial logging and development have impacted the redwood bioregion, it became clearer that we didn’t want to just plant trees. We kept asking ourselves the question: How can our reforestation efforts encourage biodiversity and climate resiliency?
That led to the vision for biodiversity enhancement test plots, which are plots of degraded land that will be tenderly supported with biodiverse successional seedings. Each plot will be unique, calling for a particular group of species dependent on location and level of site degradation. Some plots will be on cattle-grazed floodplains that were home to old-growth redwood forests a hundred years ago. Others will require thinning of trees from thick monocropped stands to open up space and light for species on the forest floor. We are basically creating these gardens of Eden, of biodiversity, nestled within the greater forest network, and we are excited to explore how biodiversity spreads from the test plots to the surrounding forests.
Something we didn’t want to do with this project, or any project for that matter, is push human supremacy forward and indulge the idea that we know what’s best. We are firm in our belief that nature should have the space and opportunity to evolve autonomously. Where we come in is supporting and encouraging native species to do so as the climate grows more unpredictable.
Direct seeding just means planting seeds right into the soil. Our process includes coating our seeds with a mixture of native fungal and bacterial inoculants to build soil integrity and encourage the plant to tap into the existing underground mycelial network1 .
This resource-sharing mycelial network is one of the primary reasons we consider direct seeding to be the most adept approach for resilient reforestation. Conventional methods of reforestation, where trees are grown in pots in commercial nurseries for up to three years before being planted out, disregard the significance of the mycelial network. Forests are familial. They are living communities that support one another. So when a tree is grown in isolation in a pot, you can imagine its roots will have a more difficult time connecting when they are eventually planted. That’s not to say that growing in pots never has a place, but it surely requires intensive resources and arguably produces weakened trees. Currently, most forests are replanted through commercial nurseries, but we are learning that biomimicry—the design of systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes—offers a new way of partnering with nature, and we want to amplify that interconnectedness and harmony.
We are concerned about how rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation will impact our forests. The redwood range is quite narrow, uniquely cool and moist, paralleling the thickest regions of the California fog belt. Redwood forests are reliant on coastal fog, which supplies up to 45 percent of the total water used by redwoods and two thirds of the water used by understory species (the insects that live in the layer of vegetation between the canopy and forest floor) annually. So the implications for fog decline could be severe. Habitat ranges are shifting all over the planet, and species will either adapt, migrate, or become extinct. Slow-growing trees, like redwoods, will have a particularly difficult time migrating north as their southern range becomes uninhabitable.
By now, it’s abundantly clear that climate change is real. It’s here, and we will all be directly affected by it. The wildfires in California are not an anomaly, nor are they restricted to the south. Forests are burning from Southern California all the way up to Alaska, and we can expect that fires will only escalate. Even in the wettest part of Alaska, where I am currently working on another project, the streams are dry and the salmon cannot swim home to spawn. Extremes—drought, flood, heat, storms—are quickly becoming the new normal. We can’t deny that continuing to extract fossil fuels and remaining addicted to our highly consumptive lifestyles play a role in what’s happening, including climate change and the destruction of all forests.
The vast majority of redwood forest is heavily degraded and earmarked for industrial logging, so our forest communities have been suffering for quite some time. In addition to endangered species, such as the coho salmon, the steelhead trout, the marbled murrelet, and the northern spotted owl, there are whole ecosystems of plant species associated with redwoods, such as the coast fawn lily, that are becoming increasingly rare.
Climate change is not only hitting intact, healthy forests but also impacting vulnerable landscapes that have been logged, dammed, developed, mismanaged, and poisoned. The immune systems of these terrains were already suffering. Our human-centric interaction with the earth is not only impacting the redwood bioregion but also contributing to a rapidly shifting climate in ways that can no longer be denied. Entire nonhuman communities are in decline, because all species are very much connected to one another.
I would encourage getting involved with your local community. If you want to plant trees or support your local ecosystem, research what organizations, especially Indigenous and grassroots groups, have been doing in your area. Wherever you are, somebody is most likely already working to preserve biodiversity. Reach out and see how you can support them!
Also, keep in touch with us at For the Wild. We have a newsletter, and if you’re in our area, stay tuned for announcements about seed collection and planting days. We are excited to build our community locally and teach more folks how to become ecosystem engineers in a positive way.
This fall, we are coordinating and hosting tree plantings and weekly seed-collection excursions, as well as educational workshops, which are in collaboration with a network of local landowners and organizations. We will also be working closely with our local communities to help with postfire land and forest recovery and restoration due to the devastating wildfires we have been experiencing.
Next year, in addition to continuing to replant forest ecosystems, we are diving into our biodiversity enhancement test plots, which will allow us to further explore the principles of biomimetic reforestation and move away from conventional restoration and reforestation practices. The initial phases will consist of the implementation of fungal and bacterial inoculants to create a thriving belowground ecosystem, which is the foundation needed for all life to flourish. As the project continues to grow, we are looking to build up our mycological and redwood research team to begin designing several experimental research projects, such as our test plots and exploring assisted migration, as well as undertaking comprehensive scientific study.
If you are interested in supporting the 1 Million Redwoods Project, we always welcome donations! We are calling in funds for seed collection and our seed library, scientific research, coordinating land partnerships, and the labor of love it takes to tend seeds and spores of biodiversity.
We are also always looking to expand our network of landowners. We’re currently looking for land partners in Mendocino County to work with us on a planting project in partnership with One Tree Planted and the Redwood Forest Foundation. So if you are looking to restore and conserve your land or if you are excited about the collection and preservation of seeds and fungi, check out our website to find out how to get involved for future collaborations. We are all in this together.
Ayana Young is a lover and protector of wild nature. She moved West to her beloved Cascadian bioregion, starting an organic farm and wild foods cartel on an Oregon mountaintop. She now lives in Northern California. After studying the restoration of natural systems in Victoria, British Columbia, she began creating an ecological-research center and native-species nursery in the southern tip of the Cascadian bioregion. Along with the restoration of damaged landscapes, Young is committed to protecting intact ecosystems. In the summer of 2016, she led a group of women to the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska to learn from the local people about how to collaborate on a strategy to stop old-growth logging. Young hosts the For the Wild podcast, teaches about empowered earth stewardship, leads biodiversity enhancement workshops, and facilitates panels across North America.