Reagan’s Memorial Tree: A Living Time Capsule of the 1970s
As drivers traveling north on 101 in Arcata reach the 14th Street exit to Humboldt State University, they pass a lone redwood tree among some pines between the off-ramp and the freeway. Nothing today hints at the symbolic dedication of the “Ronald Reagan Memorial Grove” 40 years ago. The mock ceremony on May 30, 1976, was in response to a well-known misquote attributed to Ronald Reagan who was campaigning to be the Republican presidential nominee: “If you’ve seen one redwood; you’ve seen them all.”
Speaking to a wood products association in 1966, Reagan had actually said, “I think, too, that we’ve got to recognize that where the preservation of a natural resource like the redwoods is concerned, that there is a common sense limit. I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees—you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” At the time residents and visitors to northern California were dismayed to see barren muddy hillsides and rivers choked with debris where primeval redwood forests had stood. It was easy to imagine Reagan saying the short version, so it stuck.
The 1970s bore the results of political and social turmoil for California and America in the 1960s. The nation had endured the casualties of the Vietnam War for over a decade and was disillusioned witnessing a President resign in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Students had protested the war on campuses across the country. HSU went on a student strike while Reagan was governor, joining campuses across the nation to voice opposition to the Vietnam War. May 15, 1969 became known as “Bloody Thursday” when Gov. Reagan called out the California Highway Patrol to forcefully stop a campus protest in Berkeley. One student was killed and several wounded.
Gov. Reagan’s response to campus protests across the state, including HSU: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.”
The 26th Amendment of the US Constitution lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age was signed into law in 1971. This happened largely in response to the injustice of young people being drafted and sent to Vietnam while not being able to vote for the politicians who sent them. For the first time, HSU students were able to register and vote in Humboldt County. The traditional conservative-leaning Arcata City Council members were now opposed by progressive candidates linked to Humboldt State University. California’s Transportation Division (Caltrans) had a plan to bulldoze a six- to eight-lane freeway plus frontage roads.
Some residents feared the freeway would create a physical rift between the community and campus while also wiping out at least 200 much-needed homes in its path. Alex Stillman (then Fairless), the first female mayor of Arcata, led a more progressive City Council to narrowly pass Resolution 723-70 in 1973, supporting citizen efforts to “Stop at 4” demanding a limit of four lanes.
Enter the HSU Associated Students, particularly its Student Legislative Council (SLC). Rudi Becking, an outspoken professor of Natural Resources Management, had won one of the progressive City Council seats. Becking knew the freeway’s blueprints and pointed out that there was no need to cut down a large redwood at the off-ramp to 14th Street. The SLC saw an opportunity to point out both the perilous state of the redwood ecosystems and the farcical proposition of former Gov. Reagan running for President in 1976.
Current Arcata resident Sean Kearns, then an SLC member, recalled “We passed a student resolution to dedicate the tree. We invited Nancy Reagan to speak at the dedication regarding ‘Mr. Reagan’s attitude toward conservation.’ She didn’t show up even though she was ‘stumping’ for her husband’s Presidential campaign at HSU a few days later.”
Sean smiled saying that for him, the dedication represented more of a spoof of Reagan than a wider political statement. “We wanted a wooden carved sign in state parks, but instead we had this large sign with calligraphy saying “Ronald Reagan Memorial Redwood Grove.” It was in fact, only one tree, not a grove of many trees, but as the dedication sign read: “A tree is a tree. How many do you need to look at? Seen one you’ve seen them all.”
The students marched from campus to the freeway construction site with the sign; tied a red, white and blue ribbon around the tree; read some prepared statements and unveiled the dedication sign. Stillman recalls meeting about 50 people at the muddy construction zone and then cutting the ribbon, symbolically recognizing the memorial grove.
A ring of small sprouts circle the tree base today. The tree’s top looks bare, perhaps due to recent drought or the poor ecological conditions of a freeway exit, or both. The lone redwood bears witness to a time of political change in Arcata and reminds us that a tree is not just “a tree.”