The majestic Redwoods, famous for being the tallest trees on Earth, can be found in the northmost region of California. There are many advocates for these towering, millennia-spanning lifeforms, and the wildlife around them, but there is one trendsetting gentleman, Griff Griffith, who has shone a very powerful spotlight on the necessity and admirability of being a conservationist.
As a head guide for Redwood Sightseeing Tours, podcaster on JumpStart Nature (podcast is due out in October), foremost interpreter of the local topography, and work with Redwoods Rising — the third biggest restoration project in the United States — Griff has invited international attention with his viral dance videos, none more renowned than the BioBlitz routine, which even had the country’s former Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, moving to the nature-inspired groove. But despite the smooth choreography exhibited by the host of Animal Planets’ Wild Jobs (2018), which he learned growing up in the Bay Area alongside minority groups, there is much more to the Irish-blooded Griffith than being fleet of foot.
The physically imposing Griff, 53, who once was unsurprisingly a bouncer, bears a striking resemblance to Stranger Things’ David Harbour. But despite appearing formidable at first glance, underneath the linebacker exterior is a loving uncle and amiable human being who has adapted himself preternaturally well to the settings around him, winning hearts and minds with a lightheartedly infectious personality reminiscent of Jack Black.
Griffith, whose passion for the parks arose as an 18-year-old member of the California Conservation Corps, admittedly wasn’t a model student, but he soon discovered an individual purpose and an aspiration to be in the lives of still-figuring-it-out youth who might need an outstretched hand. The combination of being sensitive to the needs of the land, and motivating others to be more cognizant of their place in the world, has been a worthwhile aim for Griff.
“I like to have fun and engage with nature because we’re in a biodiversity crisis,” reflects Griffith. “I consider myself a hope dealer, so I don’t think anything is too late, but it is serious enough that we have to take action.”
The well-traveled Griff, who has never lived anywhere for more than three years, has his eyes wide open not only to the conservational objectives in play, but the land’s original owners: the Native Americans, including their tribulations, and their newfound renaissance in the region.
In light of this, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are at the forefront of Griff’s consciousness, as he will insightfully point out that even his home sits near one of the most heartbreaking bloodlettings of Native Americans in U.S. history, the 1853 Yontocket massacre, specifically involving the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.
Certainly, there is no editing the past; however, one must-do for Griff in the present is to continue to foster and nourish relationships with tribes and their representatives. Native Americans, notably the Yurok — who are among the largest Native American tribe in the Golden State — now have graduate-level educations and are effecting change with staggering outcomes. For instance, Yurok lawyer Amy Bowers Cordalis won her case to protect the Klamath River, undam it, and restore Salmon to the water. Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, Department Chair of Native American Studies at Cal Poly Humboldt, is a Yurok tribeswoman who has helped her peers understand and overcome generational trauma. Biologist Tiana Williams-Claussen, Director of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department, is making strides to bring the California condor back to the territory.
The Yurok, just as a myriad of other tribes, have inhabited Northern California for 8,000 years and are literally related to the land and its water; it’s more than just spiritual, it’s undeniably physical. With restoration in the wake of centuries of destruction (e.g., roads having been built through delicate habitats), a suppressed way of life will become a reality again for millennial Native Americans who escaped a noxious whitewashing whom their parents and grandparents were not fortunate enough to elude.
Griff is attuned to Native American challenges and, while he wouldn’t measure their ancestral rigors against his own, he does observe interesting parallels that further push him to fight for what is equitable. For example, his Irish ancestors were similarly occupied, starved, and Christianized — a tragic realization that has led Griff, born John Griffith, to reclaim his culture and lineage as Griffith Griffith, soon to be his legal name. The cherry on top of this analog is that a multitude of Native Americans have Irish last names because the latter, who were not classified as whites “above” interracial marriage, but instead prejudiced against as a lower immigrant tier, empathized with and fell in love with the former.
In the grand scheme of things, the success of outdoor initiatives is dependent upon a collective endeavor where the truth isn’t shrouded, nobody is excluded, and olive branches are happily extended to everyone who desires to participate.
“The outdoors shouldn’t be restricted to older white folks,” states Griff. “I want to add chairs [to the discussion] but not take away chairs, and ultimately grow this movement. Eco-diversity is important in the outdoor movement because you want everyone to think it belongs to them.”
At the heart of Griff’s transformational work and stewardship are the Redwood behemoths which summon him even on his days off; there is nowhere else he’d rather be, delightedly remarking, “Per acre, this is the most living place on the planet, and the most life you’ll ever be around per pound.”
With only 4.6% of the Redwoods not having been clear-cut at one time or another, Griff has been a central figure in Redwoods Rising’s restoration efforts to accelerate a process that will have the Redwoods resembling old-growth forests again. To do this, aerial-seeded plants (the seeds of which were coated with rodenticide to turn to the Redwoods into a plantation) will have to be uprooted, trees will be thinned, along with the removal of roads and uncovering of streams to regrow the once-thriving salmon habitat. Consequently, corridors between old-growth islands can be reestablished.
“It’s not a healthy forest even though there’s lots of trees,” emphasizes Griff, for whom it’s crucial that this misconception is set straight as there is an acute science to restoration that can be lost on the layperson.
If Griff were an appointed delegate of the Redwoods, he has heretofore made his constituents proud. One can’t help but be captivated when he discusses how the 300-ton Redwoods have only 12-foot-deep roots that interweave with nearby Redwoods like a chain link; they support each other faithfully because if one falls, there is a greater likelihood that so, too, will the others.
Yet, even if they do topple, Redwoods are more than just trees. Griff defines them as “organisms with tree stocks.” These stocks can live up to 2,200 years but can be several iterations old. The death of these stocks never signifies the end, but is rather a reminder of the Redwoods’ resilience in the face of adversity.
“Some Redwood stocks can die, but other parts can sprout like clones and attach to other trees that can establish their own root systems,” remarks Griff. “Map genomes of Redwoods are super diverse even though they can clone themselves.”
Perhaps there is something profound to be learned from these Redwoods, which can reconcile their differences with their commonalities and are, in fact, strengthened all the more as a result.
If, as people, we echo the Redwoods’ modus operandi by even a fraction, becoming unified by virtue of our divergent stories and legacies, a conservancy mindset will not exist in just the enlightened few, such as Griff, but become a badge of honor insofar all will champion the land they live on and appreciate.