Fact Check

Ronald Reagan 'If You've Seen One Tree ...'

Did Ronald Reagan once say, 'If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all'?

Published June 7, 2006


Claim:   Ronald Reagan once said (in reference to forest conservation efforts), "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all."

Status:   Paraphrase.


In the 1960's there was a conflict in California between the lumber industry and citizens who wanted to protect redwood forests. Reagan, then governor of the state, took the position that large redwood forests were not necessary; at one meeting he said, "If you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all."

Origins:   When Ronald Reagan first ran for public office, in the California gubernatorial election of 1966, environmental topics were high on the list of voter concerns. Curbing air pollution, protecting undeveloped rivers from being dammed for commercial interests, and conserving what remained of the magnificent Redwood forests in the northern part of the state were significant campaign issues, and, as journalist Lou Cannon noted in his history of Reagan's governorship, Californians had some good reasons to believe that the actor-turned-politician might give those issues short shrift:

Reagan's knowledge of environmental issues, except for air pollution, was minimal. Even the geography of the north coast, where trees outnumbered people, eluded him. During the 1966 campaign, a reporter asked Reagan a question about the Eel River (a battleground between those who wanted to dam its middle fork and those who sought to preserve it as a wild river). Reagan asked where it was. The reporter told the embarrassed candidate that he was standing alongside it.

How much of the remaining fraction of California's old-growth redwood forests should be preserved against commercial logging interests and converted to protected national parkland was a hot-button political issue at the time, pitting the timber industry against conservationists:

These splendid trees, rising to heights of more than 300 feet, flourish in a narrow coastal zone influenced by the Pacific Ocean fog. They were an early causes for

conservationists, who formed the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1913, embarked on a fund-raising campaign, and persuaded the Legislature to create three
redwood state parks encompassing 27,500 acres. The league donated half the land, and the state purchased the remainder from the lumber companies. This was an impressive achievement, but the parks were tiny in relation to the remaining redwood habitat of 1.5 million acres, reduced by logging to one-tenth its original size. Lumber companies, including Pacific Lumber, had their eyes on the surviving old-growth redwoods, which are more resistant than younger trees to rot and decay. A single redwood 2,000 years old yields 480,000 board feet of lumber.

The lumber companies had long opposed a national redwoods park. By the time Reagan took office, however, the industry had retreated under conservationist fire to the more defensible position of accepting a small national park in return for unrestricted logging outside of it. "Small" was the operative word. Timber executives claimed that a large park would eliminate thousands of jobs. Using jobs as their battle cry, they mobilized business and labor support in the two counties (Del Norte and Humboldt) where land would be set aside for the Redwood National Park.

It was in this context that candidate (not yet governor) Ronald Reagan, while speaking before the Western Wood Products Association in San Francisco on 12 March 1966, said the following:

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?

While the issue candidate Reagan was addressing was a legitimate one — how to balance commercial interests against a desire to preserve natural resources for aesthetic reasons — he expressed his thoughts on the subject so coarsely that he came across as glib and callous, and incumbent governor Pat Brown's campaign soon mocked him by transforming his statement into the pithier "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all," a phrase that was picked up by the press and widely circulated during the campaign. (As Lou Cannon observed, the paraphrasing provided Reagan "an opportunity to say he was misquoted even though his actual words were arguably as damaging.")

Why Reagan said what he did, and why he was so seemingly unresponsive to the conservationist side of the redwoods issue was something of a puzzle, according to Cannon:

Conservationists would have been even more frightened had they realized how perfectly this vacuous comment expressed Reagan's opinion. The conventional view of Reagan's statement — often misstated as "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all" — was that he had used artless language while pandering to an industry for campaign support. But the wood producers were already in Reagan's corner, and his well-financed campaign was not in need of their contributions. Reagan had said what he believed.

Why he believed what he said, however, remains a mystery. Reagan, who was often attuned to nature, was strangely insensitive to the magnificence of the redwoods, long recognized as natural wonders of the world ... Reagan was reluctant even to acknowledge the grandeur of the trees. Of one of the oldest and loveliest groves of redwoods, he said (on 15 March 1967), "I saw them; there is nothing beautiful about them, just that they are a little higher than the others."

Reagan had a stubborn streak ... and his statements in part reflected his unwillingness to be pushed around by environmental groups.

Eventually, as is often the case, the issue was settled by a political compromise worked out through federal government. In 1968, Congress authorized the creation of the 58,000-acre Redwood National Park, which included 27,500 acres of state parkland as well as 5,000 acres of coastal property in Del Norte and Humboldt counties that were ceded to the state of California by lumber companies; in return, 13,000 acres of Forest Service land in Del Norte County (known as the Northern Redwood Purchase Unit) were transferred to the lumber companies.

Last updated:   7 June 2006

  Sources Sources:

    Cannon, Lou.   Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power.

    New York: PublicAffairs, 2003.   ISBN 1-58648-030-8   (pp. 177-178, 299-303).

    Associated Press.   "Conferees OK 58,000-Acre Redwood Park."

    Los Angeles Times.   10 September 1968   (p. 3).

    United Press International.   "Redwood Park Plan Approved, Sent to Johnson."

    Los Angeles Times.   20 September 1968   (p. 3).

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