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Above & Beyond

The world's tallest tree towers above a secret location deep within the lush, tangled backcountry of Redwood National Park. Determined to find this giant, our correspondent discovers something more incredible than he ever imagined.

As Wheeler described the park’s beginnings, I turned discreetly and scanned
the steep, mazelike country upstream. Somewhere up there, Hyperion had been
quietly holding forth for decades, while lesser trees hogged the limelight.
The next day, we would try to find it.Paul Zahl’s discovery attracted worldwide
attention, including a National Geographic cover story. But the region’s newfound
fame would accelerate the economic decline of towns like Orick. In 1968, President
Lyndon Johnson signed a bill authorizing the acquisition of 58,000 acres for
the creation of Redwood National Park. A decade later, Congress expanded the
park by 48,000 acres, effectively forcing out most of the timber mills.

According to silviculturists, the area that became the park could have supported
only two more years of logging before the harvestable timber was gone. But as
2,500 jobs vanished, the park and federal government became scapegoats.

In 1977, Orick loggers put their chain saws to an old-growth redwood log and
carved out a nine-ton peanut, as a sarcastic gift for President Jimmy Carter,
who had approved the park’s expansion. They loaded the sculpture onto a truck
and drove it to the White House with a sign reading, "It may be peanuts
to you, but it’s jobs to us." Carter’s aides refused the hunk of wood,
and it made the long trip back to Orick.

Over the next two decades, Orick’s population dwindled, businesses shuttered,
and lumber mills were eventually outnumbered by backwoods methadone labs. In
2000, the NPS outlawed camping on the beach south of town, exacerbating the
bitter feelings. Park property has been targeted by pipe bombers and arsonists,
and rangers have been threatened.

That night, we passed the peanut sculpture near the southern edge of town, lying
in a yard near an abandoned hotel. Farther north, the Lumberjack Tavern beckoned,
its neon sign depicting an axe-carrying logger eyeing a pink martini glass.

During boom times, locals apparently stood three and four deep at the bar. But
on this night, maybe 15 patrons were inside, most drinking beer through thick
beards. Bartender and owner Mark Rochester greeted us warmly. He wore a LIVESTRONG
bracelet on one wrist, and a tattoo of a LIVESTRONG bracelet on the other wrist.
Over his shoulder, the Commander-in-Chief peered at us from a picture hung behind
the bar. I asked Rochester if he knew anything about Hyperion.

"That *#*&# tree!" he bellowed, setting down a pitcher of local
microbrew in front of us. "Don’t get me started!" Rochester had recently
purchased the tavern, and was changing its name to Hawg Wild, to attract more
bikers.

"The Park Service won’t tell us where it is. They’re sitting in their multimillion-dollar
headquarters, made of redwood that they can cut down and we can’t, and they
don’t want us to know where the tree is, even though we supposedly own it. And
you know what? When the liberals get in power there’s going to be even more
rules."

Rochester popped a packaged chicken pie in the microwave, then came back over.
"We had no decision in anything the Park Service has done," he said.
"They have systematically choked the life out of this town."

As he grabbed a Budweiser for another patron, a woman waiting for her shot at
the pool table came over to our end of the bar. "I got a different take
on it," she said. "I’m pro-park, and I love trees. But I work at the
mill. Sometimes it feels like working in a graveyard. But it pays the rent.
And no, I don’t know where that tree is."

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