Newton Bishop Drury and the Legacy of the Save the Redwoods League

By Deborah Qu

The balance between preserving nature and sharing it with the public remains a delicate one, according to redwood conservationist Newton Bishop Drury. “In a great natural area its beauty is a fragile thing usually — that’s particularly true of mountain meadows and other areas of relatively sparse vegetation, slow-growing plants. In one day an undue visitation might blot out many of the elements that made the beauty of the place, so that many a great area carries in its beauty the seeds of its own destruction.” As the director of the National Park Service from 1940–1951, Drury set out to revive the flora and fauna of the California statewide park system to its most natural state, while allowing the public to enjoy the most out of the scenery. This challenge was not his first in balancing the demands of environmental conservation and the interests of people and industries. 

This challenge was not his first in balancing the demands of environmental conservation and the interests of people and industries. 

Within the extensive five-volume oral history recorded by the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library from 1960–1970, Drury recounts his life and fruitful career. Drury graduated in the class of 1912 at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founded the advertising agency Drury Brothers Company in 1919. That same year, he was hired to publicize the newly formed Save the Redwoods League, a nonprofit organization that to this day specializes in the preservation of the endangered redwood forests and parkland. Drury became instrumental in expanding the League and establishing public support for a united park system throughout the twenties. Due to his efforts, among the work of the Save the Redwoods League and others, the California state park system was formed in 1927. 

Newton B. Drury
Newton B. Drury (Photo from California Department of Parks and Recreation)

In his oral history, Drury describes how the Save the Redwoods League first began in 1917, when geologist and UC Berkeley professor Dr. John C. Merriam and others had taken a trip to Humboldt County in Northern California, as urged by the head of the National Park Service, Stephen Mathers. Upon viewing the rapid deterioration of redwood groves within the last century, they called for legislative action to protect redwood forests. “At that time, the way we have always understood it, the idea of a permanent, nationwide organization such as the Save the Redwoods League was conceived,” Drury recalls. 

Deforestation was at its height due to uncontrolled logging in the early 1900s. The drastic change of forest scenery throughout California was heartbreaking to Drury, who observes, “One of the great tragedies in California is that practically none of the river banks in California, except a few relatively small parks that have been established just lately, are assured of preservation.” During the flooding seasons, banks experienced erosion and the habitats of burrowing mammals were lost. The natural beauty of the Northern California coastline was also harmed. As Drury recalls, “All of this country had magnificent coast oak forests in the early days. Some of Berkeley still has. Now you hear the city of Oakland named and you wonder how it got its name.”  

To secure land, Drury often worked with logging companies and the forestry board, which was established to ensure a steady flow of wood products. Drury distinctly remembers the way the logging industry and the League differed in priorities, describing how the forestry board wanted “to conserve for consumption, while the parks were for the purpose of preserving for enjoyment and maintaining the pristine condition of the forests.” At the same time, they were motivated to work with the League in the interest of sustainability. One of Drury’s first great contributions to the League was his involvement in raising funds and negotiating a purchase of redwood groves for the League from lumber companies in 1920–1921, areas that constitute Humboldt Redwoods State Park today. 

According to Drury, his brother Audrey came up with the idea of establishing memorial groves dedicated to historical figures, environmentalists, and philanthropists during the early 1920s. As executive secretary of the League in 1920, Drury established the “first so-called memorial grove” known as Boiling Grove inside Humboldt County. Today, there are thousands of park areas that memorialize figures, including a scenic parkway built to commemorate Drury for his work in forest preservation. 

Paved road through redwood groves
The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (Photo by Dave Van de Mark for the National Park Service)

Although the League was successful in acquiring land in the late 1910s and 1920s, conservation parks in California were separately run and faced issues of obtaining sizable grants to acquire the areas that needed to be preserved. This is why the League always recognized the need for a government-run system. Throughout the twenties, Drury began publicly campaigning for a unified state park system. In 1925, two bills requesting a centralized park system had passed the legislature but were denied by Governor Friend Richardson. However, in 1927, three state park bills under Governor C. C. Young passed, which together granted permission to create a commission for a statewide park system, to survey for potential park sites, and to request a $6 million bond issue to purchase forests for state parks from voters. The State Park Commission was formed, and the $6 million bond issue that requested matching funds from non-State sources was successfully approved by voters. Land purchased by the League was generally donated to the California state park system. With adequate funding, a united front, and Drury as the acquisition officer, the park system quickly grew. 

Today, the California state park system has over 270 parks and the Save the Redwoods League continues to raise money for land acquisition as well as to restore damaged redwood forests. Because of Drury, members of the League, other conservationists, and lawmakers, we can enjoy redwood groves that bring shade to sunny days, homes to wildlife, and beauty of the landscape. Drury became director of the National Park Service in the forties and head of the State Division of Parks and Beaches in the fifties, but in 1959 he returned to the Save the Redwoods League as a chairman, back to where he first started.

More Oral Histories on the Save the Redwoods League

In addition to Drury’s story, the Oral History Center collection contains interviews of California state park managers as well as other Save the Redwoods League members. This includes Humboldt Redwoods State Park’s first ranger Enoch Percy French, who supervised the conservation of Humboldt County redwood groves after they were acquired by the League. Sierra Club co-founder and secretary of the State Park Commission William E. Colby provides more insight into the commission’s formation in his 1954 oral history. The oral history by UC Berkeley paleobotanist professor and long-standing Save the Redwoods League member Ralph Works Chaney describes the fight to leave “the fragile nature of the landscape” at Point Lobos undisturbed, with the goal to erase destructive human interference. Chaney, who became president of the Save the Redwoods League from 19611971, also felt the conflicting perspectives between the park and the forest service, the latter of which was interested in “selling lumber, selling grazing rights, and . . . regulat[ing] and regularly permit[ting] camping.” For information about the Save the Redwoods League through the late twentieth century, Bruce Howard, League president from 19801995, recounts further bouts of reorganization and expansion in his OHC interview. Within these oral histories are countless stories of individuals with a love of nature, a dedication to the conservation of plants and wildlife, and a vision to preserve it for future generations. 

Find these and all the Oral History Center’s interviews from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. 

See also The Bancroft Library collection of Drury’s papers:  Finding Aid to the Newton Bishop Drury papers BANC MSS 79/61 c.

Deborah Qu (she/her) is an undergraduate research assistant at the Oral History Center from the Bay Area. She is currently going into her third year at UC Berkeley and is majoring in Psychology with a Data Science minor.