Philadelphia Inquirer Interview

Posted on Thu, Aug. 08, 2002
Michael Vitez | Bringing up baby redwoods

In the redwood forest, a couple pursue an almost holy mission: Regrowing the giant trees, and making sure they stay uncut.

By Michael Vitez
Inquirer Columnist

NOYO, Calif. - Charles and Vanna Rae Bello have lived for 34 years near here on 400 acres of redwood forest in northern California, a remote paradise they have named Redwood Forest Ranch.

When I arrived the other day, they drove me a couple of miles over two bridges they built, literally, with their hands.

Then we walked until we reached Big Tree Canyon.

The 80-year-old redwoods - "babies," according to Charles - stretch up to heaven, or seem to, and the ground feels cool, secluded. Only the luckiest rays of sunshine slice through the canopy of treetops, striking the damp, shaded earth below. We stood a few moments in silence.

"Don't you feel like you're in a cathedral?" Charles asked.

Charles and Vanna Rae know this ranch is a special place. They have devoted their lives to keeping it this way forever.

They have created the Redwood Forest Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to repopulating the forest with old-growth redwoods, nearly all of which were toppled by loggers in the 1920s. Only 4 percent of the old growth remains, Vanna Rae said, nearly all of that within state and national parks.

In recent years, the Bellos have established conservation easements that guarantee that nearly 2,000 redwoods on their land can never be cut.

"If we don't pay attention to the forest now," Charles said, "40 years from now it will be impossible to recover."

When the couple, now 70 and 66, moved to their ranch - 130 miles north of San Francisco, 15 miles east of the Pacific Ocean - the land was nearly worthless. Timber companies had in the early '20s stripped the area of old-growth redwoods - majestic, towering trees that were 280 feet tall, 24 feet in diameter, and often 1,000 years old.

Redwoods are so hardy that when the giants were cut down, new ones shot up around the old stumps, using the old root systems. When the Bellos arrived in 1968, the young redwoods were still too small to produce enough lumber to make cutting them profitable, so the couple bought their first 220 acres for $200 an acre. They later bought 180 more.

Growing right along

Now many of their trees are 160 feet tall and more than 3 feet in diameter. Could a timber company cut their trees, the land would be worth $15,000 an acre - about $6 million, Charles said.

But selling timber is not what brought them here.

They were working south of here, near Santa Rosa, when they met. He was an engineer and architect. She was a professor of physical education and dance at a community college. He built a house for an English professor, who invited them both to dinner one night. Love grew much faster than a redwood tree.

Their dream was to build a "creative holiday resort" for people from San Francisco who could come not just to hike and fish, but to build a cabinet or learn to dance - accomplish something on vacation.

But that never happened.

Vanna Rae was pregnant when they bought the land, and soon they had a second son. They had loans to pay and a family to support. Charles grew Christmas trees to eke out a living. For years, it was a lean life.

This is somewhat ironic, Charles noted, because Mendocino County, where they live, is a mecca for marijuana growers.

"We grew 10,500 trees to earn $3,000 a year," he said. "We could have made that income with four pot plants instead of taking care of 10,500 trees."

Living off the land

They are independent, self-sufficient people. They grow their own strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, plums, apples, lettuce, onions, garlic and tomatoes. They built their house out of redwood trees.

To power the sawmill and make lumber, Charles towed a junked 1965 Ford Galaxie to his property, mounted it on redwood stumps, and rebuilt the engine. He uses the right rear wheel to spin his saw blade.

"In reverse," he notes with glee, "this car has exactly the right RPMs to cut logs!"

They power their lights and refrigerator with solar energy panels. For years they got milk and cheese from their goats and eggs from their chickens, though now they buy these or do without. Vanna Rae has not been off their land in 40 days.

At lunchtime, they set a picnic table under a madrone tree. "This is our dining room," Charles said. This is where they eat virtually every meal. And everything they served came from the garden except the flour for the pizza dough.

Their two sons, now 32 and 30, who were home-schooled and grew up without television, have moved - at least for now - to civilization. One is a mechanic about three hours' drive to the south, and the other is a cabinetmaker in central Washington. This hurts the Bellos, though Vanna Rae suspects it's not so much a rejection as a need to establish their own lives. The Bellos hope their children will return one day, perhaps when they reach their own retirement age.

Charles and Vanna Rae grew into the role of conservationists. Over the years, they saw how lumber companies continued to buy the land around them and harvest trees earlier and earlier. They believe such practices endanger not only redwoods, but the climate of the forest.

"It's all tied together, do you understand?" said Charles, almost imploring.

His plan is simple. He believes some redwood trees should be cut. In any clump of redwoods, growing now around the old-growth stumps, you have "dominant" and "subdominant" trees. Eventually, Charles said, the subcommunity will be denied enough light and die out. He believes in cutting some of these to help the dominant trees grow faster. Selling the timber from the subdominant trees will help the Redwood Forest Institute buy more acres of forest, after timber companies deplete them, and put that land into preservation. So in 1,000 years, it will be flush once again with giants. Redwood Forest Institute, preservation and restoration of giant redwoods

"This is a model," said Charles, whose Web site is "This will stand out as an oasis of how the land could be managed. You cut timber with a purpose. You do it to improve the timber stand."

Charles Bello knows he will not be around to see the fruits of this work.

But he's content to know that he has started this, and that it will continue. Another couple, Richard and Amber Olsen, recently moved to the property to help the Bellos run the ranch, to help care for the Bellos as they age, and to take over operation of the institute one day.

Charles and Vanna Rae are determined to end their days here. Charles would be happy to make this forest his resting place.

"Don't bother with a wooden box," he said. "Just put me in the ground, and let me feed a tree."

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or

Redwood Forest Institute is a California, for public benefit, non-profit corporation, organized under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code