California’s giant sequoias are being destroyed by wildfires. This bill can save them

·4 min read

Turns out bipartisan cooperation in Washington, D.C. isn’t completely dead, after all.

It just requires a tall miracle.

Giant sequoias were considered virtually invulnerable to wildfire. That view abruptly changed over the past two years when nearly a fifth of the world’s largest trees perished in wildfires that devastated the southern Sierra Nevada.

With more lethal blazes feared imminent, urgent action was needed. Help arrived Thursday in the form of the Save Our Sequoias Act, introduced by 28 bipartisan House members including California Democrats Scott Peters and Jim Costa and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy, Peters and Costa were among six congressmen who on May 5 visited the Sequoia National Forest east of Porterville and toured the destruction at Alder Springs Grove and the Trail of 100 Giants. Afterward, they met with officials from several public land agencies and organizations at California Hot Springs for a roundtable discussion about forest management in and around giant sequoia groves.

Opinion

The Save Our Sequoias Act might be our best hope at preventing the rest from being torched by destructive wildfire fueled by climate change and drought.

“The magnificent giant sequoia tree has a strong and resilient history in California, they tell a story that goes back thousands of years,” Costa said in a statement. “They are among the oldest living things on the planet. Sadly, climate change, among other factors, are threatening and diminishing our long-standing redwood groves.

“Unless we take steps to improve forest management and reduce wildfire risk on federal public lands, we will watch the destruction of these ancient trees. I am proud to help lead this effort to preserve and protect the world’s hardiest trees for future generations to come.”

Burned but living giant sequoia trees stand beyond a grove of trees burned in the 2020 Castle Fire in the Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest, on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.
Burned but living giant sequoia trees stand beyond a grove of trees burned in the 2020 Castle Fire in the Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest, on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.

Giant sequoia trees grow naturally in roughly 75 locations along California’s western slope of the Sierra. The Save Our Sequoias Act targets only these areas, and this specificity is likely the reason so many in Congress from both sides of the aisle are in support.

In essence, the legislation gives the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition — a group of federal, state, local and tribal land managers formed to protect giant sequoias across jurisdictional boundaries — the authority to streamline and expedite forest management projects designed to make groves more fire resilient.

Specifically, it issues an “emergency declaration” that allows responsible land managers to carry out “protection projects” in and around giant sequoia groves before satisfying certain provisions of three federal laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Such projects can include prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, masticication, dead/dying/hazard tree removal, replanting, or any combination, and be up to 2,000 acres in size.

To carry out such an effort, the bill provides $325 million over 10 years.

‘Government is slow, and wildfire is fast’

The urgency of the situation was made clear to me last fall during the KNP Complex Fire when I asked Christy Brigham, chief scientist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, about her parks’ 1,000-acre-per-year prescribed burning program vs. the actual need.

“We need to be burning 30,000 (acres per year),” Brigham replied. “That’s 30 times the current level of effort.”

Brigham then went on to detail the lengthy bureaucratic process required for all prescribed burns, one that averages between two to four years from the proposal stage to actual approval.

Later, while describing the helpless feeling of watching two remote giant sequoia groves on her highest-priority list engulfed by flames before she and others can act, Brigham said something that’s stuck with me.

“Government is slow, and wildfire is fast,” she said. “We need a way to speed up government if we want to protect these trees we love so much.”

The Save Our Sequoias Act is, at its core, a way to do exactly that.

Even before the bill was introduced, a coalition of more than 80 conservation organizations signaled their opposition in a letter to McCarthy. Their main contention is that it would weaken environmental laws (true) and “potentially expedite” logging operations in sequoia groves (not true, but it’s a great fear-mongering tactic).

Normally, I would agree with them (at least about the weakening environmental laws part). But this is an emergency, and sometimes emergencies require a little corner-cutting for the greater good.

One gets the feeling certain environmentalists wouldn’t care if every giant sequoia in the Sierra got burned to a crisp. If only because it would allow them to wag a heavy finger of blame over climate change and misguided fire suppression tactics.

I’m not willing to make that sacrifice — not for those of us who draw inspiration and perspective from these mighty trees, nor for future generations. Giant sequoias desperately need our help, even if that means skirting a few laws and ruffling some feathers.

The acronym for Save Our Sequoias is SOS, which is surely no accident. Congress should pass this bill ASAP.

The Gerneral Sherman giant sequoia’s base is seen wraped in insulation to protect it from wildfire, seen during a tour of the KNP Complex fire burn area in Giant Forest Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 in Sequoia National Park, CA.
The Gerneral Sherman giant sequoia’s base is seen wraped in insulation to protect it from wildfire, seen during a tour of the KNP Complex fire burn area in Giant Forest Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 in Sequoia National Park, CA.