These days, it’s so easy to get caught up in a disaster mindset that you miss a miracle right in front of you. This thought struck me during my recent trip to forests in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park that are now recovering from fires of recent years. There, I found myself surrounded by a remarkable forest rebirth beyond expectations.
This national park is famous for its majestic sequoia trees, and there’s lots of attention about how the recent large forest fires have affected them. Although the fires burned mainly at low and moderate intensity — which doesn’t kill most trees — there were high-intensity fire patches that killed many sequoias. And that’s where I went: to the largest patch of a legendary stand of sequoias known Redwood Mountain Grove to see the fire effects first-hand.
The death of numerous sequoias got lots of media coverage, though subsequent analyses are finding many trees assumed to have been killed are in fact alive. More recently, attention has shifted to what’s happening with sequoia regrowth after the fire. There’s been a concerning lack of new sequoia seedlings surviving over the past century, putting the future of sequoia ecosystems in doubt.
Sequoias need fire to reproduce, but after the recent fires the National Park Service assumed that new sequoias would not grow in the intensely burned patches. The agency quickly announced a project to artificially plant seedlings from nurseries. But this has raised serious concerns that nursery-grown seedlings can accidentally introduce diseases that could devastate the wild sequoia trees.
The Park Service has been taking reporters into the burned forests to promote its project. However, the trip I went on was notably different in that, in addition to Park Service staff, it was co-led by independent scientists not funded by the Park Service or other federal agencies who are making exciting discoveries.
These independent scientists are finding that, contrary to the Park Service’s previous assumptions, new sequoia growth is actually most abundant deep in the most intensely burned areas. They’re finding tens of thousands of new sequoias per acre.
This is what I witnessed in Redwood Mountain Grove: verdant carpets of young sequoias stretching up to my knees and covering the hillsides. And this new generation is thriving. Researchers are finding high survival rates, vigorous growth and new seedlings continuing to emerge two years after fire.
One explanation for this discovery is that thick layers of sequoia needles on the forest floor typically create a barrier to new trees taking root, so it may take a particularly intense fire to convert this layer into a nutrient-rich soil bed to sustain new seedlings. In other words, intense fires may be essential for the long-term survival of sequoia ecosystems.
So it was perplexing to hear Park Service officials prognosticating that these places will lose all their sequoias as we stood amid the most abundant natural regeneration in more than a century.
What is blinding Park Service staff to the ecological miracle all around them?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that the Park Service has built a heroic image that it will “save” the sequoias through artificial planting projects. It can be difficult for a bureaucracy to change course, even when more and more evidence is showing its project is unnecessary.
The agency is pushing ahead while the public is raising concerns about irreversible diseases from outside plantings as well as long-term damage from the project’s plans to dynamite and cut trees in wilderness areas. The Park Service’s hurried behavior despite these harms reminds me of a child so eager to “help” a butterfly emerge from its cocoon too soon that the child ends up killing the butterfly.
The Park Service should open its eyes to the miracle in the post-fire forests and hit pause on its misguided project. Meanwhile, policymakers should focus more resources on directly helping communities to safely co-exist with California’s fire-dependent ecosystems.
Douglas Bevington, PhD, is an environmental grantmaker who works on forest and fire issues and resides in the Bay Area.