The Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

New legislation, the Save Our Sequoias Act (SOSA) promoted by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy seeks to increase “fuel reductions” such as logging and prescribed burns around California’s iconic sequoia groves.

Who isn’t for “saving” sequoias, the largest and some of the oldest trees in the Nation?

Sequoia trees are among the largest living plants on Earth. Their bark is up to 2 feet in thickness, providing protection from all but the hottest wildfires. Photo George Wuerthner 

McCarthy and other legislators want to “expedite” logging projects under the guise of “saving” the big trees. But, make no mistake; this is more than just about saving sequoias; instead, it is a stealth attack to undermine the Nation’s environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, and other regulations that guide federal actions.

The SOSA legislation suggests that under “emergency situations,” the Forest Service can develop a plan “prior to conducting an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see that if the SOSA legislation is enacted. Proponents will seek to expand such “emergency” legislation to all western forests, which have burned or which “may” burn at some future point in time.

Where the Rim Fire burned through a portion of the Tuolumne Sequoia Grove in Yosemite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

The legislation is in response to recent wildfires that have killed, by some estimates, up to 19% of mature giant sequoia.

The legislation views natural mortality from high-severity fire, insects and disease as a problem instead of viewing these as essential elements of sequoia ecology.  It views these ecological processes as a sign of “unhealthy” sequoia groves. Like so much of the wildfire policy coming from Congress and other organizations, it focuses on trees, rather than ecosystems. Healthy forest ecosystems rely on mortality from wildfire, disease, drought, and disease.  Of course, the solution is “chainsaw medicine”.

Logging or chainsaw medicine in Yosesmite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner

The legislation also mandates creation of a collaborative coalition, which like all collaboratives is heavily biased towards individuals and organizations that are advocates of mechanical (i.e. logging) and other manipulations of our forests. The legislation mandates that coalition members include federal and state agency representatives, county commissioners, forestry school academics, and associated members of organizations (like Save the Redwoods League and National Parks and Conservation Association), all of whom are advocates for logging and “restoration” of the groves.

A prescribed burn in Grant Grove, Kings Canyon-Sequoia National Park. Sequioa requires high severity fires for successful regeneration. Photo George Wuerthner

Ironically giant sequoia requires high-severity blazes to reproduce successfully. Successful seedling germination and establishment are not required yearly in a long-lived species like the sequoia. And sequoia reproduction tends to be episodic—occurring only when extensive drought creates the right conditions for high-severity fire where the flames kill most trees in a particular area.

The past decade, particularly the last few years, has been beneficial for Sequoias. Though we humans view things from the perspective of our lifetimes, when you’re a tree that lives 3000 years, the loss of some mature trees every century or even every couple of centuries is not problematic.

Yet sequoia reproduction is episodic and correlated with climate.

However, the simplistic idea that logging and prescribed burns will preclude such losses ignores that nearly all of the recent blazes charred sequoia groves where thinning and prescribed burns had previously been implemented.

Research by Bryant Baker of Los Padres Forest Watch has shown that since 1984 92% of sequoia groves had experienced a prescribed burn. Photo George Wuerthner 

Bryant Baker of Los Padres Forest Watch used GIS to analyze all sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada and found that since 1984 92% of them had burned or been part of a prescribed burn. And in the last ten years, 84% of the groves had been burned. Almost all these burns were low-moderate severity blazes, meaning most trees were not killed.

However, it does mean that nearly all sequoia groves had experienced a “fuel reduction.”

These results suggest that prescribed burning and other fuel treatments do not preclude high-severity blazes when climate/weather conditions are conducive to substantial blazes.

Giant Forest, Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

High-severity fires create robust seedling establishment and survival. For example, in a report on sequoia ecology, NPS researcher Nate Stephenson concluded: “Before the arrival of European settlers, successful recruitment of mature sequoias depended on fires intense enough to kill the forest canopy in small areas. Thus, sequoia is a pioneer species, and this conclusion has specific management implications.”

Park visitors view fire scars in cross section of fallen sequoia. Photo George Wuerthner 

Tony Capio documented numerous large wildfires in sequoia groves from 1700 to 1900 across the Kaweah watershed.

Sequoia cones, like lodgepole pine, tend to open upon heating. And like lodgepole pine, many sequoia groves tend to be “even-aged,” meaning they were established after some major event like a high-severity wildlife. For instance, a high-severity blaze in the 1860s occurred at Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park, leading to the successful regeneration of part of the grove.

Kids and fire scar at Giant Sequoia National Monument. Photo George Wuerthner 

Stephenson’s research concluded that “in groves protected from fire but otherwise managed for natural conditions, far fewer living sequoias have establishment dates in this century than in the preceding century. There is not nearly enough reproduction to maintain sequoia populations in these groves.”

These findings support the conclusion that high-severity blazes are desirable to maintain sequoia through time.

Unfortunately, even the NPS is using the excuse of tree mortality to justify logging in our parks. Logging has many negative impacts on forest ecosystems.

First, there is no way to determine which trees are most likely to die from drought, insects, wildfire, and disease. Thus, logging indiscriminately removes trees that may have genetic resistance to any of the above mortality sources.

Logging also removes biomass and carbon from the area.

Logging disturbs soils and logging roads can be a major vector for the spread of exotic weeds.

There are three conclusions from the above.

  1. Large high-severity fires are necessary for successful sequoia regeneration.
  2. Sequoia regeneration is episodic and driven by climate.
  3. Thinning and prescribed burns are not effective in precluding large fires.
  4. The SOSA legislation is misguided and unnecessary.

Fortunately, there is some pushback from a few Democratic legislators like Representative Jared Huffman and conservation organizations like Earth Justice, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club.

Sequoia in Kings Canyon-Sequoia National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

Other organizations like the National Parks and Conservation Association and Save the Redwoods League are abandoning biocentric approaches to ecosystems and are applauding the unnecessary and often destructive manipulation of our sequoia groves by logging, even in national park units, though SOSA is focused on national forest sequoia groves, it does include Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. For instance, NPCA advocates things like replanting of burned groves, when there is abundant evidence that successful regeneration is occurring without human intervention.

Write your Congressional Representative and ask them to oppose SOSA. It is unenecessary, ineffective, and will compromise “heathly forest ecosystems.”

 

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

13 Responses to Save Our Sequoias Act–A Stealth Attack On NEPA, ESA and Our Sequoia Groves

  1. Jeff Hoffman says:

    Another dishonest Orwellian name for legislation. It should be called “The Destroy Our Forests Act.”

    As to fires, the climate crisis is going to cause more, bigger, and hotter wildfires, regardless of whether they’re started by humans (90% of them) or by lightning. We shouldn’t deny this, regardless of the fact that we’re opposed to logging. We also have to recognize that the vast majority of these fires are not natural; they’re started by humans. Sure, let natural wildfires burn, but stop all the human-caused fires.

    The only way to fix this problem is to stop warming the climate by stopping the emission of greenhouse gases, which will require the end of industrial society. The problem is that most people care more about their lifestyles than they do about life on Earth, so getting back to living without all this needless stuff is going to be a hard sell, to say the least.

    • Thank you for trying to prevent the pointless destruction of our forests with counter-productive strategies such as logging. I have contacted my Congressional representative, Barbara Lee.

      • Jeff Hoffman says:

        Was that a response to me or to the article? I don’t support logging of any kind in any instance except for removal of non-native trees and replacement of them with native ones.

    • Ida Lupine says:

      What can we do?

      People are under the impression also that they do not have to change their lifestyles if only we switch to dangerous industrial wind and solar farms, which are going to push birds and other endangered wildlife over the edge to extinction.

      No one wants to ‘power down’ and simplify their lifestyles. Even with large-scale wind and solar, and we don’t know how they will actually work in real time, reliability and what effects they will have on the environment – the inevitable population growth will negate any limited gains made.

      We’ll have to keep adding to the size of these things all the time.

      Leave the sequoias alone! We really can’t count on either side in politics anymore. I wish people weren’t so easily brainwashed or susceptible to grandiose, pie-in-the-sky ideas that cannot work in reality.

  2. Craig Downer says:

    Sounds reasonable and one can see the crass motive behind this excuse for more exploitation of the natural forest and majestic Sequoia groves

  3. Ida Lupine says:

    Any time a politician comes up with a new idea to ‘protect’ anything, especially the environment, and especially under the current regime, I cringe. Neither side can be trusted with something so precious, or even cares to know a thing about ‘the best available science’. Blundering about comes to mind.

    The real scientists are always banding together to protest these decisions, and Washington refuses to not listen, willfully ignorant. An article from CBS News about the UK’s entrancement with wind mentions not one word about the dangers to wildlife.

    Here in a commonly read newspaper, nothing obscure or available only to an esoteric few, warnings come all the time, but nobody cares:

    https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/05/21/most-endangered-american-birds-extinction/70212206007/

    • Maggie Frazier says:

      As always – the biggest danger to any species other than human IS humans.
      I agree with you regarding the politician’s “protection” schemes.
      And yes, whatever current energy programs come down the pike – there WILL be downsides – whether worse than fossil fuels? Who is to say.
      But “saving” human’s constant increasing demands for anything to keep their current lifestyles comfortable rather than actually looking for ways to save the planet & other species? Thats what it comes down to.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      A lot of people have been brainwashed to think that there’s a magical solution called “green” energy. Because people make decisions based on feelings instead of facts, and because modern humans feel self-entitled to their modern lifestyles, they readily accept this nonsense.

      Humans need to grow up and acknowledge that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, and that everything comes from SOMETHING. The ONLY real solutions to environmental and ecological problems are to greatly lower our consumption (by returning to living naturally) and population. All else is, AT BEST, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and often if not usually causes even more harm.

  4. Ida Lupine says:

    ^^oops, that should read “Washington refuses to listen, preferring to remain willfully ignorant and only concerned with remaining in power.”

  5. Ida Lupine says:

    And then you’ve got influential people like Bill Gates telling people that you don’t have to! Does he not care about other life on earth?

    Obviously, it’s going to be a combination of approaches that will have even a hope of trying to reduce our carbon emissions, trash creation, and overconsumption.

    But surely a world population of 8.5 billion people (and growing), by cutting down on their usage of energy, and building smaller homes, having smaller families, eating less meat, etc. can make a difference?:

    https://news.yahoo.com/bill-gates-climate-change-criticizes-impoverished-lifestyle-idea-200125212.html

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      Rich people like Gates are a big part of the problem and are therefore not going to offer helpful solutions. These people obsess on all the wrong things, starting with money & power, and they’re very materialistic. So of course he doesn’t think or believe that we should live naturally and stop consuming needless crap.

  6. Mary says:

    TYPO: “The legislation views natural morality from high-severity fire, …”

    SHOULD READ: The legislation views natural mortality from high-severity fire, …

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