When giants fall, we need to listen

By Joe Stone

“God has cared for these trees …but he cannot save them from fools.”— John Muir

In just two years, wildfire has killed an estimated 13 to 19% of all mature giant sequoia trees. These most massive of trees grow only on certain western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that divides California’s Central Valley farmland from the Great Basin Desert.

The loss of so many “big trees,” as conservationist John Muir called them, is unprecedented.

Many of the best-known stands of giant sequoias grow more than 6,000 feet above sea level in three national parks — Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. A visit to these immense trees typically begins with a drive up from Fresno. From the valley floor, Highway 180 curves into foothills, then winds onto steep, tree-covered mountainsides where cooler temperatures and higher humidity take the edge off the California sun.

The road passes through Kings Canyon National Park, where visitors get their first impression of the big trees. As Muir acknowledged, words aren’t sufficient to convey the awe of that first encounter with giant sequoias: “No description can give anything like an adequate idea of their singular majesty, much less of their beauty.”

He added, “Nothing hurts the big tree.” Except in our time: severe wildfire and the chainsaw.

Muir’s words helped inspire the national parks that have protected many sequoia groves from logging, but our concern about wildfires led to government-mandated fire suppression for more than 100 years. Through a federal agency’s zeal, the big trees are in trouble. In the Sierra Madre’s fire regime, developed over centuries, sequoia groves burned every 6 to 35 years. Wildfire thinned the smaller trees and converted fine fuels into soil nutrients.

Without fire, sequoia cones don’t open and spread their seeds. The same fire also creates openings in the forest canopy, giving seedlings the sunlight they need to survive.

Research shows that giant sequoia populations were “stable or increasing” from 500 B.C. through the 1800s. Then came the 1900s, when “there was a massive failure of giant sequoia reproduction.” Without fire, sequoia seeds stopped sprouting, while the buildup of highly combustible fine fuels on the forest floor, and the greater density of smaller trees, increased the risk of catastrophic wildfire. 

As scientists began to understand the problem, the National Park Service implemented a prescribed burning program in giant sequoia groves. Evidence from recent wildfires indicates the program has been successful. Areas treated with prescribed fire burned less intensely, mature sequoias did not die and sequoia seedlings have since sprouted.

Clearly, sequoias need fire to survive.

The challenge is avoiding catastrophic wildfire, a challenge made difficult by today’s dense groves. According to Alexis Bernal, a researcher with the University of California at Berkeley, Sierra Nevada forests typically held about 20 sequoias per acre before 1860. Since then, fire suppression has allowed the growth of as many as 120 to 160 trees per acre.

Bernal advocates extensive logging before fire can resume its natural role. Emergency logging by government agencies has already begun in forests with sequoia groves, including clearcuts along roadways in Yosemite National Park.

Not everyone agrees that logging is the answer. Forest ecologist Chad Hanson, with the John Muir Project, calls Bernal’s approach an excuse to continue commercial logging of public lands. He believes sequoia deaths have been far lower than official estimates and that new trees can sprout even after severe fires.

Unfortunately, Congress has gotten involved. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, introduced the Save Our Sequoias Act in 2022 in the House. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, later introduced the act in the Senate. The bill would expedite mechanical “fuel treatments” by bypassing environmental laws.

We’re just lucky that record snowfall in the Sierra Madre threw a wet blanket on the initiative by reducing fire risk, as the bill has yet to be re-introduced in the current legislative session.

While the unprecedented threat to these priceless trees might be a rare instance in which “mechanical treatment” is justified, chipping away at environmental protections has rarely, if ever, proven beneficial for the environment— especially when politicians try to call the shots.

Giant sequoias need all the help they can get, but that help needs to be informed by good science.

Joe Stone is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is the editor of Forest News, the publication of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

03/21/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
03/21/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
03/20/2023 Adventure Journal CA
03/21/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
03/21/2023 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
03/21/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
03/21/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
03/22/2023 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
03/22/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
03/22/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
03/23/2023 Taos News Taos NM
03/23/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
03/23/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
03/24/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
03/27/2023 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
03/24/2023 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
03/26/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
03/23/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
03/22/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
03/23/2023 Eastern Colorado Plainsman Limon CO
03/28/2023 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
03/29/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
04/02/2023 St. Helens Chronicle St. Helens OR
03/28/2023 Eastern Colorado Plainsman Limon CO
03/28/2023 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
03/28/2023 Jeffco Transcript Jefferson County CO
03/28/2023 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
03/28/2023 Canyon Courier Courier Co
04/08/2023 clatskanie chief Saint Helens OR
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Jesse Duhnkrack
1 year ago

Thanks Joe, for helping to inform readers of the challenges with wildland fire management and protecting values at risk such as the groves of giant sequoia in California. However, this editorial doesn’t seem to offer any solutions, other than the work “needs to be informed by good science”. Of course, and most certainly the federal and state governments of California have been using good science for the past 50 years, once it was recognized that fires served a critical ecological role in Sierra Nevada forests. (Side note: Twice in the editorial, this area is erroneously referred to as the Sierra Madre.) There are many scientists currently examining the options forward that land managers face in protecting giant sequoia groves. Often, there are difference in those options, but most agree that fuel reduction and restoration efforts are essential. Your editorial is sharply critical of tree removal (by mechanical or manual means), yet you seem to agree with Dr Mark Finney in your op-ed from 2/23 that quotes Mark as saying “The only way to maintain a forest in a low-hazard condition is through repeated burning … but you can’t introduce fire without some mechanical treatment first. … You can’t restore structure without mechanical means.”
Fuel treatment in areas of the Sierra Nevada that have not burned in the past 150 years is a very complex issue, and involves multiple considerations – species composition, structure, slope, aspect, soils, dead forest fuel, historic fire regime (including influence of Native American burning) among others. There is no one-size fits all. And we are talking about a very very large landscape, to be sure. Prescribed burning may be the tool in places, where in others there needs to be a combination of mechanized fuel reduction followed by the periodic use of prescribed fire to restore and maintain ecological processes. The “clear-cuts along roadways in Yosemite National Park” are vastly different than the forest harvest practice of clearcutting. The fuel treatments along limited portions of roadways in Yosemite are intended as strategic fuel breaks (which are essential to managing future fires, and are called out specifically as a key tool for the US Forest Service in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation) and to protect the visiting public from hazardous trees falling onto the roadway. The park has been actively managing these areas for decades. I have a lot of personnel experience with managing wildland fire in the ecosystems, having served as a Burn Boss on several prescribed fires in giant sequoia groves. I concluded my federal career as the Program Lead for Policy, Planning, and Reviews with the Department of the Interior, Office of Wildland Fire. Feel free to contact me for any further consultation. I’d also like to add that the editorial headline (in the Denver Post) was confusing and perhaps off-target as it reads: FIRE PREVENTION; Logging of giant sequoias must pass protection”. I don’t believe that the National Park Service is proposing to log any giant sequoia trees, and I am certain that any manual or mechanized tree removal on US Forest Service lands will be seeking to minimize the removal of any giant sequoia trees. Perhaps the title should have read: PROTECTING VALUES FROM WILDFIRE; Fuel treatments of today will help protect giant sequoia trees from future damaging wildfires.

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