GIANT SEQUOIA NATIONAL MONUMENT — Controversy is no stranger here. As the headline for a National Geographic magazine article proclaimed in 2019, “California’s giant sequoias tell the story of Americans’ conflicted relationship with nature.”
The latest chapter in that story is work to remove vegetation in 11 groves within the monument and another in Sierra National Forest east of Merced with a goal of protecting giant sequoia groves from extreme wildfire.
And not surprisingly, the effort has drawn criticism.
The emergency response approved July 22 by Forest Service Chief Randy Moore is intended to expedite fuels reduction on 13,377 acres of forest land.
Using the same Incident Command System that the agency employs during wildfires, the Forest Service had crews cutting trees and clearing brush within a month — compared to the year or years it would take to get started without the emergency decision.
But as officials reported what they called tremendous progress and showed off their work in public field trips last month, some critics lined up for the latest battle.
“What gives them the authority?” asked Ara Marderosian of Weldon, one of the those who traveled to the Black Mountain Grove east of Porterville for a public field trip on Aug. 27.
Marderosian is executive director of Sequoia ForestKeeper. The group has had some success challenging the Forest Service in court over issues including its analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Marderosian’s question came during an interview after the field trip — but before Sequoia National Forest sent all participants copies of the documents authorizing the work by email.
Maps, photos and legal citations accompanied the detail of the emergency response — along with a summary of concerns that led to the action, including:
• 20 percent of fire tolerant monarch giant sequoia trees were killed by unprecedented high severity fires in the last two years. Prior to 2015, the agency reports, the last known wildfire to kill monarch Giant Sequoias was more than 800 years ago, in 1217.)
• Fire exclusion over the last 150 years has led to extreme fuels accumulation in giant sequoia groves that were previously accustomed to frequent low severity fires.
• More fuel accumulated during the 2017 drought when approximately 50 percent of the mature trees across the forest died.
But Marderosian said he recently visited the Freeman Creek Grove twice and saw green branches on some of the blackened trees.
“My experience is that trees that look dead aren’t necessarily,” he said. “Even though they’re calling this an emergency, they haven’t given the trees an opportunity to recover… (the trees have) taken thousands of years to develop a bark that resists the fire, so we should allow them to demonstrate their ability to resist fire.”
And after reviewing the Forest Service documents provided after the field trip, Marderosian fired off an email to Alicia Embry, public affairs officer for Sequoia National Forest.
He said the documents indicate only that “emergency consultation will be employed” to ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act specific to the emergency actions, “but provide no evidence the consultation has occurred.”
Also, that the Forest Service chief’s letter “provides only the promise of consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service” about the endangered Pacific fisher — and that without current surveys the agency can’t know what percent of the fisher population “could be killed by ongoing management activities.”
Embry did not respond to a request for comment on Marderosian’s assertion.
‘An excuse for logging’
“Limbing up small diameter trees so that ground surface fires don’t get into the canopy, that’s something that would be acceptable,” Marderosian said. But he was critical of the tree-cutting in the Black Mountain Grove.
In a news release the day before the field trip Forest Supervisor Teresa Benson provided an update on the project.
“As of Aug. 25, the project has spent approximately $1,000.000 to make 345 of the largest trees in the world safer by completing work around them, by clearing a circle of flammable trees, brush and duff. That is $2,898 per tree to make 345 monarch giant sequoia trees more resilient to wildfire in less than a month. It is well worth the expense and effort to sustain the giant sequoias.”
Forest Service staff discussed plans going forward, including ways machinery might be used to reach and remove dead trees from steep slopes. There was also discussion of possibly removing logs, but that would be part of a future project not covered in the emergency response. Burning in the groves, as early as this fall, is part of the emergency response.
“Even though their guidelines for their initial work doesn’t talk about removing any diameter trees, they certainly verbalized that as part of their next steps,” Marderosian said. “It’s an excuse for logging any diameter and green trees in order to protect the giant sequoia monarchs… The initial work that they provided a guideline for, which doesn’t talk about selling trees of any diameter or having heavy equipment certainly says great things about what they want to do. That’s a good idea, but I could hear ‘selling’ going on while we were there.”
Ali Sheehey, programs director for Sequoia ForestKeeper, attended the Aug. 20 field trip and agreed with Marderosian.
“They’re using this as an excuse to log, taking out the largest trees, taking out the habitat,” she said.
As described by Ludie Bond, wildfire prevention team information officer, in an Aug. 29 press release, a footprint of a 25-foot radius is being treated around the monarchs, described as giant sequoias that are generally 30 inches in diameter at breast height.
“Crews are cutting and removing ladder fuels and pulling back duff, down and dead logs within the 25-foot radius,” she said. “This treatment is important because fire can burn very hot when it gets into the duff around the trees. When heat finds an exposed part of the giant sequoia, it can damage the cambium and kill the trees. The area cleared around the trees will recover with ferns and other herbaceous plants within a year.
“Each giant sequoia grove has an individual plan for the emergency response fuel reduction actions,” Bond said.
But Sheehey is not convinced.
“I’m shocked and saddened that people are so afraid of fire that they’re letting nature be destroyed,” she said.
‘Perhaps time we don’t have’
Barbara Brydolf, president of the Alta Peak Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, also attended the Forest Service’s Aug. 27 field trip to Black Mountain.
A biologist with a doctorate from the University of California, San Diego, Brydolf lives in Springville — and has gained first-hand knowledge of giant sequoia groves in part because she spends time at a family cabin in the Coy Flat tract just a few miles from the Black Mountain Grove. She’s led field trips in the area herself.
“My impression of this work was ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ Brydolf wrote in a report to be published in an upcoming newsletter for the Alta Peak Chapter.
“There is no question that Giant Sequoias are under threat from high intensity wildfire,” she continued. “The Forest Service is dealing with unprecedented conditions caused by the suppression of fire on the forest, but also with the wild card of climate change and how it is affecting forest health and wildfire behavior.”
The Forest Service chief ordered the work in progress using emergency alternative arrangements under NEPA.
“While I generally view actions taken under an ‘alternative arrangement’ with skepticism, complying with NEPA regulations undoubtedly takes time, perhaps time we don’t have,” Brydolf said.
Still, she said she views certain proposed actions as being overly invasive — including cutting large live trees close to the monarchs, mechanical treatments around giant sequoias, wholesale brush cutting and snag and tree cutting that she said will create large canopy openings, increasing the risk of blowdown of the monarch trees.
“But for each objection I also see the need to do something, even if there may be some negative side effects,” she said, adding that she would like the Forest Service to provide “concrete evidence that their more draconian proposals have a concrete basis in science.”
Even before April 15, 2000, when President Bill Clinton used his power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to carve more than 300,000 acres out of Sequoia National Forest to create the monument, there was disagreement about management of public lands that include thousands of large and ancient giant sequoia trees.
Monument lands are partly in Fresno and Kern counties, but mostly in Tulare County and the Board of Supervisors of that county has tried twice to overturn its creation or reduce its size. Tulare County teamed up with timber interests and OHV enthusiasts to sue the government in 2001. They were forced to accept defeat in October 2003 when the Supreme Court declined to consider their appeal.
But in 2017, when President Donald Trump was considering abolishing or reducing the size of some national monuments, the Tulare County board sent a letter to the president asking him to cut it to 90,000 acres. At the time, the Kern County Board of Supervisors was to consider a request to do the same, but after members heard from 500 or so constituents, they accepted a recommendation from the county’s Planning and Natural Resources Department to not take a position on the recommendation.