Saving the Sequoias

Federal Protection For California’s 3,000-year-old Trees

John Muir called them “the greatest of living things.” California’s giant sequoias—also known simply as “the big trees”—have outlived millennia of ecological and cultural change on the west side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. These grand monuments to natural history, which can grow taller than the Statue of Liberty, were full grown when Jesus Christ was born. The Miwok and other Native American tribes hunted among their boulder-sized trunks, and early settlers wondered in awe at their greatness.

During Muir’s first wanderings in the Sierra Nevadas, he wrote, “No other known tree approaches the Sequoia in grandeur, height and thickness being considered, and none as far as I know has looked down on so many centuries or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.” But Muir also lived to see the first 3,000-year-old giant come crashing down. In My First Summer in the Sierra, he writes that soon after the first giant sequoias were “discovered” by whites in 1852, in California’s Calaveras Grove (now Calaveras State Park), “One of the grandest trees was cut down for the sake of a stump! The laborious vandals had seen ?the biggest tree in the world,’ then, forsooth, they must try to see the biggest stump and dance on it.”

California’s giant sequoias are venerable survivors, now protected by federal law. In 1852, however, vandals cut one down just to dance on the stump.
William Neill/Larry Ulrich Stock

Last April, President Clinton made sure there would be no more dancing on stumps. Exercising his power under the Antiquities Act, which allows the President of the United States to protect places of exceptional historic or scientific value as national monuments, he signed an executive order transforming 328,000 acres of Sequoia National Forest into Sequoia National Monument “for future generations to study and enjoy.”

It was a popular move. Activists had been trying to secure long-term protection for the groves for years, and biologists wanted them preserved for future study. And unlike more obscure forests, much of the public is familiar with California’s giant sequoias and the rare wildlife species—like peregrine falcons and spotted owls—that depend upon them. Newspapers across the country ran editorials in support of the monument, including the Washington Post, which called the ancient trees “magnificent, irreplaceable specimens.”

Dave Will, monument coordinator for The Wilderness Society, says the significance of the designation goes beyond the new borders of Sequoia National Monument. “It was a real sign that the administration is dedicated to the protection of natural resources,” he says.

The Forest Service held public meetings in California to gather input on the proposed monument and met with regional and tribal officials. Will admits that there was some resistance from the small local timber industry and a nearby Indian reservation, but “since it is public land, it should reflect the wishes of the majority of people, not a vocal minority,” he says. And he points out that although commercial logging will be phased out, all of the recreational uses of the forest—including camping, hunting, fishing and biking—will continue to be permitted in the monument. Even some commercial uses, including grazing, will continue on a permit basis.

Not too long ago, the big trees were in serious trouble. Their decay-resistant heartwood is highly valued for construction, and logging in Sequoia National Forest has gone on for over a century. Congressman George Brown (D-CA) had introduced a bill to protect the groves in Sequoia National Forest, but when he passed away in the summer of 1999, the bill died with him.

Once common throughout much of North America, natural climatic changes gradually reduced the species’ range to the western slope of the Sierras. Cutting of surrounding pines and firs have threatened to change the unique soil conditions that have allowed the giants to flourish in the Sierra Nevada for thousands of years, and fire, important for regeneration of giant sequoias, has long been suppressed.

Thanks to the President’s initiative, most of the world’s remaining giants are now protected—half in Sequoia National Monument and about 40 percent in King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Park, according to Joe Fontaine, chair of the Sierra Club’s Sequoia Task Force. (The rest are scattered among state and federal lands in the Sierra Nevada.) The monument is divided into two parcels, the northern unit, adjacent to the western side of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (considered one big preserve), and the southern unit, extending to the south of the national parks.

But federal protection may not be enough. Years of fire suppression in neighboring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have left some of the forest there vulnerable to intense fires. Will emphasizes that prescribed burning “is a very important part of that ecosystem,” clearing the way for light to reach saplings on the forest floor, and should be part of the management plan for the new monument. The monument proclamation suggests that fire will be included in management, but a detailed plan won’t be finalized for another two or three years. (The full proclamation is available online at www.tws.org/ccc/california/sequoia_proclam.htm.)

Fontaine has concerns as well. “I feel that if the intent of the Presidential Proclamation is carried out, the groves will be protected,” he says. “But there are plenty of folks out there who will try every way possible to undermine what we have gained,” including off-road vehicle users and loggers who, Fontaine says, are using the backlash from the New Mexico fire fiasco “to make the argument that we have to log the forest in the monument to reduce the fire hazard.”

But the public is watching Sequoia National Monument, and Will thinks that kind of scrutiny will encourage forest managers to do the right thing. The monument designation “will increase the level of public participation,” he says. What happens in America’s sequoia groves will no longer be only the concern of Sierra Nevada activists, loggers and Forest Service officials.

Sequoia National Monument is the 10th monument to be designated by President Clinton. Will hopes to see other monuments protected before Clinton leaves office. “We need to continue to protect areas that are vulnerable,” Will says. Next on his monument wish list: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Alaskan lawmakers have long threatened to open up to oil and gas exploration. About 400 environmental groups (collectively known as the Alaska Coalition) are pushing for designation “of as much of [the refuge] as we can.”