Saving the Giants in California

by Carla Cloer


The Sequoia Bill: A Environmental Champion's Last Proposal.

When George E. Brown,, Jr. D-CA proudly introduced his Sequoia Bill, HR 2077 in June of this year, no one realized that it was to be the last Bill he would ever introduce. George Brown died on July 16, 1999 of complications following heart surgery.

It is fitting that this oldest member of the House of Representatives, a man who championed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and who fought valiantly for environmental quality for all , also led the battle to legislatively protect Giant Sequoias, the earth's largest living things, by creating a Sequoia Preserve which would stop commercial logging, protect intact areas of the forest, and require restoration of damaged streams and forests. His death leaves the future of the Sequoia Bill uncertain.

Muir's Grandest Forest

A popular misconception is that all Giant Sequoias are protected in Sequoia National Park, but this is not the case. For twenty years, local forest activists have been in a desperate struggle to hold the line on logging and roadbuilding within the Sequoia National Forest, the Sierra Nevada National Forest which harbors more than half of all Giant Sequoia groves on earth. Without statutory protection, some of the most spectacular ancient Sequoias are south of the Park.

Indeed, when John Muir first saw the southern Giant Sequoias, those left out of the Park system, he proclaimed,

"Here are the grandest forest trees, the Sequoia, king of conifers, the noble Sugar and yellow pines, each a giant of its kind, assembled together in one and the same forest, surpassing all other coniferous forests in the world, both in the number of its species and in the size and beauty of its trees." ""...Here, in the south end of the belt... no tree in the forest is more enduringly established. "

Today, many of these unique areas are logged to death, marred by patchworks of clearcuts with many areas where plowed bare earth isolates individual red-barked ancient Sequoias. Muir would hardly recognize his once magnificent forest. And the logging continues, though slowed by the bulldog-like persistence of a very few local forest activists. Their objective: Hold the line and protect what remains until legislative protection can be won.

Sequoia National Forest - Poster Child for Bad USFS Management

While the Chief of the USFS is proclaiming a new ecological approach to managing the National Forests, Sequoia National Forest's timber program tells a different story. With names like "Forest Health," "Fuel Reduction," "Vegetation Management" and even "California Owl" Projects," project documents allude to science, but when the fine print is read and maps are deciphered, it is clear that the dominant theme is logging and getting out the cut. Sequoia Forest's claim that these projects will reduce fire risk flies in the face of all recent studies which find that logging increases forest flammability by drying the soils and residual trees and encouraging brush and grasses. Sequoia Forest, the southernmost Sierra Nevada National Forest, has the lowest reforestation success in the entire Sierra and brush fields are the usual result of logging.

"Grove Enhancement" U.S. Forest Service style - several Giant Sequoias left standing in a clearcut in Sequoia National Forest

Most projects also approve an extensive amount of "prescribed burning." While fire is an integral part of the Sierran ecosystem, there are no forestwide standards and guidelines for fire or fuels management so every project is designed "seat-of-the pants" style with no forestwide coordination and no public or scientific scrutiny of methods or impacts.

Sequoia Forest has made many agreements that require them to amend their Land and Resource Management Plan, to work with scientists to determine a science-based definition of the Sequoia ecosystem, to restore groves that were brutalize with clearcut logging in the mid 1980's, and to give special attention to watersheds that support sequoia groves: these agreements have been ignored.

When Region 5 of the USFS wrote special guidelines to protect the California Spotted Owl, Sequoia National Forest found a loophole, to be used in rare situations only, on every single timber sale they proposed. Saying that their proposals better protected owl habitat than the guidelines, Sequoia logged the ancient trees the guidelines were supposed to protect. Their justification was that logging the trees made it less likely that owl habitat would burn.

As evidence that the guidelines are being given merely lip service, three recent Forest Service owl surveys released this spring offer compelling evidence that the population of the California spotted owl is dropping a precipitous 7-10 percent a year in the Sierra Nevada. This documents more severe declines in the California spotted owl population than were shown for either the northern or Mexican spotted owl, both of which were listed as threatened in the early 1990s. Excess logging Sierra Nevada-wide has extirpated the Pacific fisher, a sensitive furbearer, from its range in the northern Sierra. A viable population of fisher still remains in the southern Sierra in Sequoia National Forest. This population appears to be isolated from central Sierran populations in Sequoia National Park. Continued intensive logging of Sequoia National Forest is putting the future of the Sierran fisher in extreme jeopardy.

Many of the same staff have been leading Sequoia National Forest continuously since the 1980's and agency mind sets do not easily change. Despite pleas to the Chief of the USFS, Mike Dombeck, fresh new leadership has not been assigned to put this magnificent forest on a new path. The same District Ranger who approved logging of the groves in the 1980's, logging that the Ninth District Court of Appeals found to be illegal, now heads up two Ranger Districts and is in charge of over 25% of the earth's Sequoia groves. His Districts continually approve projects that are outside of agreements and recent USFS directions. The Hatchett Timber Sale would have logged supposed fire suppression avenues, 1/4 mile cleared and thinned swathes on ridgetops adjacent to and above Giant Sequoias groves, logged trees up to 40" in diameter, and wreaked havoc on furbearer habitat. Three days after a lawsuit was filed, this sale was withdrawn with the excuse that timber economics had changed. This same sale has just been re-approved with a new name, the Saddle Fuels Reduction Project. The only change is that the thinned ridgetop units will allow trees over 30 inches in diameter to remain. Logging is approved as close as 500 feet of Sequoias in four groves: the Long Meadow, Cunningham, Grove, Starvation , and the Packsaddle. Thousands of acres of burn units are directly to the southwest of the Long Meadow Grove and to the west of the Starvation Grove. There is no indication what action will be taken if fire escapes into the Sequoias. It is likely that fire suppression activities pose a worse threat to the groves than the fire with which they have evolved.

Other projects to log out the remaining old-growth habitat are the Ice, Frog, Burton, Tornado. White River. Hume, Pine Mill and Pebble projects. These timber sales will haul off over 40 Million Board feet of old-growth using even-aged management, group selection(clearcuts of 5 acres each) extensive thinning, and road construction and reconstruction. Some projects will log in watersheds already over threshold for cumulative watershed impacts, and most will occur in watersheds that sustain Giant Sequoias. Each project is being appealed by a few dedicated volunteers of the Sequoia Forest Alliance, the Tule River Conservancy, and the Sequoia Task Force. Lawsuits are filed when pro bono attorney services are available.

Hope for USFS Change

Sequoia National Forest is in Region 5 of the USFS; Region 5 is in the process of writing "The Framework for the Sierra Nevada." Billed as the first plan to deal with the Sierra Nevada as an ecological entity instead of the traditional piecemeal fashion, this Framework is supposed to use the latest scientific findings to guide management of all the National Forests in the Sierra and will amends these National Forests' Land and Resource Management Plans. Earlier attempts to write plans for the entire Sierra Nevada were fiasco and would have drastically increased logging with the bogus objective of "creating spotted owl habitat" and reducing fire risk. The new attempt to write a science based management plan has not yet resulted in a Draft EIS but has already generated widespread opposition from the timber industry, so-called Wise Use groups, and from Forest Service employees. Sequoia's senior-most District Ranger has posted a memo on the website of SAM's, a new Wise Use Group formed to fight reduction in Sierra logging. This memo is designed to incite outrage and panic and is being used in a current anti-framework lobbying effort. Clearly the opposition knows that "real" science proves logging has put most Sierran species at risk.

What you can do:

Write your US Representative and ask that they sponsor and support the late George E. Brown's Sequoia Bill, HR 2077. Protection of the home of America's biggest trees is supported by citizens everywhere.

House of Representatives
Washington DC 20515
Capitol Hill Switchboard: 202-224-3121

Write: the Chief of USFS and ask him to make Sequoia National Forest a poster child for excellent USFS management with preservation and restoration of natural ecosystems a prime objective. Urge that the Sierra Nevada Framework process be guided by the best scientific information available and that all Sierra Nevada ecosystems be protected. Suggest that with new leadership, Sequoia National Forest could be an example of excellence instead of its current status as a black sheep of the USFS.

Mr. Mike Dombeck
Chief, U.S. Forest Service
Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 96090
Washington D.C. 20460
phone: 202-205 1661

More information:

Sequoia Task Force: Sierra Club: P.O. Box 3543 Visalia CA 93278

Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Report to Congress:

Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign

Sierra Nevada Framework: USFS site

The "other" side: SAM's website with Sequoia Ranger's inciteful memo:


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