Department News



Congressman poses greatest threat to giant sequoias
By Phil Rundel

On April 15, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation creating the 328,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument. More than half of all the giant sequoia groves in the world are in this monument, with most of the remainder found in the adjacent Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. The popularity and awe-inspiring beauty of the giant sequoia forest led President Clinton to permanently protect it, expanding on orders to restrict logging in Sequoia given a few years earlier by President George Bush Sr.

As one of the few national monuments managed by the U.S. Forest Service, it has become a battleground over timber production, caught between logging interests and those who want to see the Sequoia National Monument's designated protections upheld. California's attorney general and conservation groups recently won a lawsuit to block commercial logging within its boundaries.

This fall, Sequoia National Monument will again become ground zero in the timber wars, with a California congressman proposing legislation to allow commercial logging on areas within its boundaries. Passage of The Giant Sequoia National Monument Transition Act of 2006 (HR 5760) would allow the forest service to proceed with commercial logging projects, ignoring the federal court ruling against such projects, a ruling based on potential harm to the landscape and the rare wildlife that depends on it. Written by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, HR 5760 would perform an ``end run'' around that decision, and defy the legal tenets of the National Environmental Policy Act .

When walking among these giants -- sequoias are the largest living things on Earth -- the importance of their protection becomes clear, and the idea of logging seems, at best, undignified.

The Sequoia National Monument, like other Sierra forests, is suffering from decades of forest management that has disrupted its natural cycle. Exclusion of fire and past logging practices have been identified as the reasons the forest is in poor shape, and most agree that something must be done to restore this California treasure to a healthy and fire-resilient condition. This latest attempt to circumvent protections, under the justification of reducing the wildfire hazard and keeping the local timber mill running, is not a sensible -- or sustainable -- solution. Scientific evidence has overwhelmingly demonstrated that logging large, fire-resistant trees is a poor method to reduce wildfire risks, and only increases future threats. Logging leaves flammable debris on the forest floor, and loss of overstory canopy encourages the growth of brush and thickets of white fir. Canopy loss increases wind speed and air temperature and decreases the humidity in the forest, making fire conditions worse. Giant sequoia ecosystems with their plants and animals evolved with and depend on natural fire cycles for their long-term survival. Preposterous claims by spokesmen for the forest industry that fires in the Sierra Nevada degrade long-term wildlife values are unsupported by any serious scientific data.

Instead of logging the land held in our public trust, the Forest Service should instead look to the monument's next-door neighbor, where the National Park Service has created a model of forest health in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. In a landscape nearly identical to the Sequoia National Monument, prescribed fire has been successfully used to reduce fire risk, promote giant sequoia reproduction and enhance wildlife. Today, after more than 30 years of using prescribed fire to manage overgrowth in Sequoia National Park, nearly natural conditions help young sequoias thrive. The heat from the controlled burns opens the sequoia cones, scattering seeds far and wide. In the spring, sequoia seedlings can be seen sprouting like grass. Logging does not provide for this natural seed rain or the appropriate mineral soil conditions for new seedling establishment. Although thinning small trees may be necessary in circumstances where trees are especially dense, prescribed fire is the management that best mimics nature.

Giant sequoias are survivors. They can live to be more than 3,000 years old, withstanding wind, rain, snow, fire and disease. They have, so far, even survived the intervention of humans. In light of that, we must continue to take the necessary steps to protect the Sequoia National Monument from commercial logging, and Congress should respect the law. John Muir called the sequoias ``nature's forest masterpiece.'' By upholding protection of the monument, these ancient giants can continue to inspire and awe visitors for generations to come.

PHILIP RUNDEL is a professor of biology and a member of the Institute of the Environment at the University of California-Los Angeles, where he has been a faculty member since 1969. He wrote this article for the Mercury News