Giant Sequoias and the Sierra Club
by Joe Fontaine
The Sierra Club has worked for the protection of the Giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada for over 100 years. John Muir, one of the founders of the Sierra Club, wrote about the wonder of these huge trees and advocated their protection. A drawing of a Giant Sequoia appears on the Sierra Club logo. Over 100 years ago we supported the creation of Sequoia National Park to protect some of the best groves. Unfortunately over half of the groves were not included in the Park. Early in the 20th Century many of the groves were logged leaving only stumps, some of which can see in the Converse Basin today. The public was outraged that unthinking, greedy individuals would cut trees that were thousands of years old at the time of Christ in order to make fence posts and shingles. Consequently logging of Giant Sequoias was stopped and the groves were left alone with the exception of the exclusion of fire, a mistake universally recognized today.
The groves were the object of benign neglect on the part of the Forest Service until the 1980s when Sequoia National Forest made the decision to clear cut in the groves leaving only the giant specimen trees towering alone over bare dirt and piles of slash. The Sierra Club sued the Forest Service and the cutting in the groves was stopped. After a subsequent Forest Land Management Plan was appealed by nearly all user groups, a Mediated Settlement Agreement was reached in 1990 which, among other things, called for accurate mapping of the groves. That project has been completed.
Now we are faced with the task of deciding how to manage the groves in order to protect, preserve and restore them. The Mediated Settlement Agreement provided for a buffer strip of 300 to 500 feet around the groves where no logging would occur. The width of the buffer strip is not based upon any science whatsoever. It is merely a result of bargaining during the negotiations that led to the Mediated Settlement Agreement. The Sierra Club believes that mapping the groves accurately is only the first step needed to protect them for the long term. Drawing a line around them and declaring them protected is similar to putting an endangered animal in a cage in a zoo and assumes that we have fulfilled our responsibility to assure its survival. Habitat must be protected and the habitat of the Giant Sequoias is, at the very least, the entire watershed where each grove is found.
The Giant Sequoia Groves are dependent upon conditions in the surrounding conifer forests. Two of the most important factors that have controlled the location and vigor of the groves are the availability of underground water throughout the year and fire. The surrounding forests and the groves themselves absorb the water from melting snows like a sponge and release it throughout the long, hot, dry summers of California. In effect by controlling the hydrology of the surrounding forests the groves perpetuate one of the conditions necessary for their survival. Before the exclusion of fire by European man fires burned through the groves every few years keeping the fuel load low and preventing hot, disastrous fires that could destroy the large trees that dominate the groves.
Timber sales, particularly higher in the watershed, can affect the flow of surface and underground water. Logging can accelerate runoff and increase erosion. Past timber practices when only the largest, most valuable trees were high-graded, have contributed to the excessive fuel build up. Where large old trees were selectively cut, thick stands of crowded small trees and brush have replaced the open, old growth stands of trees that at one time predominated in the forests of the Sierra Nevada. The exclusion of fire since before the beginning of the 20th Century has also contributed to the build up of excessive fuels.
The Sierra Club believes that in order to protect, preserve and restore the Giant Sequoia Groves a management plan for the groves must be developed that considers not just a 300-500' buffer but the entire watershed. Timber sales create the largest single anthropogenic impact upon the forest. Therefore we believe no logging should be done in the watersheds where the groves are found while the management plans are being developed. Yet Sequoia National Forest keeps planning timber sales in areas around and next to the groves while plans to manage the groves have not even been started.
As an alternative the Sierra Club is supporting legislation in Congress that would set aside those areas in Sequoia National Forest where Giant Sequoia Groves are found as a Preserve. Protection, preservation and restoration of the groves and providing for recreation would be the management direction given to the Forest Service. A scientific advisory committee would be established to give the Forest Service advice on how to reach those goals. Commercial logging and new road building would be prohibited in the Preserve. As an institution, the Forest Service seems incapable of recognizing that logging should no longer be the dominant use of the forest. Recreation and protection of outstanding natural features like the Giant Sequoia Groves must become the highest priority in managing Sequoia National Forest.
Although not perfect, direction from Congress is the best tool we have available to make sure the Giant Sequoia Groves will be there for our descendants to enjoy as we do today. The outstanding recreational and natural values of Sequoia National Forest will only be protected if the public has the will to support those measures necessary to accomplish it.