USA — Federal officials say they have fixed flaws in a plan for the Giant Sequoia National Monument. But environmentalists are ready to sue, saying it still serves timber companies.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton created the monument inside the Sequoia National Forest. Officials and environmentalists have been wrangling for years over a plan that would protect the world’s largest trees and minimize fire risk.
Siding with environmentalists in 2006, a federal judge rejected the first plan, saying it was incomprehensible and “trampled” environmental law.
Environmentalists – including the Sierra Club and Sequoia ForestKeeper – say the new plan reminds them of the ill-fated first attempt. They say logging is the agenda again.
“We will lose large trees for safety or whatever reasons the forest service determines,” said Sierra Club member Joe Fontaine of Kern County. “I can’t see how cutting large trees would restore this beautiful ecosystem.”
Forest service officials say commercial logging is not the plan. But some mechanical tree and brush removal seems inevitable in the 353,000-acre monument, which must be thinned after nearly a century of fire suppression allowed it to become overgrown.
The thinning is necessary to allow the giants to flourish and prevent large fires that could destroy them.
“We will use fire, and there will be some trees cut,” said Sequoia forest supervisor Tina Terrell. “But they will be smaller trees that will be mulched and left behind.”
The public comment period on the 1,000-page-plus documents will end Wednesday after years of meetings with residents and organizations throughout the region. The plan could be approved next year.
The monument takes up about a third of the 1.1 million-acre Sequoia National Forest, which has long been a battle ground over timber harvesting, cattle grazing and recreation.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush issued a proclamation saying the forest service needed to preserve the giant sequoias. When Clinton established the monument in 2000, he required a formal protection plan.
The federal judge who rejected the first monument protection plan called it incomprehensible because it did not follow national environmental law. Forest officials now agree, noting the first plan did not contain analysis of paleontology, ground water and geologic resources.
Environmentalists said the first plan was clearly meant to include timber sales and would have allowed removal of large trees. They said forest officials need to take the same approach as the National Park Service in neighboring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The park service has been using fire, rather than timber harvesting, to maintain sequoias for many years.
Most of the world’s 70-plus groves of giant sequoias are either in Sequoia National Forest or in Sequoia and Kings, growing mostly between 5,000 and 8,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada.
The giants thrive in an ecosystem with frequent, ground-hugging fires that wipe out low vegetation and give the trees room to flourish. The sequoia’s spongy, cinnamon-red bark is remarkably resistant to fire. But in an overgrown forest, even a small fire could turn into a catastrophic blaze.
Environmentalists favor clearing out brush and small trees with small fires, using mechanical means sparingly, if at all.
In the new management plan, officials say fire and mechanical means are the tools they would use, depending on the landscape and the weather conditions.
Fire wouldn’t be a good option on dry years when there is a high risk of fire getting away and possibly threatening lives, buildings and big trees.
“We would fall behind if fire was the only tool,” Terrell said. “And when we have the right conditions to burn, we also have to think of air quality.”
In 2005, officials at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks were fined $25,000 for setting a brush fire in violation of a no-burn order from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The Valley is one of the country’s worst-polluted air basins.
This year, a lightning-caused blaze called the Sheep fire burned 6,000 acres of brush and small trees in the monument, Terrell said. The smoke was a nuisance for campers, but the slow-moving fire was not threatening lives or buildings, so officials allowed it to burn the excess vegetation.
But the forest service’s plan is commercial logging in disguise, said Ara Marderosian, executive director of the nonprofit Sequoia ForestKeeper in Kernville. He said he sees a reliance on mechanical thinning, not an emphasis on fire.
“Restoration is supposed to be the goal,” he said. “They’ve redefined it as tree removal.”