Executive Order to inventory and protect old-growth forests

In a two year period 13 to 19 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire

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burned Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP
Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, November, 2021. NPS photo by Daniel Jeffcoach.

Today, on Earth Day, President Biden will sign an Executive Order to conduct the first-ever inventory of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. This will be completed and made publicly available in a year with the objective of establishing consistent definitions and accounting for regional and ecological variation. The agencies will then analyze threats facing these forests, including from wildfires and other climate impacts.

After completing the inventory, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture will develop new policies, after public comment, to institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies that address the threats facing mature and old-growth forests on federal lands.

We are losing thousands of giant sequoia trees that can live for 3,000 years

Nowhere is the need for protecting old growth forests more obvious than in the giant sequoia groves in California. In a two year period 13 to 19 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle Fire. Early estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years. These losses make up an estimated additional 3-5% of the entire Sierra Nevada sequoia population over four feet in diameter.

Three Fires, giant sequoia trees
Three fires in two years that killed giant sequoia trees. The darker green areas represent groves of giant sequoias.

Under normal conditions giant sequoia trees can live for more than 3,000 years, which is 38 times the life expectancy of a human in the United States. The multi-year drought and higher temperatures have led to extremely dry fuel moistures which is causing wildfires in California and other areas to burn with unusual intensity, making even some of the giant sequoias with bark up to a foot thick susceptible to wildfires burning under these conditions.

It is probably safe to assume that when large fires are burning most of the priorities of the Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups for allocating scarce resources are decided by individuals with a history of on the ground firefighting. They may have a bias toward allocating more fire personnel to protect buildings, rather than fires where 3,000-year old trees 300 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter are being destroyed.

Since only approximately 100,000 of these mammoth trees are left that are larger than four feet in diameter, government employees allocating firefighting resources need to strongly consider the value of these treasures to the nation and the world, and that some of them have been living for thousands of years. It is disheartening to see hundreds of them destroyed in a matter of hours, especially if due in part to sending resources, instead, to protect structures that have not been hardened to FireSafe standards or constructed under reasonable county and city building codes.

The giant sequoias have already been inventoried. We know where they are. What NEEDS to be done is to ramp up the management of the fuels beneath these big trees, and greatly increase the prescribed fire programs around them on lands managed by the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Firefighter on the Windy Fire burning giant sequoia tree
Firefighter on the Windy Fire applies water on a burning giant sequoia tree. Photo uploaded to InciWeb Oct. 11, 2021.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

31 thoughts on “Executive Order to inventory and protect old-growth forests”

  1. How many of the Big Trees were killed by tactics on both Castle and KNF Complex ? Big Box and indirect attack with backfire was utilized on both fires resulting in high mortality. When high values are at stake more aggressive tactics should be employed

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    1. Royal,

      You mean like going direct in 300′ tall fire weakened sequoias and gettin more people smoked? Yeh, great plan.

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    2. Royal,
      “Aggressive” tactics like going direct in a sea of 300′ tall fire weakened Sequoias??????? Yeh Great plan.

      I have 23 years on Interagency Hotshot crews and I LOVE going direct but, if some OSC or DIVS asked me to take my crew into a burning stand of these I’d aggressively bite their face off.

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  2. Mark and Ron (Hi Ron) you are making good points. I totally agree.
    As to those that confuse pay systems with land and fire management; I encourage you to separate the issues. They are not connected in the taxpayers mind.
    Getting better pay is a serious issue. Federal wild land firefighters need better pay and administrative support. However, forest management and rapid suppression of wildfire is an even greater issue to rural residents and their representatives on county boards of supervisors and state legislatures. These are the people that count. The perception by both these entities is that the Federal government is failing on all counts.
    Looking at these pages one can only conclude the federal government also has a complaining work force. Not good.

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    1. Thanks John, you make the point so elequolently, both important issues but it is too easy to lose track of the bio/climatic issue and social issue in the haze of looking at both in the same lens. Time is of the essence if we want to retain the forests of OR and CA, and yet very few seem to want to address pace of change in strategy needed to react to the rate of changethat is occurring in the environment. I will leave it to the amazing young firefighters to charge ahead for better wages and other professional isssues. I will focus on the tremendous rate of change in fire behavior that being an old man has allowed me to see over the decades.

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      1. What I’m saying is that protecting these timber stands takes a skilled, experienced, engaged workforce. For both IA, and campaign fires.

        What I mostly see now is lack of skills, inexperience and apathy. The #1 reason is pay.

        Like it or not, and it doesn’t matter if you agree with me or not, but that’s how it is now across the western US. I got out on a lot of fires and do a lot of IA.

        People don’t care about burning trees up when their own personal life is on fire. Why go the extra mile when the agency treats you as disposable and unskilled? Congrats on your long careers and voluntary service, but people need to be able to afford rent. The passion and life are being squeezed out of the few people left who are working basically as an act of charity these days.

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  3. I don’t know who they think has the capacity to make this survey happen. We’ll probably just consolidate existing vegetation mapping and call it good.

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  4. How about an executive order for an immediate pay raise?

    I won’t be able to afford to do this job much longer

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    1. I took a quick poll in an expedition driving back from a jump, and 7/7 jumpers in the car get financial support from parents/spouses that allows them to work as Smokejumpers in this profession. The hiring manager and I joke that they should ask if you have a trust fund on the application…

      It’s basically over already, and even a $20k pay raise probably won’t fix it

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      1. NOt relevant to the topic. Want to continue on pay find the right thread and I’ll generally support the effort to some degree. Started asa GS-3 in’78 at $3,81/hr, now 63 years old and running engine crew as a volunteer. Never made a lot of money, but it was never the point. Pretty happy and made a difference. Now need to get back to the issue at hand. President wants a study, I want a forest- not a snag patch. We are running out of time. Always liked jumpers. Great people in the woods.

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        1. I agree with everything you say Mark, but paying people a livable wage is essential to get this done. We need a vision, and we need a workforce to carry out that vision. People aren’t going to stick around for bread crumbs.. In 1978 the minimum wage was $2.50. By comparison 3.81 was decent money. When I started in 2000, minimum wage was 6.00, and I made $10.00 an hour as a Gs-3, still decent money. By any gauge todays workload is greater, the pay is much less. Fixing our public lands is a huge task and we’re trying to manage it on a shoestring budget.

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      2. What I take home for 2 weeks isn’t as much as my child care bill for a month. If I just stayed at home with the kids my family would save money. Wrong thread, right thread, bottom line is before we start making executive action for more work load let’s take care of our folks, hire folks and accomplish the task at hand. It must be rocket science???

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  5. Couldn’t agree more with Bill – “What NEEDS to be done is to ramp up the management of the fuels beneath these big trees”. We’ve known for 60 years what needs to be done to manage these trees and groves. The issue is abject management failure. To fully understand how inept our NPS and DOI bureaucracy is – read this:

    https://escholarship.org/uc/item/09w6515q

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    1. Sounds like a great opportunity to establish 0r elevate permanent year round Type 1 crews that are payed a living wage and have health and retirement benefits. In the “off” season they could work in their home forests or adjacent home forests on prescribed burning, prescribed burn plans, and continue their training to become specialists and leaders in fire.

      It’s long past time for the country to invest in personnel and additional aircraft and aggressively suppress fires during the summer fire season and do fuel reduction burns when conditions are appropriate in the “off” season. If the USFS ever returned to forest management that includes harvesting there may be additional work to be had for off season fire folks as well.

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      1. We can’t keep asking the same group of folks (forestry technicians who fight fire, especially type 1 crews) to do all the work. They already assist the other resource areas (removing hazard trees in rec sites, marking timber, etc) because their budgets are even worse. And so we want these same folks, who are essentially away from home (families) for months on end to go do fuels work on “adjacent forests” during the off-season. After they’ve just come off 1,000 hour season. When are they supposed to take time off and recharge/reconnect? I can assure you, they are already “specialists and leaders in fire.” The year-round folks are already writing burn plans, laying out burn units, etc in the off-season. Your comment is insulting.

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    1. LMAO thats funny and totally appropriate. Your spot (oops) on! So here is an interesting question while all the hairy arm pitted tree huggers are trying to save the damn owl, where’s the damn owl after everything burns down? Checks out eh?

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      1. Macheen, it’s neither funny nor appropriate. You and MW might want to check out Devin Nunes’ new online system; it’s right up your alley.

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  6. Smokey Bear was used and abused in a misguided approach to snuff out all fires indiscriminately. The Forest Service and other agencies have got to reimagine their perspective in a more balanced manner. Our personal values must include the value of nature divorced from economic standards of the market economy. The price we pay for losing these natural resources is far more than the price of saving human constructed resources. And the human resources we apply in the process have more value than the meager wages being offered by a public that want low taxes to protect their high value property. Time for a real paradigm shift.

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  7. An inventory without a plan is near pointless. Unless we reintroduce late fall burns in old growth in the wilderness areas of CA and OR we will continue to see acclerated loss in stands that have accumulated to much fuel from fire exclusion. We have to end the extremely common practice of firing off from the bottom of the canyon in the middle of extreme fire weather and watch flames pre-heat and then torch stands as they race to the ridges. I was with the Tahoe hotshots when they did that last summer. When I suggested some alternatives I was told “its just Wilderness, we don’t care what happens up there”. One of the most significant factors in the loss of lands to high intensity fire is our current approach. No one cares when we destroy it in the “fog of war” during the fire, but try and introduce fire under favorable circumstances and that literally will take an act of Congress or Executive Order. Once again we are have taken the wrong fork in the trail.

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    1. Hi Mark you are so right about firing out in stands of timber this wrong-wrong-wrong after 30 years on a hand crew on the los Paders this i could not take it any more up slope runs lit by humans SUCK so sad

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      1. We need to have both changes in IMT approaches for community protection. What happened on the Haypress Fire and Dixie fires last summer was tragic. By an scientific metric the approach we are using for suppression is a disaster. Costs, acres burned with high intensity, structures lost, lives lost, carbon release, old-growth destroyed- any metric and we are failing. Our solution- more of the same. We need to re-introduce fire and at the rate of current loss, we need these changes to occur this year. What we need is an Executive Order and direction to USFS to initiate prescribed fire applications on some sample areas in CA and OR and then do the analysis of effects after burning. Waiting for NEPA is a joke when you look at the impacts of both our firing practices and fire impacts. Let the President authorize test firing in Wilderness areas this fall, measure them before and after and then compare them to 2021 season fire effects.

        OK that las thing on this, I am old but the management I see these days is scary and the ICS system needs reform and we need to find new tools and accountability for IMTs.

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    2. That reminds me of the story of a helipad site prepared in Nevada by cutting down ancient whitebark pines. I believe the time frame was late 80s or early 90s.

      So what would have been the fire impacts had they not lit off from the bottom? Was it considered?

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      1. I don’t mean to be rude, but your comment suggests you are not on the line, or post fire examing the effects of high intensity stand replacing fires at the current rate. I don’t mean to be rude, but the rate of conversion of late seral to brush is at a rate not seen in recorded history in CA and OR. The point of avoiding negative consequences need bearing. The main point, that doing this is??? in confusing.

        To your last question- I am glad you asked. There were two massive fires last summer, side by side. One, the Monument, did not use firing out within the Shasta-Trinity Forest in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. The other, Haypress, did. I stongly suggest you study the the differences between the two. I will have a much longer summary of the IMT, ICS and strategy of the past as it relates to the present.

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  8. A move in the right direction. Wish Canada would do the same, and in particular, stop P&G from using old growth trees to make Charmin?

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