Enviros sue Park Service over planting sequoias

The National Park Service plans to replant sequoia groves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, where fires in 2020 and 2021 caused lasting damage to sequoia groves on federal land, but environmentalist groups in California say it would set a legal precedent and be a huge mistake.

Four groups filed suit against the NPS on November 17, saying the agency’s efforts violate the law, because designated wilderness areas prohibit human involvement in the ecosystem — even if it includes planting trees.

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

Surveys of sequoias on NPS land found that in 2020 and 2021, almost 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range that were over 4 feet in diameter or more were killed by fire (and neglect) or were expected to die in the next few years. In 2020, surveyors estimated that 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoias over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle Fire. The following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire burned between 2200 and 3600 sequoias over 4 feet in diameter; those sequoias were killed or are expected to die within 5 years.

CBS News reported on the project a year ago:

The NPS announced the seedling-planting project and said it was “concerned that natural regeneration may not be sufficient to support self-sustaining groves into the future, particularly as the fires killed an unprecedented number of reproductive sequoia trees in the groves themselves.”

Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, one of the groups that is suing, disputes that conclusion. Sequoias actually “depend on high-intensity fire in order to reproduce effectively,” Hanson told CNN. “Nature doesn’t need our help. We are not supposed to be getting involved with tending it like a garden.”

Advocates at Wilderness Watch, Sequoia Forest Keeper, and the Tule River Conservancy first sued the NPS in September to stop a separate project by the agency to cut and burn trees in the same designated wilderness areas, cutting on about 1000 acres of forest land and designating 20,000 additional acres as available to “manager-ignited fires and associated activity,” according to the complaint.

“Recently burned groves are RESTORING THEMSELVES — as they have done for more than one hundred centuries!”  according to the Sequoia Portal, whose mission is to add existing roadless areas of the Sequoia National Park, National Forest, and National Monument to the National Wilderness Preservation System. “Millions of sequoia seedlings carpet these burned groves,” says the Portal. “Do they think the public is stupid enough to think that any agency can replace full-grown 3200-year-old red barked sequoias? ALL the iconic ancient giants started as tiny seedlings, and they are already growing — immediately seeded by their scorched giant sequoia parents! As it has always been in the groves. And the majority of the largest giants are NOT DEAD.”

The John Muir Project, a nonprofit focused on protecting federal forests, joined the lawsuit on November 17, amending it to include the sequoia replanting project as part of the complaint. The groups now jointly accuse the NPS of illegally encroaching on federally protected land in both of the projects.

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

The complaint in U.S. District Court in Fresno is an addendum to a suit filed earlier this year that challenged the NPS for other work in wilderness areas of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Besides planting seedlings, NPS crews have been thinning and burning around sequoia groves to reduce wildfire risk, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Both the fire-prevention work and the tree-replanting project followed in the aftermath of fires that wiped out unprecedented numbers of sequoias.

NPS staff declined to comment on the lawsuit, but confirmed that replanting had already begun in two sequoia groves back in mid-October, before the latter complaint was filed.

“The Park Service has to abide by the 1964 Wilderness Act,” said Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director at Wilderness Watch. “We should still allow these natural ecosystems to respond as they want to the changes brought about by the changing climate. The more that agencies will allow natural fire to burn and perform its role, the better these wilderness forests will be,” he said.

The groups claim the projects were approved after required processes of environmental review and public engagement were circumvented by declaring they were “emergency” projects that would not have to meet those requirements.

The NPS said in its project announcement it would replant only in areas that field surveys showed insufficient natural regeneration to successfully re-establish, as they would if they hadn’t experienced severe fire effects in recent fires.

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