e-mail us

Cover story

Sequoias face loosened logging regulations


The earth’s largest life forms are the sequoia trees that grow on the lush western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada range. One of these famous cinnamon-colored giants, the “General Sherman,” was already a few hundred years old when Jesus walked the earth. The bark on these trees grows three feet thick. Some stand higher than the Statue of Liberty. Some are now in danger of being cut down.

For years Sierra Club activists fought to protect the giant sequoia ecosystem from logging and road building in the national forest and park that had been set aside for it. The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir in order to protect California’s wild lands and valuable, revered resources, like Yosemite Valley and the sequoia groves.

In 1853 the first sequoia, standing in the Calaveras Grove, was cut down. It took five loggers working for 22 days. The stump was planed and used for a dance floor, a bar and a bowling alley. Even in those early gold-rush days many Californians were outraged.

In 1965, a sequoia in the North Grove, weakened by heavy winds, toppled over and fell to the earth. Nearby residents thought an earthquake had struck. The earth shook because the tree weighed about 2,600 tons, as much as a small ocean-going freighter or 18 blue whales -- the largest animals in the world.

In 2000, then President Clinton stood beneath one of the giants and signed a proclamation creating Giant Sequoia National Monument, carving it out of Sequoia National Forest. The Monument would protect 34 groves of the majestic trees -- half of the remaining stands -- and 300,000 surrounding acres.

Clinton’s proclamation assigned the management of the monument to the U.S. Forest Service and charged the agency with developing a management plan with strict restrictions on logging. Clinton’s intention was to preserve the groves forever.

In December 2002, the Forest Service released a proposal for managing the monument that puts logging back into the planning. The management blueprint, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall, “would allow, in the name of reduced fire risk, the cutting of enough commercial timber to fill 3,000 logging trucks a year.”

After studying six alternatives, the Forest Service, in a draft environmental impact statement, is recommending thinning out trees up to 30 inches in diameter, bigger than federal rules allow elsewhere in the Sierras.

Last summer a catastrophic, 150,000-acre wildfire burned for weeks in the area, coming within a half mile of one of the sequoia groves.

Conservationists agree the fire risks need to be addressed. They claim, though, that by allowing so much logging, the federal agency would be thumbing its nose at the spirit of the monument charter, which prohibits removal of trees unless “clearly needed for ecological restoration and maintenance or public safety.”

“The Forest Service has made a mockery of the proclamation that established the monument,” said Jay Watson, the Wilderness Society’s regional director. “It’s as if it doesn’t even exist. I find that not only astonishing, but pretty darn arrogant.”

As it moves to reverse Clinton-era policies, the Bush administration has been arguing that cutting trees reduces forest fire danger. Conservationists point out that the federal government’s own scientists have consistently reported in study after study that removal of large trees increases fire risks by removing the most fire-resistant elements, the big trees themselves, from the forest and by reducing the cooling shade of the forest’s canopy. The logging of mature trees also causes flammable brush to grow more quickly.

The monument is home to a giant sequoia tree named for George Bush, the elder. Bush made a campaign stop a decade ago and a proclamation to protect the giant sequoias. “At least he felt like he had to make a gesture,” said Bill Corcoran, the Sierra Club’s Southern California regional representative. “His son’s administration seems to have foregone even that.”

Art Gaffrey, supervisor of both the sequoia monument and the nearby national forest, said the proposed timber cutting is needed to groom the forest and improve it. “No longer do we manage this public land based on market demands,” he said. The future goal will be “to maintain forest health and protect objects of interest from wildfire.”

Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, a California forest conservation group, told NCR: “What’s really disturbing about this proposal is the limit on public input. This is an international treasure. These trees belong to the whole country, and the Forest Service is only allowing limited public hearings in Southern California. It’s a complete U-turn in how the federal government administers the public forests. During the Clinton administration there were two years of widespread public hearings on forest policies. The Bush administration, it seems, is shamelessly bent on turning over all our trees to the timber industry.”

Logging in the sequoia monument will benefit the giant lumber mill in Porterville, Calif., the nearest big town, according to Hanson. “It won’t create more jobs because the industry now is so automated. There will be logging roads winding through the sequoia groves and acres of devastation for tourists to contemplate.”

Hanson continued: “That the Bush administration would target such a revered refuge for logging raises a serious question: If the Giant Sequoia National Monument isn’t safe under this administration, what is? What comes next? The pines on the north rim of the Grand Canyon? The timbered slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains?”

The Clinton document cited the grandeur of the sequoias, these most massive trees on the planet, as a spiritual resource for the nation.

California’s pioneer environmentalist John Muir wrote: “The Big Tree is nature’s finest masterpiece … the greatest of all living things, it belongs to an ancient stock and has a strange air of another day about it, a thoroughbred look inherited from long ago -- the auld lang syne of trees.”

California’s environmentalists are worried that some of these masterpieces may soon be turned into picnic tables or paneling for recreation rooms.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003