150 Years of Saving the Giant Sequoia

The George Bush Tree. Photo by Don Barrett, Flickr Creative Commons
The George Bush Tree. Photo by Don Barrett, Flickr Creative Commons
The effort to save the giant sequoia groves of California began over 150 years ago. Last week, we were reminded that job is never done.

In April, President Donald Trump issued an executive order calling for the review of all national monument designations occurring after January 1, 1996, where the monument exceeds 100,000 acres. Shortly after, the Department of the Interior confirmed that Giant Sequoia National Monument is on that list along with 26 others. To restate, the protective designation of the Giant Sequoia National Monument is now officially under review by the U.S. Department of the Interior. While the implications of that fact settle in, I hope to outline the 150-year history of public effort to save the world’s most superlative forest.

Before national monuments existed, before the National Park Service, before Save the Redwoods League, there was a grassroots movement to save California’s sequoia forests. Members of the community — having witnessed unprecedented timber harvests, overgrazing, and damage to their downstream water supply — started on a path that would ultimately lead to the formation of our national parks and forests and the Giant Sequoia National Monument. A movement that some would later call the earliest and most significant conservation efforts in the United States.” (external link) In fact, giant sequoia are so integral to the history of the conservation movement that the sequoia tree is on the National Park Service logo and its cone graces the hat of every NPS uniform (external link).

The giant sequoia are the world’s largest and among the oldest trees, and they only grow in a narrow band along the western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are truly national treasures, and gigantic ones, at that. The effort to ensure the protection of the globally unique giant sequoia forests has included Tribal communities, volunteers, nonprofits like Save the Redwoods League, Congress, and at least five U.S. presidents. And that list is about to grow longer as we rally to protect them once again.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln protected Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. That act, in the depths of the Civil War, was the beginning of land conservation in this country. It was around that time that John Muir and others began to sound the alarm over the aggressive harvest of the forests of the southern Sierra. In 1879, in response to the ensuing public outcry, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz called for special attention to the treatment of both giant sequoia and coast redwoods in California. With the local and national communities’ passions inspired by these iconic forests, a group of Tulare County residents, with support from Muir, the California Academy of Sciences, and others, successfully inspired Congress to expand the protection of the sequoia groves. In 1890, Congress voted in favor of establishing General Grant (now part of Kings Canyon), Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks.

By this time, Tulare and Fresno Counties experienced rapid population growth and began to see a rise in the production of wine and fresh and dried fruits. The prosperity of the region depended on clean and reliable water coming from the sequoia-covered mountains, and the existing protections were still insufficient to safeguard the natural resources of those critical upper watersheds — now directly linked to the health of the local economy. So in 1893, President Benjamin Harrison established the Sierra Forest Reserve of over 4 million acres. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt reorganized this protected landscape, forming several national forests including Sequoia National Forest. (If you’re keeping track, that’s three presidents so far: Lincoln, Harrison, and Roosevelt!)

By 1940, just over 90% of the world’s remaining giant sequoia were publicly protected in parks, reserves, and other lands. Yet by the 1980s, it became increasingly clear to Save the Redwoods League that the giant sequoia groves within the national forest needed help once again. While it was against federal policy to cut down ancient sequoia trees, all the other species in the forest like pine, fir, and cedar, were fair game.

The U.S. Forest Service changed their rules to allow private timber companies to harvest any tree under eight feet in diameter in any sequoia grove. Their timber leases led to clearcutting of all or part of at least nine groves on National Forest land before public outcry and lawsuits put an end to the leases. By 1987, aggressive harvest had denuded much of the forest in and around ancient giant sequoia trees. Knowing that sequoia need a healthy and naturally functioning forest ecosystem to thrive, local community and national conservation interests fought aggressively against the harvesting and, with the help of Save the Redwoods League, drafted a new management plan to be adopted by the Forest Service that protected the sequoia groves.

The George Bush Tree. Photo by Don Barrett, Flickr Creative Commons
Plaque for the George Bush Tree. Photo by Don Barrett, Flickr Creative Commons
To ensure that the protection remained in place, President George H. W. Bush signed an order to withdraw the giant sequoia groves from mining and mineral exploitation, declaring that the groves would be maintained as natural areas and not for timber production. He signed the order in 1992 at a ceremony held in Freeman Creek Grove saying, “This Nation’s Giant Sequoia groves are legacies that deserve special attention and protection for future generations. It is my hope that these natural gifts will continue to provide aesthetic value and inspiration for our children, grandchildren, and generations yet to come.”

Eight years later, in April 2000, President Bill Clinton designated Giant Sequoia National Monument, ending what seemed to be the final chapter of more than a century of effort to protect these ancient forests. At the ceremony, President Clinton quoted President Theodore Roosevelt, who when visiting the Grand Canyon before establishing the Antiquities Act and declaring the site a national monument, said, “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you.”

“This is not about locking lands up; it is about freeing them up for all Americans for all time,” President Clinton continued. “We’re here because we recognize that these trees, though they live to be very old and grow very large, like life itself are still fragile. The roots are surprisingly shallow and the greatest threat to the trees’ life is any disturbance to the tenuous balance between the tree and the ground that anchors it.”

From the initial protections that helped save the monument lands over 100 years ago, to the management plans that the League helped to establish in the 1980s and update again in 2012, the Monument exists today because people cared to defend what remains of these ancient giants.

Giant Sequoia National Monument is home to some of the Earth’s largest trees.
Giant Sequoia National Monument is home to some of the Earth’s largest trees.
Today, we know more than ever about how these delicate ecosystems function and the interdependence of the sequoia, native plant communities, and animals that share their Sierra home. We know that ancient giant sequoia and coast redwoods store more carbon than any other forest type in the world and the importance of their protection will only increase as we better understand the importance of carbon sequestration. Most importantly, we know that in order for this species to thrive, it needs a protected, expansive, vibrant forest landscape worthy of this unique American icon.

Knowing the long history and diverse constituents that came together again and again to protect these globally unique forests, we must now prepare to defend the results of their commitment and conviction. Yesterday, Secretary Ryan Zinke opened the public comment period (external link) asking for input on the public’s interest in sustaining national monument designations for Giant Sequoia and other monuments. We have until July 10, 2017 to express how we value these forests. How their protection makes our communities healthier; how their millions of visitors are the engine of our local economies; how our drinking water finds its source at their feet; how their heartwood stores thousands of years of carbon that they pull from our air; and how the very existence of a tree that lives for over 3,000 years inspires our love of the world and our pride in our heritage.

The Trump administration is asking for our input on these things. (external link) I hope you will join us in providing yours.

How to Submit a Public Comment:

You can share your comments online between May 12 and July 10, 2017 on the MonumentForAll.org website (external link) or by mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.

About the author

President and Chief Enthusiast for the Outdoors (CEO) of Save the Redwoods League, Sam brings more than 25 years of experience in overseeing land conservation programs from the remote wilderness to the inner city.

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