The U.S. Forest Service is taking emergency action to save the giant sequoias, accelerating projects to clear the forests to protect the world’s largest trees from the growing threat of wildfires.
The move to avoid parts of an environmental review could shave years off the normal approval process needed to cut down smaller trees on national forests and use intentionally lit, low-intensity fires to reduce the dense brush that has helped fuel wildfires that have killed. to 20% of all big redwoods in the last two years.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said, “Without urgent action, wildfires could wipe out countless more iconic giant sequoias.
“This emergency action to reduce fuels before a wildfire occurs will protect unburned giant redwood forests from high-severity wildfire risks.”
Trees, the largest in the world by volume, are under threat like never before. More than a century of aggressive firefighting has left forests choked with dense vegetation, fallen logs and millions of dead trees killed by bark beetles that have fueled infernos intensified by drought and exacerbated by climate change.
The announcement is among a wide range of ongoing efforts to save the species, which is found only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California.
Most of the 70 or so forests are clustered around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and some extend into Yosemite National Park and north.
Sequoia National Park, which is managed by the Department of the Interior and not subject to emergency action, is considering a controversial new plan to plant sequoia seedlings where large trees have been wiped out by fire.
The Save Our Sequoias (SOS) Act, which also includes a provision to expedite environmental reviews like the Forest Service’s plan, was recently introduced by a bipartisan group of congressmen, including House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-D. which includes redwoods.
The group applauded the announcement of Mr. Moore, however, said more needs to be done to make logging easier.
They said, “The Forest Service’s action today is an important step forward for giant sequoias, but without addressing other barriers to protecting these forests, this emergency will only continue.
“It’s time to codify this action by establishing a truly comprehensive solution to fireproof all California forests through the SOS Act and save our redwoods.”
Work planned to start as soon as this summer in 12 groves across the Sequoia National Forest and the Sierra National Forest would cost US$21m (£17.5m) to remove so-called scale fuels made up of brush, dead wood and smaller. trees that allow fires to spread upward and burn the canopies of redwoods, which can exceed 300 feet in height.
The plan calls for cutting down smaller trees and vegetation and using prescribed fires, intentionally lit and supervised by firefighters in wet conditions, to remove needles, sticks and decaying logs that pile up on the forest floor.
Some environmental groups have criticized forest clearing as an excuse for commercial logging.
Ara Marderosian, chief executive of the Sequoia ForestKeeper group, called the announcement a “well-orchestrated public relations campaign.”
He said he does not consider how logging can exacerbate wildfires and could increase carbon emissions that will worsen the climate crisis.
“Fast-track thinning does not take into account that roads and cleared areas … allow for wind-driven fires due to increased airflow caused by the opening in the canopy, which increases speed and intensity from wildfires,” he said.
The mighty sequoia, protected by thick bark and with its foliage typically high above the flames, was once considered almost inflammable.
The trees even thrive with occasional low-intensity fires, such as those historically set or allowed to burn by Native Americans, which eliminate competing trees for sunlight and water. The heat from the flames opens the cones and allows the seeds to spread.
But fires in recent years have shown that while trees can live beyond 3,000 years, they are not immortal and greater action may be needed to protect them.
During a fire last year in Sequoia National Park, firefighters wrapped the most famous trees in aluminum foil and used flame retardant on the canopies.
Earlier this month, when fire threatened the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, firefighters deployed sprinklers.
The flames burned through the forest, the first wildfire to do so in more than a century, but there was no major damage.
A park forest ecologist credited the controlled burns with protecting the 500 large trees.