Sierra Club calls for halt on Giant Sequoia restoration project

A portion of the Alder Creek property owned by Save the Redwoods League from the Castle Fire of 2020, where at least 80 giant sequoia monarchs were killed in the areas where the fires burned at a high intensity.(National Park Service website.)

Environmental groups file lawsuit against U.S. Forest service to halt two major restoration projects in Giant Sequoia National Monument over environmental concerns

CALIFORNIA – A fire abatement project in two regions of the Sierras is being challenged by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, who have asked a court to put a pause on the U.S. Forest Service projects.

In 2020 and 2021, the Caste and Windy fires burned through tens of thousands of acres of Sierra forests and caused significant damage to large groves of ancient Giant Sequoia trees. To reduce the risk of future fires, the Forest Service has proposed clearing vast swaths of forest, removing trees and clearing undergrowth.

The plan encompasses two regions that include more than 39,000 acres in the Castle Fire area and an additional 14,000 acres burned by the Windy Fire. Both restoration projects are almost entirely located within the Giant Sequoia National Monument.

On Feb. 22, the Sierra Club, along with the Earth Island Institute and Sequoia ForestKeeper, filed a lawsuit against the forest service. According to Carla Cloer, an educator and conservationist with the Sierra Club, the lawsuit against these projects isn’t meant to prevent the restoration process from happening. She said it seeks to address some concerns the club has with the decisions the Forest Service made.

She explained that the primary concern is the level of environmental study that has been conducted for the projects. There are various levels of studies, and the two restoration projects have only had what Cloer called “cursory” impact examinations.

“The big picture is that the (area) is so big, and has so many different resources it is going to affect, that it absolutely, in our opinion, needs to be examined before it is carried out,” Cloer said. “That is what we are asking the courts to do and have (the Forest Service) write a full-scale environmental impact statement.”

Cloer said that the project will require heavy-duty logging and construction equipment to be brought in that can lead to soil compaction and is certain to kill native seedlings growing in the forest area. She said the trees that are dead which the Forest Service believes are potential fuel for future fires are not the threat the Service makes them out to be.

“Have you ever tried to light a stump without kindling? It won’t burn,” Cloer said. She added that prescribed burns in which the Forest Service intentionally sets fires to clear undergrowth is a better strategy for preventing out of control wildfires.

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“That is something the Sierra club has never stopped or opposed such a thing, in fact, they have recommended using prescribed burning,” Cloer said. “There have been very few prescribed burnings, maybe in the last few years, but before that, there were very few.”

Cloer took issue with the fact that the plan focuses almost entirely on higher-elevation regions within the Monument, but does not address lower elevations that feature much more flammable brush and a larger population.

The environmental impact report presented by the Forest Service acknowledges that there will be harm to endangered and threatened species by the plan as it is proposed, and acknowledges that the plan – as approved – meets standards from 1988, since it was completed before the 2023 update to forest management planning regulations.

They also note there is a risk of impacting the gray wolf pack that only recently has been established in the region.

“In August 2023, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the sighting of the new Tulare County wolf pack. The pack has been sighted within and around the project area,” the project details. “Implementation of design features pertaining to gray wolf…would prevent direct effects on gray wolf by protecting natal dens and rendezvous sites. Design features were added in the BA addendum to provide additional protection measures for the gray wolf pack.”

Cloer said that a more comprehensive investigation into the impacts on the environment are essential to ensure the protection of numerous native species, including bugs and beetles, birds and top predators, like the gray wolves.

Even the dead trees that eventually fall and decompose might be a significant factor in the long-term rehabilitation of forest areas. A planting theory called “hugelkultur” involves the use of building mounds starting with large tree trunks, then adding layers of compostable materials to create a natural growing medium that has been shown to significantly improve water retention, one of the most significant factors climate change has brought to the Sequoias. 

The technique of Hugelkultur has been pioneered by the agriculturist Sepp Holtzer, who has developed the process based on the natural occurrence of forest growth he has experienced. The current Forest Service plan would remove these dead trees and replace them with seedlings grown in a greenhouse. Cloer said the trees that would replace the existing trees may lack genetic diversity the natural environment provides.

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