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Sequoias safe for now, as lawmakers debate forest policies

Narrow escape for a national treasure fuels debate about how to reduce wildfires in Yosemite and other federal lands

A firefighter waters down hot spots from the Washburn Fire in Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Monday.
A firefighter waters down hot spots from the Washburn Fire in Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Monday. (AFP via Getty Images)

Giant sequoias — thousand-year-old trees as large as 275 feet tall — came under threat this month from wildfires raging in central California’s Yosemite National Park, though firefighters have reported the blaze was contained before it encroached on trees in the park’s famous Mariposa Grove. 

The narrow escape for a national treasure has sparked debate in Congress about how to reduce wildfires in Yosemite and other nearby federal lands, pitting lawmakers from both parties against conservationists who fear legislative proposals could open the door to excessive timber-cutting in national forests.

Mariposa Grove, home to 30 giant sequoias, has survived the Washburn fire and “remains in good health and a healthier habitat has been created for local flora and fauna,” the National Wildfire Coordinating Group reported in an update Wednesday. The federal interagency report blamed dangerous wildfire conditions on excessively accumulated biomass on the forest floor, including leaves and tree branches. 

“For many years there has been a concerted effort to reduce the large amounts of trees (both living and dead) in certain areas within Yosemite National Park,” the report said. “This never-ending task involves thinning trees with a variety of masticating and chipping equipment, chainsaws and through the use of low-intensity ground fire when conditions permit.” 

“The high severity fire activity we are currently experiencing on the Washburn Fire is the result of fire being fueled by a large forested area with an extremely concentrated biomass,” the report said.

A bipartisan House bill, the Save Our Sequoias Act, aims to cut through the bureaucracy that some say is tying up forest management for years and leading to these dangerous forest conditions. The proposal is backed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., plus another 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats. 

McCarthy’s district encompasses Sequoia National Forest, which is home to the largest sequoias, including General Sherman, the largest tree on Earth and estimated to be over 2,300 years old. Sequoia National Forest lies just south of Yosemite and northeast of Bakersfield. 

“I have personally seen the destruction that fires have wreaked on the Giant Sequoias, and this is an emergency,” McCarthy told CQ Roll Call in an email via a spokesperson. “The SOS Act is specifically designed to protect these iconic trees by building on bipartisan policies already enacted into law and emergency procedures already in regulation.”

“The bottom line: our generation cannot be the ones who are responsible for the extinction of Giant Sequoias,” McCarthy added. 

‘Trojan horse’

Scores of conservation groups, including Earthjustice and the League of Conservation Voters, are criticizing the proposal as a “Trojan horse” that would allow the skirting of environmental regulations under the guise of a wildfire emergency. 

“It’s nothing more than a Trojan horse to diminish important environmental reviews and cut science and communities out of the decision-making process,” Earthjustice’s senior legislative representative, Blaine Miller-McFeeley, said in a statement. 

Environmental law firm Earthjustice was among the 80 conservation groups that urged Congress in a letter last month to oppose the bill, warning that “bedrock environmental laws” including the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act would be “severely undercut” if it passed.

McCarthy pushed back on the environmental groups’ opposition, in the email to CQ Roll Call.

“The knee-jerk opposition to the SOS Act by these groups, who purportedly are in support of protecting Giant Sequoias, is disappointing, but not at all surprising,” McCarthy said. “Perhaps opponents of this bill should visit the groves to see the destruction firsthand — it might change their minds.”

Another of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., is a former forester who holds a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University. He is ranking member of House Natural Resources Committee, which has concurrent jurisdiction over the proposal with the Agriculture Committee. 

Westerman echoed concerns from the National Park Service report that the wildfires are driven by too much accumulated biomass and called for urgent action. 

“The fact that the federal government has sat on its hands and let wildfires burn hotter and stronger every year is a travesty, and now these fires are threatening to turn whole Sequoia groves into ash,” Westerman said in a statement when the bill was introduced in June. “We’ve traveled to the Sequoia groves and talked to the federal, state, tribal and local land managers who oversee them, and every person on the ground shared just how important it is for Congress to take swift, comprehensive action.” 

Some supporters of the bill have pointed out that federal regulations already allow for officials to make “emergency alternative arrangements” to sidestep normal requirements, such as the preparation of an environmental impact statement, in an agency-deemed emergency. 

The latest House bill establishes a sequoia conservation fund and allocates $350 million over 10 years, with at least 90 percent of it going to emergency response and restoration. 

The bill would also convene a Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition — composed of a dozen federal, state and tribal representatives and with private organizations as affiliate members — to determine the need for such emergency forest management measures.

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