The PCTA opposes the mis-named “Save Our Sequoias Act”

In the face of ever-increasing wildfire threats and a changing climate, the iconic Giant Sequoia groves of the Sierra Nevada are in the crosshairs.

The Grizzly Giant in Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove. Photo by Giuseppe Milo,

“Six of the seven largest wildfires in California history have occurred in the past two years, and in that period, up to nearly one fifth of all naturally-occurring large giant sequoias on Earth have been killed,” the Washington Post recently reported.

It should be an easy call to support a bill introduced in Congress entitled the “Save Our Sequoias Act.” But this bill, while striving to tackle a huge threat, falls far short.

H.R. 8168, the “Save Our Sequoias Act” cosponsored by Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Scott Peters (D-CA), could potentially expedite harmful logging operations in Giant Sequoia groves and their surrounding landscapes by minimizing required thorough environmental studies and community involvement that usually inform the decision-making processes.

The PCTA believes strongly in the laws that govern the management of our environment. We’ve noticed a troubling trend of late in attempts to sidestep these laws for the sake of expediency. That’s why in June, the PCTA joined a coalition of more than 80 conservation groups to send a letter to Congress opposing H.R. 8168.

A burnt Giant Sequoia in the Sierra National Forest, California, where the Rough Fire raged in 2015. Often despite severe fire damage (some burned completely hollow) Giant Sequoias can survive for centuries. Continually new wood grows from either side of a fire scar, covering a little more each year until the injury is healed like a new skin on a body. Cross-sections of logged Sequoias disclose many cases where fire scars have completely healed after the damage was incurred. The Rough Fire near Hume Lake in the Sierra National Forest, CA began on Jul. 30, 2015 and was caused by lightning. USFS photo.

There’s no arguing that protecting the Giant Sequoias is an important goal, and there is much to support in this bill. For instance, the bill would create a “Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition” of state and federal agency officials, tribes, academics, and other interest groups to assess the health of these trees and propose restoration and reforestation projects. This could focus attention like never before on the threats to forests in California.

Within six months after its first meeting, the coalition would be required to provide Congress with a “Giant Sequoia Health and Resiliency Assessment” based on the best available science. The assessment would examine “how historical, Tribal, or current approaches to wildland fire suppression and forest management activities across various jurisdictions have impacted the health and resiliency of giant sequoia groves…”

Sounds great.

The bill even would provide funding to do all the work, $10 million in Fiscal Year 2024, $25 million in 2025, $30 million a year for 2026-28 and $40 million a year for 2029-33. That’s crucial.

Instead of following requirements set to safeguard against unnecessarily aggressive management and environmental impacts, this bill would declare an emergency—and while the emergency is in effect, any responsible official could do protection work (like logging, thinning, control burns, brush removal, and road building) before initiating any analysis under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

That means the bill would severely undercut existing environmental laws and the protections they provide. Without these bedrock laws, the threats of wildfire and climate change to the Giant Sequoias and the surrounding forests would be exacerbated.

This sets a bad precedent. The weakening of environmental laws would have far-reaching repercussions nationwide on other sensitive or endangered landscapes, even those not threatened by wildfire. This could have negative effects on the way other PCT landscapes are managed.

“We totally agree with the sentiment, except for the idea of undercutting NEPA and other protections to expedite these projects,” said Justin Kooyman, PCTA’s Associate Director of Trail Operations. “We need bills that would provide our federal land managers with more money and staff to do the necessary studies and move projects forward more quickly.”

“I continue to think it’s a slippery slope to use the urgency of the situation (which is very real) to justify bypassing NEPA and other bedrock environmental laws. Those laws were enacted to ensure that public opinion, local community concerns, and environmental effects are thoroughly considered before projects are carried out.” —Justin Kooyman, PCTA Associate Director of Trail Operations

As written, the bill would remove the NEPA process for decision making on land management activities and would place decisions in the hands of the above-mentioned coalition, which would not have to follow standard transparency requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. That means that community members, scientists, and others who might normally be involved could easily and legally be left out of the process.

NEPA’s deliberative and public process is often criticized for being slow. That’s a valid concern that should be addressed, but not like this. This legislation would lead to rushed and poorly planned logging projects with major impacts on soil, streams, wildlife, and recreation opportunities. These activities could increase wildfire risk over time, not diminish it.

And if that’s not enough, the bill would even amend the Wilderness Act of 1964, America’s strongest public lands conservation law, so that it supposedly would not interfere in the planting of Giant Sequoias. But there is absolutely no evidence that the Wilderness Act impedes land managers from planting Giant Sequoias. This would be the first amendment to the Wilderness Act since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act explicitly allowed wheelchairs in wilderness. While that amendment to the iconic conservation law was widely supported, this proposed amendment is wholly unnecessary and could open the Wilderness Act to many other amendments from those who want to see it weakened.

Giant Sequoia in the Sierra National Forest, California. USFS photo.

Yes, we have a wildfire problem. It’s largely a climate problem. Work needs to be done to save these magnificent trees. We make our forests more resilient to ongoing change by arming our public land managers with the staff and finances to do the necessary work—within the framework of our protective laws. Scientific study and public engagement are integral to managing our public lands and should not be circumvented. This is how we will protect the outdoor places we love to visit—landscapes that are crucial to a climate resilient future.

You can help. Please contact your congressional representatives and urge them to support efforts to save Giant Sequoias without gutting our nation’s important environmental laws. To support the PCTA’s ongoing advocacy work, please become a member.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.