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San Diego Rep. Scott Peters joined House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to speed protection for California’s iconic giant sequoia groves

Confronting an existential threat to the world’s largest trees, Rep. Scott Peters joined House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on a rescue plan for California’s giant sequoia groves.

Peters, D-San Diego, McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., introduced the Save our Sequoias Act to provide $350 million in federal funding over 10 years to protect the iconic trees, streamline environmental review for restoring groves, and create a reforestation plan.

“You don’t have to convince people of the value of these trees,” Peters said. “People love them, and once you see them, they’re pretty majestic.... This seems like a really important thing to do for California and something that should be bipartisan.”

The trees, which grow for thousands of years, evolved with fire and rarely burned until recently, when catastrophic fires destroyed 19 percent of existing groves over the past three years. The Castle Fire in August 2020 killed an estimated 7,500 to 10,600 giant sequoias, or 10 percent to 14 percent of the Sequoia Nevada population. A year later, the KNP Complex and Windy Fires in September 2021 destroyed as many as 3,600 more.

More than 85 percent of all giant sequoia grove acreage across the Sierra Nevada burned in wildfires between 2015 and 2021, compared to only one quarter in the century before that, according to the National Park Service.

At up to 275 feet high and 20 feet in diameter, giant sequoias are the biggest trees on the planet and some of the most ancient, with “Monarchs” or old-growth sequoias living 2,000 to 3,000 years.

They’re protected by thick, soft bark that grows up to two feet thick and forms natural insulation. Many old-growth sequoias bear fire scars, and the trees actually need flame to germinate. But natural wildfires of previous centuries have swelled into climate-fueled infernos, while overstocked forests allow flames to climb into canopies of giant sequoias.

Peters said he learned of that phenomena during a conversation with House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Westerman, who holds a master’s degree from Yale School of Forestry.

“He told me the story of sequoias, that because we don’t manage the forest very well, a lot of unnatural growth has grown up that’s shade tolerant and conveys fire up to the crown of the sequoia,” Peters said.

Peters and Westerman began drafting legislation to address that risk, and when they learned that the majority of giant sequoia groves are within McCarthy’s district, they enlisted his help as well. McCarthy became the sponsor of the bill, H.R.8168, which Peters said would provide “time and money” to save sequoias from extinction.

Over about eight months they worked with government agencies, environmental groups and other nonprofits to hash out the details. They eventually lined up 35 co-sponsors, nearly evenly split between the parties. In May, several legislators visited Sequoia National Park to view the scorched remains of ravaged groves.

“Looking at these trees that were charred, looking at these trees that were destroyed, we knew we could not sit back and do nothing,” McClintock said at a June press conference on the bill.

The legislation they arrived at would provide $350 million over 10 years to restore the groves; codify the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, an existing partnership between federal, state, tribal and local land managers; create an assessment protocol for the giant trees and establish a reforestation plan to regenerate giant sequoias in groves destroyed by wildfire.

It also streamlines environmental review for removing overstocked growth of other trees and plants, a process that can take years under the usual timeline. At the current rate of implementation, it would take 52 years to review 19 priority groves out of 78 total sequoia groves in the state, said Tom Erb, a senior legislative assistant to Peters.

Lawmakers hope to condense that to a decade for all sequoia groves, by allowing restoration work to start in one area while environmental review is occurring concurrently at other sites. Peters acknowledged that the accelerated timeline isn’t perfect and makes some environmental advocates nervous, but said the alternative would be more dangerous to forests.

“We’ve done a hard look at this and provided targeted environmental review that can happen quickly,” he said. “We can’t wait five, 10 years to do environmental review for each of these groves, or we’ll lose them.”

Peters, McCarthy and others plan to recruit more supporters of the bill, Erb said, and hope to advance it as part of a larger public lands package this summer, or a farm bill next year.