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Congressman Scott Peters

Representing the 52nd District of California

Opinion: Here’s how the Save Our Sequoias Act will help California’s beloved trees

Aug 4, 2022
In The News

Opponents of the Save Our Sequoias Act claim that adapting the environmental review to save sequoias is a ‘slippery slope’ that will lead to industrial-scale logging and weakening of federal laws. That’s false.

California’s majestic sequoia trees are the largest trees in the world, reaching heights of over 300 feet. They live for thousands of years because their massive trunks are both insect- and fireproof. They’ve been considered virtually indestructible — until now.

During 2020 and 2021, massive wildfires killed as much as 19 percent of all remaining sequoias — a loss that is unprecedented in recent history. The last significant loss of these trees to wildfires was over 750 years ago.

It used to be that natural, lower intensity fires would clear the dead shrubs and trees that grow in and around sequoias and helped sequoia seeds to regenerate. However, for most of the 20th century, federal land managers erroneously suppressed these smaller fires due to fear of losing timber and threatening communities.

As a result, smaller trees that natural fires would have cleared have grown near the giant sequoias, tall enough to carry fire into the sequoia canopies. Fires that reach the canopies, which don’t have the same fire resistance as their impenetrable trunks, kill the trees. Climate-change-fueled record temperatures and extreme drought have further exacerbated the problem. Now, high-severity fires can destroy entire sequoia groves, leaving nothing behind to regenerate.

Scientists state we have a “narrowing window of opportunity” to protect the giant sequoias, as one study in the journal Elsevier noted this year. Fortunately, we know what must be done: active removal of the hazardous fuel that’s causing these trees to burn. To do this, Congress must provide federal land managers with the money and authority to act quickly.

In June, I, along with colleagues from both political parties, introduced the Save Our Sequoias Act. We did so after visiting Sequoia National Forest and months of consultation with U.S. Forest and Park Service, Cal Fire, tribal leaders, environmentalists and scientists. It’s backed by more than 100 organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, the Save the Redwoods League, Citizens’ Climate Lobby and 49 Democratic and Republican U.S. representatives. It’s urgently needed. Congress should pass it immediately.

First, the Save Our Sequoias Act authorizes $325 million over 10 years to hire staff, complete environmental reviews, purchase equipment to set controlled low-intensity fires and remove dead trees from sequoia groves.

Second, the bill adapts environmental review to the task at hand. We know what we must do, and we could start tomorrow. However, current environmental law requires multiple different environmental assessments prior to taking any action to protect giant sequoias. These assessments themselves can take up to a decade to complete because of litigation and excessive analysis. The time it takes to conduct these reviews will be lethal to sequoias. It would take the U.S. Forest Service, using currently allowed methods, approximately 52 years to treat just the 19 most at-risk giant sequoia groves. At that pace, giant sequoias will be gone in 25 years. We need to move much, much faster. The Save Our Sequoias Act declares an emergency under the applicable environmental laws within precisely defined perimeters around the sequoia groves to allow land managers to remove hazardous fuels quickly.

Third, the bill requires coordination between federal, state, tribal and local land managers to rely on the best available science and local practices. For example, Indigenous peoples have been effectively managing giant sequoia groves for thousands of years, including by setting controlled fires to restore natural landscapes. Forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their land and subsequent criminalization of their cultural practices further contributed to the dangerous land conditions today. The bill ensures the Tule River Tribe’s Traditional Ecological Knowledge informs future decisions. That’s partially why the tribe supports the Save Our Sequoias Act.

Protecting giant sequoias also slows climate change because wildfires release carbon dioxide and black carbon into the atmosphere. In 2020, California wildfires released more carbon emissions than the state’s power sector. New research suggests wildfire emissions are causing super-polluting methane to stay in the atmosphere longer. Also, the sequoias rank second only to coastal redwoods in their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Protecting them slows climate change; letting them burn makes it worse.

Opponents of the Save Our Sequoias Act claim that adapting the environmental review to save sequoias is a “slippery slope” that will lead to industrial-scale logging and weakening of federal laws. That’s false. The bill is precisely defined to allow clearing of excess hazardous fuels in and around these trees only. Nothing more. And the alternative is worse than a slippery slope — it’s a swift and straight path toward extinction for these iconic trees.

In times of crisis, we must do things differently. The status quo means losing the giant sequoias forever.