Wildfires threaten California sequoias. Will a new farm bill measure actually help?

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A revived bipartisan measure in the House of Representatives’ farm bill claims it’ll save California’s giant sequoias from worsening wildfires.

The Save Our Sequoias Act, heralded by former Rep. Kevin McCarthy before he retired in 2023, would allow officials to take emergency actions to protect California’s iconic trees from catastrophic wildfires and other threats, including in Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Yosemite national parks.

But many environmental groups say the act doesn’t live up to the name. Rather, they say by circumventing normally-required environmental reviews, the act could cause unintentional harm.

“It’s just a fictitious problem in search of a solution,” said Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Legislators from both parties and conservation groups say the bill addresses an urgent need to protect giant sequoias, which can live for thousands of years and are among the most fire-resilient trees.

Nearly 20% of the largest, oldest giant sequoias were lost in recent fire seasons, experts told a House of Representatives committee last year.

“All Americans want to protect our environment,” McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said in a statement last year. “The Save Our Sequoias Act offers a common sense, bipartisan solution to poor forest management and the burdensome regulations that make it extremely difficult to protect California’s historic Giant Sequoias.”

Part of the act would waive certain environmental reviews that require the federal government to study the impact of proposed actions before taking them. The government requires analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

The concerns

Hartl and others are concerned that forest management conducted without environmental review could have unintended consequences as well as speed up logging operations, which environmental groups say can harm the ecosystem. And the bill doesn’t address climate change, they said, a driving force behind worsened fires.

Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, Hartl said in an interview, “just want to say, ‘more logging.’ Is it unfortunate that it’s bipartisan? Yes, because it’s just not a good answer to the problem. It’s not particularly well founded in facts.”

The groups are in favor of forest thinning and prescribed burns, said Hartl and Anna Medema, an associate director of legislative and administrative advocacy at the Sierra Club. But federal agencies are already allowed to conduct forest management, they say: Federal dollars should focus on bolstering agencies working in compliance with environmental laws.

“That’s really our major opposition to it,” Medema said in an interview. “It’s not to oppose any management or any treatment in a sequoia grove, but it’s to oppose management and treatment that’s done without proper scientific guidance and without public input as required by those two very important environmental laws.”

The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity were some of more than five dozen groups who penned a letter to the House committee that works on the farm bill last week decrying the Save Our Sequoias Act and other parts of the sweeping agriculture and food legislation that’s normally updated twice a decade.

Legislators in favor of the act say that recent wildfire years have proven the need for swift intervention to protect California’s iconic trees sooner than an environmental review can be completed.

“Like many Californians, since the time I was a kid, have loved the sequoias, whether they’re in the Sierra Nevada or whether they’re further up in the North Coast,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said in an interview. “When you see how they were impacted by recent fires that we had in Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park. This is part of our legacy.”

“We have to do everything we can do from a forest management perspective to protect, preserve and save our redwoods,” said Costa, an original Democratic co-sponsor of the bill. “I think this legislation adds on to the Biden administration’s efforts that are proactive measures to protect them, and that includes authority to states streamline NEPA.”

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said in a statement last year when House lawmakers reintroduced the measure as a separate bill that the act “will restore active management by empowering land managers with critical tools to expeditiously carry out fuels reduction and reforestation projects to save our precious sequoias for future generations.”

About 57% of California forests are federally owned; 40% is controlled privately, and 3% is held by the state.

When not catastrophic, fires are part of regeneration for sequoias, many of which are between 250 and 300 feet tall. Fires on the forest floor cause the trees’ cones to dry out and release seeds. The fire timing burns off debris, exposes soil and allows for sunlight for new trees to grow if others in the surrounding area have fallen.

The farm bill

Congress is still a long way from reaching a final farm bill.

The House, which has a slim GOP majority, and Senate, with a slight Democratic majority, are at odds on some of the largest spending in the bill for issues such as the supplemental nutrition assistance program, crop insurance and commodity prices.

The sequoias measure, if passed as is through the farm bill, would grant authority to the existing Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition — a group of federal, tribal, state and local agencies and organizations — to oversee much of the process of protecting the groves.

Medema expressed concern that extending authority to the group instead of having oversight within the Forest Service, a federal agency, could “muddy the waters of the process and take some public engagement out of it because there aren’t as many strict laws for holding them accountable in a transparent process.”

A spokesperson for the Save The Redwoods League, a nonprofit that is an affiliate member of the coalition, declined to comment after The Bee reached out to multiple coalition members. The spokesperson pointed to remarks from the league’s Director of Science and Conservation Planning Joanna Nelson at a House committee meeting in May 2023.

“Today we’re hearing about the challenges of wildfires — exacerbated by drought, climate change and practices of fire exclusion — which are occurring at a frequency and severity that, if allowed to continue at current rate, could wipe out our irreplaceable and magnificent giant sequoia groves,” Nelson said, saying that nearly 20% of the largest, oldest giant sequoia were lost due to recent catastrophic fire seasons in 2020 and 2021.

“We are short on time in this emergency,” Nelson said. “We also know what to do to meet this emergency. There is substantial evidence that active forest management reduces the risk of giant sequoia mortality in wildfire.”