Battle of the giants: Why saving giant sequoia isn't just about climate change

Battle of the giants: Why saving giant sequoia isn't just about climate change
© (National Wildfire Coordinating Group/InciWeb)

Wawona, toos-pung-ish, Hea-mi-withic, Sequoiadendron giganteum, giant sequoia: Whichever language you speak, each of these words can evoke a sense of wonder when we call out its name. Our love for these trees can transcend cultures, reminding us how much we are truly connected by the power of nature. But with devasting fires ravaging across the only region where giant sequoia exists, we are all in jeopardy of losing that connection.

Over the last two weeks we’ve seen desperate attempts to save giant sequoia from wildfires. Photos of firefighters wrapping some of the largest and oldest trees in the world in fire resistant blankets went viral, depicting a frantic response to protect this iconic archetype of California. Images like these can certainly pull at the heartstrings of the world, causing many people to question the events that led us here. The prevailing narrative being pushed by major media outlets is that climate-driven wildfires are to blame.

But for scientists that study wildfires, we know that climate change isn’t the only monster in this battle to save giant sequoia. Our current approach to forest management is the other beast lurking in the shadows and its effects can be more insidious than climate change. That’s because it’s a problem that we’ve created for ourselves but seem to lack the courage to address.

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Many of the groves impacted by recent wildfires are contained within the Sequoia National Monument, which encompasses over 300,000 acres and about 33 giant sequoia groves. When the National Monument was created in 2000, its establishment was aimed to protect the unique resources found only in sequoia groves. But these protections simply aren’t working.

Former President Clinton’s proclamation already recognized that these forests needed management to reverse “the effects of a century of fire suppression and logging,” with one “of the most immediate consequences of these changes is an increased hazard of wildfires.” Indeed, over a century of aggressive fire suppression policies had drastically altered these forests. Increased tree densities and fuels eventually caused these forests to be more susceptible to large-scale disturbances like drought, insect outbreaks and wildfires. But the national monument restricted how these groves could be managed, essentially cornering us into laissez-faire forest management. This decision would inevitably reflect my worst fears — that our inability to restore groves and treat fuels effectively would lead to widespread sequoia mortality.

Our lackluster management response to unhealthy forest conditions came to a head when an unprecedented drought in California from 2012 to 2016 killed over 129 million trees. In the southern Sierra Nevada, where most of the giant sequoia groves are located, some areas experienced more than 50 percent tree mortality. These dead trees ultimately became fuels that were ready to burn when the Castle Fire blazed through multiple sequoia groves in 2020. I believe that these are the same fuels driving the current fires that are threatening more sequoia groves today. If the impacts of these current fires resemble what happened in 2020, we will see additional mortality tacked onto the 10 to 14 percent of the world’s large giant sequoia population already lost to the Castle Fire last year. It’s an absolute tragedy.

California is a state with a long history of drought and fire, but giant sequoia have stood the test of time. Trees of that size and age should not die at the levels we’re seeing in a single fire. It is simply not normal. This is a difficult reality that we have to face but prompts an overdue question that we need to ask ourselves. How long will we continue absolve ourselves from the responsibility of managing our forests by selectively hearing that climate change is our biggest problem?

Our willingness to minimize forest management when addressing California’s wildfire problem will ultimately limit our ability to protect sequoia groves, regardless of how we deal with climate change. I am not denying that climate change has an impact — climate is a fundamental component of fire behavior. However, climate change should not overshadow the importance that forest management has in this fight.

The management plan for the national monument was amended in 2012, but its contents were outdated even for its time. By then, an overwhelming amount of research showed that forest thinning could effectively reduce fire behavior. But the U.S. Forest Service still only designated 23 percent of the national monument as areas where they may allow thinning. We now know that this wasn’t enough.

The national monument is a prime example of how misguided beliefs of conservation can do more harm than good. So, we keep finding ourselves frantically reacting to wildfires despite decades of research showing us how we can proactively mitigate them. It’s a vicious cycle of gross negligence and we need to end it. But how?

Ultimately, the pace and scale at which we manage sequoia groves is failing to keep up with the pace and scale of climate change. We need more thinning and prescribed burning. Unfortunately, doing this in California has been a constant struggle because socio-political barriers hinder us from doing good work. We must streamline approval processes that will help land managers conduct operations before lawsuits prevent projects from getting off the ground. Forest practice rules have to be redesigned so we can use innovative treatments that promote forest resiliency. We need to invest in our infrastructure and workforce so that we have the capacity to conduct these operations on much larger scales. This past week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared $1.5 billion dollars for wildfire prevention and forest management. It’s the step in the right direction, but I hope he won’t be afraid to invest that money in projects that will actually make a difference.

Wawona, toos-pung-ish, Hea-mi-withic, Sequoiadendron giganteum, giant sequoia. Call out its name and take action. Let’s not look back at this moment in history and think, “we should have done more.” We can do more — it’s more forest management.

Alexis Bernal is a research assistant in University of California, Berkeley’s Stephens Lab where her most recent research looks at management impacts on giant sequoia mortality from the Castle Fire.