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Giant sequoias could get the ax

 

In a national monument, the Forest Service wants to cut trees to save them

PORTERVILLE, CALIFORNIA — When President Bill Clinton created Giant Sequoia National Monument, it’s unlikely that he expected to see more logging in the new preserve than on surrounding national forest lands. Yet that’s exactly what may happen under the proposed Forest Service management plan for the monument.

Clinton created the 327,000-acre monument in the Southern Sierra Nevada on April 15, 2000. “These giant sequoia groves and the surrounding forest provide an excellent opportunity to understand the consequences of different approaches to forest restoration,” Clinton said, during a ceremony under the boughs of the ancient trees. “Removal of trees ... from within the monument area may take place only if clearly needed for ecological restoration and maintenance of public safety.”

Three years later, with a different president in office, a new draft management plan for Clinton’s monument could allow logging of up to 10 million board-feet of lumber each year. That’s more logging than is currently allowed in the Forest Service land bordering the monument. It’s also about one-third of the annual logging that occurred on the entire Sequoia National Forest between 1988 and 1999, prior to adoption of a more restrictive management plan called the Sierra Nevada Framework.

Logging in the monument could even include removal of the very trees the monument was established to preserve — the giant sequoias, which are found nowhere else in such abundance.

Log them or burn them?

Sequoia National Forest Supervisor Art Gaffrey, who oversees the monument, says Clinton intended the monument to be a kind of experimental forest, where different management scenarios could be tested for their effect on forest health.

“The Antiquities Act allows the creation of monuments for things of historical value and scientific research,” says Gaffrey. “This is not a national park. It’s a national monument. It is different than other monuments ... that preserve an entity as though it is never changing.” The monument is one of only four national monuments managed by the Forest Service; most national monuments are managed by the Park Service, while many other Clinton-era monuments are the responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management.

Gaffrey’s proposed plan could allow logging of giant sequoias up to 30 inches in diameter — typically 100-year-old trees — and clear-cuts up to two acres in size. Logging could be allowed on up to 8,000 acres of monument lands each year, and would support up to 55 jobs.

Gaffrey says the logging, along with some controlled burning, would open the forest to more sunlight and encourage the growth of sun-loving young sequoias. After more than a century of fire suppression, the forests are too dense, he says, and seedlings are in dangerously short supply.

But critics contend sequoias can be managed effectively using controlled burning alone, as has been done successfully in neighboring Sequoia National Park. The trees need low-intensity fires, they say, because sequoia seeds only disperse and germinate after fires.

“Logging is not a surrogate for fire. That’s a critical point here,” says Chad Hanson, a Sierra Club national board member and director of the John Muir Project.

Thinning trees in the monument is especially worrisome to environmentalists because the land is one of the last strongholds for the Pacific fisher. This fierce cousin of the weasel once roamed throughout the Sierra Nevada, but logging and road-building have reduced its range to isolated pockets in the south — including parts of the monument. The fisher depends on a contiguous forest canopy for hunting and shelter.

Conservationists call the proposed management plan a recipe for the fisher’s extinction. “We’re talking about clear-cutting in giant sequoia groves,” says Keith Hammond of the California Wilderness Coalition. “We think the national monument is a place where you don’t do commercial logging.”

Logging by any other name ...

Gaffrey bristles at the use of the word “logging” to describe the management plan’s methods, preferring the term “mechanical treatment.” He also denies that the Bush administration influenced the management plan.

But that’s little comfort to critics. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer joined the opposition in February, urging the Forest Service to withdraw its draft environmental impact statement for the management plan and start over.

Ken Alex, supervising deputy attorney general, says the report violates the Clinton proclamation, which states that “no part of the monument shall be used in a calculation or provision of a sustained yield of timber.”

Alex says the management plan also contradicts a 1992 proclamation by former president George H.W. Bush that said giant sequoia groves throughout the Sierra “shall not be managed for timber production.”

Gaffrey expects to issue a final environmental impact statement and a decision on the management plan by late summer. Environmentalists say they will appeal the plan if it is approved as proposed.

Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Bakersfield Californian.

• Sequoia National Forest Supervisor Art Gaffrey, 559-784-1500

• John Muir Project, Chad Hanson, 530-273-9290

• To view the draft environmental impact statement for Giant Sequoia National Monument online, go to: www.r5.fs.fed.us/giant_sequoia/.