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Year! Review! Read our 2022 Year in Retrospect Issue!

Don’t sit this one out

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JULY 19, 2022

By now, most Californians know that the Washburn Fire has been burning in and around Yosemite National Park since July 7, 2022. As of July 17, the Fresno Bee was reporting that it is 51% contained – with the fire covering almost 5,000 acres. The fire has been specifically threatening Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, home to more than 500 mature giant sequoias.

Sequoias grow naturally only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. These trees are rare among earthly organisms, because they can live 3,000 years; the oldest among them documented as living 3,500 years. California residents, certainly, and perhaps all people in the United States, have a duty to protect this species for the next generation.

Cicely Muldoon, the superintendent of Yosemite National Park, calls these giant sequoias the root of the whole National Park System. The question is: Are we doing enough to protect them and what are you doing to make this commitment personal?

Why should you care? Most importantly, given their lifespan, they hold our history. Arboriculturists tell us these giant sequoias’ tree rings reveal information about climate change, diseases, fires, floods and more over thousands of years, whereas human records have been systematic for only 200 years at best. These trees may hold the key to understanding how our own species might survive. Furthermore, we have a lot to learn about how they take in nutrients and moisture at their upper leafy extremities, through the fog. The birder watchers among us probably already know that over 30 species have made these groves their home. 

Yosemite has three giant sequoia groves and we find these trees at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Many humans are attracted to these groves as well. Collectively, these parks host about 4.5 million visitors annually.

As John Keats once said, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever, its loveliness increases.” While that is true, since 2020, with the Castle, Windy and KNP fires, we have lost about 10,000 joyful giant sequoias. For all these reasons, we should care. Returning to the focus on the Mariposa Grove at Yosemite, there are four things to commit to memory and action. 

First, Yosemite National Park has been operating on an out-of-date fire management plan that originated in 2004, when conditions in California were dramatically different. 

During consecutive droughts from 2012-2016, a substantial number of trees died. Under the 2004 plan, felled trees were left on the ground to biodegrade. Places such as the Mariposa Grove had no perimeter. While the above plan has since been amended in 2017, it is important to know that only 3,000 acres are treated with its provisions, out of the park’s 16,000 acres.

It talks about using fire for prescribed burns and “thinning out” the tree population. Very recently, the park did a prescribed burn in this area and established a doughnut perimeter. They also installed a temporary sprinkler system. Pay attention to updates to monitor if these measures were enough to save the Mariposa Grove. Ask what can be done in the longer term. 

Second, the Yosemite National Park appears to have a large logging project, underway since May 2022.

The John Muir Project, part of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Earth Island Institute, filed a federal lawsuit, naming Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon in her official capacity, the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior as violating administrative law and raising issues of public transparency. While the hearing has not been scheduled, we should all follow this lawsuit and ask ourselves if what is going on in the park is logging or thinning out.

Third, hold your California public officials accountable for the $53.9 billion allocated in Gov. Newsom’s signed June 30, 2022 budget to protect Californians from extreme weather and to provide advanced fire protection.

As of July 8, 2022, Cal Fire, the statewide agency that fights forest fires, is now conducting night flying expeditions and is at full staffing with additional equipment. Although they do not have sole jurisdiction inside national parks, they work collaboratively with the California Interagency Incident Management Team to try to bring the larger blaze under containment. The public was assured July 12, 2022 that the fire would be kept out of the Mariposa Grove. Can we rely on that?

Fourth, a bipartisan measure was just introduced in Congress (Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield) named the Save Our Sequoias Act, which would provide $350 million, over the course of 10 years. It would do three things: Protect the trees, shortcut environmental review and create a reforestation plan. This could be the answer to a longer-term plan.

Please don’t sit this one out. Actions advocated here include: Monitor recent efforts at Mariposa Grove to save it. Follow the lawsuit. Hold California and nationally elected officials accountable for what has been allocated and bipartisan legislation that could be passed to address this specific problem. 

Our giant sequoias hold our history and perhaps our future for generations to come.

Colleen Friend, Ph. D. is a director at the Cal State LA Child Abuse and Family Violence Institute.

JULY 19, 2022