The “Save Our Sequoias Act” was introduced last week in a rare bipartisan effort by California Democratic Rep. Scott Peters of San Diego, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, CA, and Republican Bruce Westerman of Arkansas along with several other co-sponsors.
As first reported by the San Fransisco Chronicle, bill HR 8168 would declare a federal emergency to expedite decision-making in order to protect the behemoths from further wildfire destruction, which has been a critical issue in recent years. If the bill passes emergency decisions would be made the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition—a collection of public and private groups and agencies including National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, California State Parks, and UC Berkeley.
But an opposing coalition of over 80 conservation groups—including Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife and League of Conservation Voters—have published a rebuke of the bill.
“Protecting the iconic Giant Sequoias is an important goal,” the coalition’s letter states, “but this legislation would weaken existing environmental law to expedite potentially harmful logging projects that undermine the ecological integrity of sequoia groves and will do nothing to protect these trees.”
The opponents contend that the bill would essentially allow for the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition to bypass vital environmental protection regulations such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and National Historical Preservation Act (NHPA). “Our primary objections are to Section 6(a)(2), which would waive environmental laws under a broad so-called “emergency”.
For the opposing groups, it comes down to transparency, inclusivity, and science in decision-making.
“These folks in this coalition are already part of that decision process. We just think that they shouldn’t be the only ones,” Blaine Miller-McFeeley, Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative, told LAMag. “We are supportive of protecting these large trees. We just want it to be done with science in mind and with community input in mind,“ he said. “And when you take out the process that’s been set up through something like NEPA, it picks and chooses whose voices we actually get to listen to.”
By establishing this emergency, the group believes the bill could potentially have a damaging impact that extends beyond the Giant Sequoia groves.
“Despite its local focus, the bill would set a precedent for further weakening of environmental laws that could have far-reaching repercussions nationwide,” Miller-McFeeley said in a press release. “It’s nothing more than a trojan horse to diminish important environmental reviews and cut science and communities out of the decision-making process.”
But proponents disagree with the letter’s allegations.
“The knee-jerk opposition to the SOS Act by these groups, who purportedly are in support of protecting Giant Sequoias, is disappointing, but not at all surprising,” House Minority Leader McCarthy told LAMag. “The SOS Act is specifically designed to protect these iconic trees by building on bipartisan policies already enacted into law and emergency procedures already in regulation.”
Rep. Peters responded: “After months of negotiations, we moved forward with a draft that anticipated the false claims in the opposition letter to the SOS Act. Proof of our attention to these matters is evident as the Save Our Sequoias Act garnered robust support from over 90 organizations, including groups from communities threatened by intense wildfires just like the sequoias.”
More than 90 organizations support the bill, including: American Conservation Coalition, American Forest & Paper Association, American Forest Foundation, Carbon180, Edison International, Giant Sequoia National Monument Association, Hardwood Federation, Inter-Tribal Timber Council, Outdoor Industry Association, Public Lands Council, PG&E, and Wildfire Management Institute.
Until recently, Giant Sequoia fire deaths were “almost never observed by scientists,” the National Parks Service said, but climate change, drought, and years of fire suppression have taken their toll on the giants, the Chronicle reported. The giants can live up to 3,000 years and are located on the western flanks of the Sierra Nevada—the largest having been reported to reach 316 feet tall. What is concerning is that although the trees have evolved to coexist with and at times depend on fire, even their mighty strength has been tested in recent years. Sequoia National Park has said that 7,500 to 10,600 mature sequoias—about 10 percent of the total population—died during the Castle Fire that burned 174,178 acres in 2020 according to the Chronicle.
“[The Giant Sequoias] are in the middle of an existential crisis,” Sam Hodder, CEO of the save the Redwoods League (a member of the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition) told us. “Twenty percent mortality for a finite natural resource in five years alone—that is not facing grave danger that is on a pathway to extinction.”
The Executive Director of the Sequoia Parks Conservancy, Savannah Boiano, also emphasized the importance of immediate action. “We have to act on this now,” she said, clarifying that the legislation does not give the land managers the right to do whatever they want. “I am 100 percent confident in this group of land managers.”
Still, two of the opposing groups (Earthjustice and Defenders of Wildlife) say that the forest service is already flush with cash from the recent infrastructure bill, and that what matters is how those funds are allocated.
“There’s no shortage of bad ideas with bipartisan support in Congress,” Bart Johnsen-Harris Senior Government Relations Representative for Defenders of Wildlife says. “I can tell you that last year’s infrastructure bill included $3.369 billion for wildfire risk reduction,” he says. The bill also allocated $1.4 billion for ecosystem restoration and resilience. “So, I’m not sure that at this point, I would advocate for more money for the Forest Service.”
The Save Our Sequoias Act would provide $325 million to protect the trees in the next 10 years.
Miller-McFeeley added that allowing the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition to move more quickly “will actually bring problematic projects forward. The real answer on NEPA and permitting is really to fund the offices that make the decisions and to fund the agencies that are putting them into place on the ground. And we just did that the bipartisan infrastructure bill that included [funds] for forest management, on fire mitigation.”
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