Saving Sequoias amid “Yesterday’s Solutions”: The Park Service Changes Course

A firefighter in Yosemite National Park scrapes material away from a giant sequoia during the Washburn Fire in July 2022. NPS photo by Garrett Dickman.

Since Thomas Sowell is a Californian (albeit a Coastal), I thought a few of his quotes are relevant to our federal lands policy world.

“On closer scrutiny, it turns out that many of today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions.”

For dry forest areas, the good intentions of “not killing lots of people and burning towns” led to fire suppression. That worked until..
Fire suppression led to fuels buildup.
And the idea..
Let’s leave forests alone and not take trees (fuels) out. An idea that developed in the more populated mesic areas of the country. That worked until..

Fuel buildups, more people igniting, climate change, and other factors.. led to large wildfires that kill people and burn towns.

Another Sowell quote:

There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.

What have we learned from this cycle? Thanks to Bill Gabbert for this ..

Garrett Dickman is a biologist at Yosemite National Park.

“These next couple of years could be bad in ways we haven’t experienced yet,” Garrett says. The Park Service knows what’s coming. After 60 years trying to walk backward by managing their lands to be what conservationist Starker Leopold, who devised the agency’s guiding philosophy from the late 1960s until 2021, called “vignettes of primitive America,” the Park Service has changed course to officially recognize that park managers must intervene in ways considered antithetical to their mission two years earlier. The new policy asks the public to open its mind to everything from mechanical thinning to very limited logging. “We saw how it goes when you don’t do anything,” Christy says. “It goes terribly. It goes thousands of 2,000 year old trees burned up in an instant.”

“We don’t get to have nice things anymore,” Garrett says.”

“The Clean Water Act. The National Environmental Policy Act. The National Historic Preservation Act. The Threatened and Endangered Species Act. Fantastic laws all of them,” Christy says. “But they were built at a time when the main threat was people doing bad things—logging, mining. Now the main threat is inaction. Bureaucracy is slow. Wildfire is fast. And bureaucracy needs to get a hell of a lot faster if we want to persist and not lose everything we’ve got left.”

Aside from the difference between “mechanical thinning” and “logging” seems like the Park Service knows what it needs to do to protect old growth Sequoias. I wonder why the Forest Service and BLM have to go through an elaborate national process to possibly figure out the same thing. Whose ends is that serving? Is it simply an exercise (taking much agency and NGO time) to prove to certain ENGOs that doubling down on yesterday’s solutions that exacerbate today’s problems is a really bad idea?

35 thoughts on “Saving Sequoias amid “Yesterday’s Solutions”: The Park Service Changes Course”

  1. Are you suggesting that NPS is not also bound by NEPA, ESA, NHPA, and other laws?

    Perhaps the situation is that NPS is simply better at navigating those laws and the public. There are likely lessons to be learned there.

    • Of course not. And they are being litigated and having their NEPA questioned.
      Even Jon and I don’t understand why they need to tier a CE.
      I’m just saying that at least one Park scientist has the view that thinning needs to be done, given today’s conditions, to protect these sequoias. It’s separate thing, to me, if those trees are burned in piles (releasing carbon and particulates) or converted to something else.

    • They tend to have much more flexibility in their Organic legislation. Each park is essentially guided by the rules set out upon their founding. The land mgmt agencies are a one size fits all (outside of Idaho and it’s intervening roadless rule) despite the large ecological variation.

  2. I asked the Park’s new ‘Fire Boss’ about recent botched fire incidents. He admitted that many mistakes were made, and that they were re-evaluating some of their past practices. Letting fires burn sometimes results in beneficial fuel reductions, but there needs to be more flexibility and capacity to fully suppress some fires, when conditions indicate the potential for a ‘bad’ wildfire. Allowing forests next to highways in the Park to burn intensely is not in anyone’s interest. The idea of ‘free-range’ wildfires is not a good one, these days.

    Yosemite makes a great ‘fire laboratory’, but it often shows us what not to do in our National Forests. I do support hazard tree projects in Yosemite, but not commercial thinning.

    • Larry: Why do you oppose “commercial thinning” to protect the remaining Sequoias? If a functional business is in the best position with trained personnel and appropriate equipment, why not have the excess ground fuels and ladder fuels removed professionally? The current system certainly is a failure, and we pay people to manage these parks and maintain infrastructure — so why not vegetation management, too?

      • Skidding logs in a Giant Sequoia grove isn’t advisable. There are lots of alternatives, which are substantially less controversial, and similar in results. It does seem like their previous work has helped to ‘save’ the grove. Of course, some people think it is OK for 400 year old sugar pines to die in the same wildfire. Just steer it off into “the wilderness”. The Park Service in Yosemite does seem to be more proactive, but I am guessing that the limitations are affecting the execution of some newer ideas.

      • I also know that a professional logging crew could do some limited logging, with minimal impacts. There would be ample use of cable winches, which could drag logs out, without the equipment driving in. A key to that idea is directional felling, including the use of tree jacks, to put the trees right where they can be winched out. Maybe it could be a ‘service contract’, with the logs being used for Park amenities? It would surely be a huge showcase for surgical forest management.

        The public would hate the idea of cutting and selling green trees from a sequoia grove.

        • How about balloon logging, Larry, and lifting the logs straight up, as they’ve done in western Oregon? Would that work? Also, it continues to amaze me that the public actually prefers the increasing large and severe wildfires of the past few decades, to the judicious — and profitable — occasional removal of trees and snags as needed. But you are right, they continue to do so, and I remain confused.

          • I’m not sure we know what the “public” prefers. How would we know? We’d have to present them with our version of the trade-offs and then people who disagree would present their version. The public would then ask questions of those representing all “sides.”

            THEN we would know for sure (about that sample, anyway) but no one does this. Otherwise we’re guessing.

            • Sharon: You’re right, of course. I think when Larry and I were referring to “the public,” we were actually referring to the lawsuits, editorials, and media reports that seem to shape public opinion. I do know from repeated experiences that once the Fall rains hit, very little additional attention is given to the wildfires they finally extinguish. Followed by the insulting claims of “Global Warming did it” from our politicians and agency reps. You could look it up.

  3. “Aside from the difference between “mechanical thinning” and “logging” seems like the Park Service knows what it needs to do to protect old growth Sequoias. I wonder why the Forest Service and BLM have to go through an elaborate national process to possibly figure out the same thing. Whose ends is that serving?”

    Having worked for all three major land management agencies there are significant cultural differences between the agencies.

    The NPS planning process is make the decision first, then setup an analysis process that supports their decision. The public and political involvement process is to insure that the decision is supported by those folks.

    The Forest Service planning process is to inventory first. Then hope that the decision will be so obvious that the public and political involvement process will confirm the Forest service. Yep, that didn’t work at all!!!

    The BLM planning process is to do everything slowly, hoping that at some point there will be a window politically that their decision can slip through.

    I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1972. Professor Biswell was actively managing the Giant Sequoia grove owned by the University at that time. There is nothing different that the Park Service is doing today.

    Every forester knows what needs to be done in the Giant Sequoia stands and has known that for decades.

    • See my comment above Vladimir. You get it right in re the differences in the planning process. The question, though, isn’t a matter of culture. It’s the Organic legislation.

  4. Re-arrange the deck chairs on the titanic all you want… There’s no fuels treatment or logging prescriptions that can protect these giant trees from climate change driven high intensity fires.

    Reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is the only way to reduce these weather-driven catastrophes. Yet, for some reason, hoping against hope, people act like that’s not an option. Again and again the science of high severity wildfire makes it clear that It’s not a forests fuels problems once the drought and wind speeds (weather) gets more and more severe year after year, it’s a fossil fuels in the atmosphere problem.

    • Yawn. Same old same old.
      Literally, factually, and actually, prescribed burning and ladder fuel treatments saved the Mariposa Grove from a human caused fire burning in hot, dry, windy conditions.
      But continue onward with the rhetoric, chicken little.

  5. I attended a webinar this past week that was presented by the authors of a study on place names in National Parks and how those place names memorialize colonialism, racism, violence against indigenous people, etc. One thing they said was that the myth of pristine/un-touched landscape is a concept that had to be invented so it could be protected in national parks. Most of our national parks were stewarded and managed by indigenous people for millennia….it’s time to change the narrative/concept…

  6. There are certainly lessons to be learned but if you are studying fire history, you can’t leave out the 1910 fire and the Peshtigo Fire. I don’t believe there had been all that much fire suppression in Northern Idaho and Western Montana prior to 1910 but yet, it burned 3 million acres.

    The Peshtigo Fire burned 1.2 million acres and killed over 1,500 people. A major cause of that fire was land management at that time, slash and burn agriculture, heavy logging slash, etc.

    Sometimes, crap happens and this is not a new phenomenon. No doubt that some of the limitations of NPS management should be looked at. I have seen lots of thinning and hand piling in Parks, GCNP in particular, so it seems like it is not something that is off the table. If they have a problem with mechanical thinning, they should most likely rethink that.

  7. Perhaps the quote offered at the beginning of the post should be applied to today’s practices: “On closer scrutiny, it turns out that many of today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions.”
    Probably will be in the future.

      • I think what Sowell means is that people with good intentions developed interventions in the past that had their own downsides that (of course) they weren’t aware of. I think that is true of total fire suppression, as well as “leaving everything alone.”

        I think Sowell’s point was not that learning is an iterative process. but that those thinking that they have the right answer should be humble and treat the “solution” a bit as a hypothesis so that the flaws can be seen sooner rather than later. Sometimes people who believe they have the solution are unwilling to address the flaws with the intervention as they develop.

        What we humble forest people might call “adaptive management”.

        • “I think that is true of total fire suppression, as well as “leaving everything alone.”” I call “false equivalence,” at least if you are extending it beyond the Park Service. The FS and BLM have a few places where they might try to leave everything alone, whereas their fire suppression policy was historically “total.” I think the effect of doing nothing is much more debatable than the effect of fire suppression.

          There is one more corollary to Sowell’s first quote. That is if you stop today’s solutions, you will again have yesterday’s problems. I think it is more productive to just recognize tradeoffs, and how the balance changes with new information.

            • “Protected” ≠ “do nothing.” If you are referring to these as “interventions,” I don’t think roadless area designation has had much effect on fire suppression, nor has wilderness designation universally done so, so I’m not sure what problems they have caused.

              • Jon: Wilderness Areas have been bursting into flames the past 35 years, as predicted. The Kalmiopsis alone has burned in 1987, 2002, 2017 and 2018. Jefferson Wilderness with similar fire history. The 2021 Rough Patch Complex in Douglas County was said to have grown out of control in part due to decommissioned roads that had formerly supplied access. Approximately 1% salvage planned for the entire Umpqua National Forest for fires of the past 15 years. These are the predictable problems created because yes, “protected” seems to be pretty much the same as “do nothing.” You could look it up.

                • If you’re trying to say that wilderness/roadless designation causes forest fires, I don’t think that would hold up to facts. But my point was that fire suppression is still common in wilderness/roadless areas, which is not “doing nothing” (and to the extent this intervention is successful, it is likely causing a fuels problem).

  8. This just in from the Federal Forest Resource Coalition:

    Forest Service Announces “Emergency” Action to Save Sequoias: The Administration Friday announced that they will use NEPA “Emergency Response” procedures to allow “immediate implementation of fuels reduction treatments” in the Giant Sequoia groves found on National Forest System lands in California. The agency said that the move will “allow work designed with local collaboratives to proceed 9 to 12 months faster than standard procedures.” The move will allow treatments (eventually) on a little more than 13,000 acres.

    “Without urgent action, wildfires could eliminate countless more iconic giant sequoias,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “We can and must do more to protect giant sequoias using all the tools and flexibilities available to us. This emergency action to reduce fuels before a wildfire occurs will protect unburned giant sequoia groves from the risks of high-severity wildfires.”

    The move came following a bipartisan letter sent Tuesday to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) asking the Committee to move the “Save Our Sequoias” Act. “We need to make sure that the pace and scale of hazardous fuels reduction treatments is accelerated across all the Giant Sequoia groves,” the seven members said in their letter to Grijalva.

    “Since the Washburn Fire began, firefighters have been using emergency authorities to clear hazardous fuels in and around the groves and take urgent action to protect Giant Sequoias. But we cannot just manage our Giant Sequoias when the sky is red with smoke and flames; we must proactively treat these groves before fires ignite.”

    The letter was signed by Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-AR) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA), Jim Costa (D-CA), David Valadao (R-CA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) and Tom McClintock (R-CA).

    The letter concludes the Congress does “not have a moment to waste,” and “therefore, we are requesting that the Committee on Natural Resources immediately hold a hearing and markup on the SOS Act. Failing to act while our Giant Sequoias remain under threat is not an acceptable option. We must act now so we are not the generation that kills these 3,000-year-old trees.”

    The Forest Service actions seems intended to blunt consideration of the Save Our Sequoias bill. Internal Forest Service materials say the actions approved this week “show that NEPA can be a flexible tool to address emergency situations.”

    The step by the agency marks the second time they’ve invoked their emergency NEPA authority in the last several weeks, both times applying the rarely used authority in California. “We’re pleased to see the Federal government move to protect these magnificent groves of sequoias,” FFRC Executive Director Bill Imbergamo said. “Unfortunately, tens of millions of acres of National Forest System lands are equally prone to catastrophic fire. The extent of the fire threat on the National Forests has been known for decades, and we continue to see fires that burn entire National Forests in one summer. If the Administration truly grasped the situation on the National Forests, we’d expect them to be proposing much more than this.”

    The 14,000 acres today’s action will allow treatment on (eventually) represent 0.017% of the 80 Million Acres of National Forest System lands then-Chief Christiansen told Congress were at risk in 2019. The Forest Service still has not issued any guidance on how to implement the “Emergency Actions” authority enacted in the Infrastructure bill last November.

    That provision allows the Forest Service to, among other things, to conduct “salvage of dead or dying trees; harvest of trees damaged by wind or ice; commercial and noncommercial sanitation harvest of trees to control insects or disease, reforestation, removal of hazardous trees in close proximity to roads and trails; removal of hazardous fuels; restoration of water sources or infrastructure; the reconstruction of existing utility lines; and the replacement of underground cables.”

  9. This is a response to Bob’s last reply to me, with a link to an article he wrote for “nwmapsco” (since that thread had run out of room). I read it hoping to find some actual analysis, but it just restates the idea that correlation between increased fires and reduced forest management means the latter causes the former. If it’s true that public lands get more than their share of fire (as this paper asserts, but we have debated), that could be for many reasons (and it’s not specific to the wilderness/roadless question I had asked).

    This all comes across to me as an effort to rationalize removing “large fuels” (aka logging). Especially minimizing the benefits of removing small fuels after making the point that it is spring growth (of presumably small fuels) that is the largest determinant of a fire season. Also the recognition that fires depend primarily on humidity and wind (rather than fuels), which both depend on climate.

    (Not being familiar with Lars Larson, what I found when I looked was that he is not known for seeking out the truth:

    • Hi Jon: What is it, exactly, you are looking for? The predictions made regarding these fires have proven accurate and merely summarized in this article. I have written a number of other articles documenting the timing and location of western Oregon (mostly) wildfires covering the past few hundred years. That documentation and related analyses of patterns (ownership, size, clause, extent, date) are the basis for the predictions: observation, documentation, organization, and prediction has been the process.

      Note: This article is one of a series of about three dozen I have written for “Oregon Fish & Wildlife Journal” over the past 10+ years. NW Maps Co. is my 30-year-old family business and is partly used to make my work available online, such as these articles. I’m not too sure who determined that Lars Larson is “not known for seeking out the truth,” or why you chose to repeat that description, but that seems like an odd way to characterize his work. He has been a successful regional and national journalist and talk show host for several decades. I’m pretty sure that both you and I are “not known” for “seeking out the truth,” either, no matter how “truth” is being defined or by whom. Pretty weasely way to describe a total stranger — also misleading: he was only asking questions and it is my responses that are the substance of the interview.

      • Jon: I followed the Lars Larson link you provided and they describe him as : “Lars Larson is a conservative radio talk show host. The “Lars Larson” show runs on 18 radio stations in Oregon and Washington. His Compass Media Networks national show is carried by 200 radio stations around the country. Larson got his start in radio, then reported for KPTV, Channel 12, in Portland for many years.”

        Your characterization is apparently your own opinion, based on claimed personal ignorance and a total of five (“5”) “fact checks” by Politifact, with 40% (“2”) True and 60% (“3”) as Mostly False or False, over a 30 year period. Apparently, your inference was that Larson “was not seeking the truth” when he interviewed me? Jon, I think your bias is showing. I’ve done about 20 interviews with Lars over the past 20+ years, and you can see that he has a large audience. Check it out on Politifact, or follow the links they provide. Also, Lars graduated from High School in Tillamook. Oregon, where his father worked as a forester and he is knowledgeable on the topic

        Note: “cause,” not “clause.” in the previous post. Predictions based on organized patterns of documented events.


Leave a Comment