(Updates story in 14th paragraph with environmental groups opposing the bill.)
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The federal government would be able to fast-track environmental reviews in California’s giant sequoia groves to protect the world’s largest trees from catastrophic wildfires, under a new bipartisan bill.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) will introduce legislation Wednesday that would streamline federal processes to allow quicker tree removal and the clearing of dangerous undergrowth in the approximately 73 giant sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada.
The Save Our Sequoias Act would allow federal agencies that manage the trees—the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service—to expedite assessments required under the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Historic Preservation Act for as many as 2,000 acres within giant sequoia groves, and 3,000 acres surrounding the areas.
Aides on both sides of the aisle who have worked for the last six months on the legislation consider it politically significant because of its bipartisan support, as well as backing from American Indian tribes, state agencies, business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, and several environmental groups, particularly at the local level.
Proponents want to pass the measure before the end of this year. If that doesn’t happen, they’d like to include it in next year’s farm bill, aides said.
The legislation, which as of Tuesday had 12 Republican and 11 Democratic cosponsors, could be a model for how policymakers craft solutions for catastrophic fire across the American West, a Democratic staffer familiar with the bill said.
Giant sequoias can live for thousands of years, are fire-resilient, and are important carbon sinks. Yet hotter fires, severe drought, and the now year-round fire season are decimating giant sequoias at a much faster clip—and taxing federal, state, and tribal resources.
The state of California, federal agencies, and the Tule River Tribe co-manage the public lands where giant sequoias grow. Federal land managers in particular must comply with long-standing conservation laws and navigate litigation related to forest management, which can take years to complete.
Catastrophic wildfires, made worse by climate change, have killed between 13% and 19% of the giant sequoias in the last 15 months, with about 75,000 of the trees remaining.
“More than 85% of all giant sequoia grove acreage across the Sierra Nevada has burned in wildfires between 2015 and 2021, compared to only one quarter in the preceding century,” the National Park Service said in an article on its website.
The bill also would support reforestation in devastated groves, authorizing $325 million over the next decade to federal agencies for sequoia-related protection projects and reforestation, with the bulk of the funding going to the former.
Status Quo ‘Unsustainable’
The Save Our Sequoias Act wouldn’t exempt federal agencies from conducting reviews required under current laws. They would, however, be given more flexibility on timing and choosing the type of assessment used for tree “protection projects,” including prescribed burns and thinning.
The goal is to allow federal agencies to carry out the protection plans for sequoias more quickly, so they can remove hazardous fuel on the forest floor before it ignites a catastrophic wildfire that can kill the trees.
Many national environment groups, including Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, and the League of Conservation Voters, wrote to lawmakers Tuesday opposing the bill. They called it “misguided” and said it would “weaken existing environment law” to help the logging industry, and “undermine the ecological integrity of the sequoia groves.”
But nonprofit Save the Redwoods League issued a statement in support of the bill, calling the status quo “unsustainable” and praising the legislation for offering park and forest managers “the science-based tools and flexibility they need to save our sequoia.”
The measure was also welcomed by a state official.
“Climate-generated wildfires have caused enormous damage throughout California,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego), said in a statement. “Without immediate action by the federal government, wildfires could also destroy even more of California’s iconic environmental treasures,” including giant sequoias, she said.
McCarthy and other lawmakers will hold a press conference Thursday to discuss the legislation.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org