(Adds comment from lawmakers in last two paragraphs.)
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The US Forest Service will use emergency authority to expedite efforts to protect sequoias from severe wildfire.
The move allows the agency immediately to start reducing hazardous fuels in about 13,000 acres of sequoia groves on national forest lands. Dead trees and undergrowth can spark catastrophic blazes and kill the iconic sequoias.
“Without urgent action, wildfires could eliminate countless more iconic giant sequoias,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in a statement. “We can and must do more to protect giant sequoias using all the tools and flexibilities available to us.”
The Washburn Fire near Yosemite National Park in California has burned since early July, threatening the Mariposa sequoia grove there. The prescribed burns the Forest Service put in place ahead of that fire helped avoid further threat to the trees. Catastrophic wildfires, made worse by climate change, have killed between 13% and 19% of the giant sequoias native to the Sierra Nevada in the last 15 months.
Of the 37 giant sequoia groves on federal land in California, all but five have burned or partially burned in recent wildfires, according to the Agriculture Department. About 75,000 of the trees, which can live for thousands of years, remain.
The giant trees are fire-resilient and are important carbon sinks. But 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 administration’s decision, prompted by a request from the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests, streamlines environmental review processes under the National Environmental Policy Act, allowing federal managers to move faster with partners to protect the groves.
But the threat of litigation still looms over the decision, which is why it’s important to codify the emergency authority, according to supporters of the Save Our Sequoias Act (H.R. 8168).
The bill would allow all federal agencies that manage the trees—the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service—to expedite assessments required under NEPA, the 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.
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.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) are the lead sponsors on the legislation, which has the support of more than 45 lawmakers.
McCarthy, Peters, House Natural Resources ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and four other lawmakers issued a statement praising the Forest Service’s announcement, but said their bill is necessary to codify the authority to protect the trees and invest in proactive, wildfire mitigation to save the groves.
“The Forest Service’s action today is an important step forward for Giant Sequoias, but without addressing other barriers to protecting these groves, this emergency will only continue,” the lawmakers said. “Wildfires do not respect partisan politics or jurisdictional boundaries.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org