The question of how much people should intervene in California’s forests in the name of fire prevention came up again this week with a lawsuit challenging forestry activities in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. country.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court Monday by three conservation groups, argues that the National Park Service should not cut down trees and conduct prescribed burns on thousands of acres of designated wilderness.
Since October, crews in Sequoia and Kings Canyon in the southern Sierra Nevada have been thinning vegetation in 11 giant sequoia groves with the goal of reducing fuel for fires and protecting the trees. Conservation groups, however, say the intervention is illegal as well as unnecessary and that any change to the wilderness should undergo a thorough environmental assessment.
“I appreciate that they’re concerned about the giant sequoias, who isn’t?” said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, one of the organizations behind the lawsuit. “But what I do know is that the wilderness is as dangerous as anything in our modern society and that the wilderness has managed the giant sequoias forever, before we had the park service.”
Parks officials are also facing criticism over plans to plant thousands of giant sequoia seedlings in areas with high tree mortality from fires in 2020 and 2021 – work that is also considered to be critical interference. The replanting project, unlike thinning and burning, is subject to environmental review and is not subject to legal action, although critics have threatened to sue if the effort continues.
Yosemite National Park saw a similar challenge last year when environmentalists sued over the removal of trees in cherished parts of the park. This work is not done in designated wilderness. A federal court of appeals recently dismissed the case.
In Sequoia and Kings Canyon, conservation groups want to stop thinning and burning because the federal Wilderness Act of 1964 expressly prohibits active forest management, including the use of mechanized equipment, such as chainsaws and helicopter.
Park officials declined to comment on the case, citing a policy of not discussing litigation. However, when work began on the forest last year, the head of the National Park Service, Chuck Sams, called the work “an important step to ensure that the ancient giant sequoias are guaranteed to survive for a long time.”
Between 13% and 19% of all giant sequoias were killed in the SQF Complex, Windy Fire, and KNP Complex fires, threatening the future of the trees, according to park scientists. The trees grow naturally only in California.
Park officials classify their forest work as an emergency action, which usually exempts activities from environmental review.
The issue of wilderness intervention, as noted by some officials, is complicated because forest fires burning in parks are believed to be at least partly fueled by human warming. Some argue that because people have contributed to the problem, they have a responsibility to intervene.
The lawsuit against the National Park Service, with Sequoia ForestKeeper and Tule River Conservancy joining Wilderness Watch as plaintiffs, was filed in US District Court in Fresno.