FRESNO (AP) — The federal government's long-awaited plan for managing the health of the largest forest of giant sequoias on earth limits logging and emphasizes fire as the primary means to restore the forest's health.
The U.S. Forest Service's plan for the Giant Sequoia National Monument in the Sierra Nevada was released Tuesday, and initial readings have environmental groups cheering that logging would be a method of last resort.
Then-President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation in 2000 that made the 33 sequoia groves in the forest a national monument. Since then, scientists and environmentalists have been debating how to best protect them after decades of logging and fire suppression across the Sequoia National Forest created unnatural ecosystems across swaths of the monument.
The first attempt under President George W. Bush's administration ended when a federal judge rejected a logging-heavy plan as too favorable to timber interests.
Sierra Club spokesman Sarah Matsumoto said the plan unveiled Tuesday appears to be an improvement.
"In previous years, they never actually said that fire is going to be the default treatment, which is something we have been asking for as well," she said.
Giant sequoias, the largest living things on earth, can withstand rapidly burning fires that serve to clear out brush and other trees that compete for sunlight and water.
Forest service officials hope that the new plan will work to restore watersheds and habitat for wildlife that depend on old forests for food and shelter.
"They're under stress and there is concern about their future," Kevin B. Elliott, supervisor of the 328,000-acre preserve, said of the trees. "We want to make sure these objects of interest continue to exist."
Under the plan, only sequoias with a diameter less than 12 inches can be cut — or 20 inches for all other trees — and only as a last resort or to protect for public safety. The report sets the criteria for tree removal, and no cut sequoias can be sold.
"Any timber that may, in fact, be removed is going to be an outcome of our proposed management, and outcome based on site-specific analysis and it will have public involvement," Elliot said.
The plan also sets aside 15,110 acres of a region now known as the Moses Inventoried Roadless Area for the new Moses Wilderness. While environmental groups had wanted the entire tract set aside for the highest Congressional protections, they say that designating this two-thirds as wilderness will help wildlife and plants adapt to climate change.
At 3,600 feet, the area with Giant Sequoias, lush meadows and clear streams, will connect with land already federally designated up to the 14,505-foot Mount Whitney. It has been under threat from logging in the past.
"Protecting habitat at various altitudes is critically important," said Ryan Henson, senior conservation director for the California Wilderness Coalition. "In an era of climate change, when you protect lower elevations areas and the highlands are also protected, it helps facilitate the movement of wildlife."
The plan will go into effect in 30 days, but for the next 90 days citizens can file a notice of written appeal to the Chief of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C.