The U.S. Forest Service announced Friday that it is taking emergency action to save California’s giant sequoias, speeding up projects that could begin within weeks to clear the understory to protect the world’s largest trees from the growing threat of wildfires.

Bypassing the environmental review could cut years off the usual approval process needed to cut down smaller trees on national forests and use deliberately lit low-intensity fires to reduce the thick undergrowth that has helped fuel wildfires that have killed up to 20% of all big redwoods in recent years. two years.

“Without immediate action, wildfires could destroy countless more iconic giant sequoias,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in a statement. “These emergency actions to reduce fuels before wildfires occur will protect unburned giant redwood groves from the risks of severe wildfires.”

Trees, the world’s largest by volume, are under threat like never before. More than a century of aggressive fire suppression has left forests choked with thick vegetation, fallen logs and millions of dead trees killed by bark beetles, fueling an inferno that is being exacerbated by drought and exacerbated by climate change.

The Forest Service announcement is one of a number of conservation efforts for the species, which is found only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range in central California. Most of the approximately 70 groves are clustered around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, with some extending into and north of Yosemite National Park.

The Interior Department’s non-emergency Sequoia National Park is considering a new and controversial plan to plant sequoia seedlings where large trees have been destroyed by fire.

The Save Our Redwoods Act (SOS), which also includes a provision to expedite environmental reviews like the Forest Service’s plan, was recently introduced by a bipartisan group of congressmen, including House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose district has redwoods.

The group applauded Moore’s announcement Friday, but said in a statement that more needs to be done to ease deforestation.

“Today’s action by the Forest Service is an important step forward for giant redwoods, but without removing other barriers to protect these groves, this emergency will continue,” the group said. “It’s time to codify this action by establishing a true comprehensive fire protection solution for every grove in California through the SOS Act and save our redwoods.”

FILE – In this July 2022 file photo provided by the National Park Service, a firefighter clears brush around a sequoia in Maripasa Grove in Yosemite National Park, California.

The work, scheduled to begin this summer in 12 groves located in the Sequoia National Forest and Sierra National Forest, will cost $21 million to remove so-called ladder fuel, which consists of brush, dead wood and small trees that allow fires to spread upward. . and set fire to the redwood crowns, which can exceed 90 meters in height.

The plan calls for cutting down smaller trees and vegetation and using prescribed fires — intentionally lit and controlled by firefighters in wet conditions — to remove rotting needles, sticks and logs that accumulate on the forest floor.

Some environmental groups have criticized deforestation as an excuse for commercial logging.

Ara Marderosyan, executive director of the Sequoia ForestKeeper group, called the statement “a well-orchestrated PR campaign.”

He said it doesn’t take into account how logging could exacerbate forest fires and increase carbon emissions, which would exacerbate the climate crisis.

“Rapid thinning doesn’t take into account that roads and clearcuts … allow for wind-driven fires because of the greater airflow caused by the opening in the dome, which increases wildfire speed and intensity,” he said.

Rob York, a professor and specialist in cooperative forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, said the Forest Service’s plan could be helpful, but requires serious follow-up.

“To me, this represents a sorting method to address the urgent threat to giant sequoias,” York said in an email. “After treatment, there will need to be frequent prescribed fires to really restore and protect the groves in the long term.”

The mighty redwood, protected by thick bark and with foliage usually high above the flames, was once considered almost inflammable.

The trees even thrive with occasional low-intensity fires — like those that Native Americans historically set or let burn — that clear the trees of competing for sunlight and water. The heat from the flame opens the cones and allows the seeds to spread.

But fires in recent years have shown that while the trees can live for more than 3,000 years, they are not immortal and may need more proactive measures to protect them.

During last year’s fire in Sequoia National Park, firefighters wrapped the most prominent trees in protective film and used fire retardants on the treetops.

Earlier this month, when a wildfire threatened a grove of Maripas Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park, firefighters deployed sprinklers.

The grove was engulfed in flames — the first forest fire in more than a century — but there was no serious damage. The park forest ecologist recognized the controlled burns as protecting 500 large trees.

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