I had the opportunity last week to visit California's Sierra Nevada region. Nearly 70 Sierra Club staff and volunteer came together at Clair Tappaan Lodge to discuss our work to protect lands, water and wildlife. It snowed the entire time we were meeting, and the setting was absolutely beautiful. I began to really understand why Sierra Club was formed 120 years ago to protect this beautiful area, and I felt proud of the work we're doing nationwide to protect special places.
Among the volunteers I met at the meeting was Joe Fontaine. He told me about the first time he saw a Giant Sequoia grove in California. They were breath-taking - but soon after came a troubling view.
"I found a clearcut site nearby, and that enraged me," says Joe, now the vice-chair of the Sierra Club’s Sequoia Task Force.
That was 50 years ago and prompted him to join the Sierra Club - and since then he's been working to protect Sequoia National Park and now the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
The 328,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument is home to half of all the giant sequoia trees left in the world, serves as vital wildlife habitat, and is a source of enjoyment and recreation for thousands of visitors each year.
The latest concerns for these majestic Sequoia trees - some of which grow more than 270 feet tall - is the Forest Service's management plan for Giant Sequoia National Monument. The final plan is due out this summer.
When President Clinton created the monument in April 15, 2000, he proclaimed that the Forest Service will restore the Giant Sequoia forests from the damage due to logging and fire suppression. Now, the agency has an unprecedented opportunity to show the public that it can successfully manage this natural treasure on par with the National Park Service.
In order to do this, the final plan must reflect the rigors of scientific scrutiny, emulate successful management options that have already restored a giant sequoia ecosystem, and must include strict limitations on when trees can be cut and removed for ecological restoration or public safety.
Joe is hoping the final plan will take care of the problems in the draft edition - which was lacking in three major areas.
First, the proclamation that declared the area a monument said the Forest Service must get guidance from scientists while developing the management plan. Last year's draft did not do so.
Second, also from the proclamation, is that no tree may be removed from the monument except for a good ecological reason or for public safety. "But what the agency's done in the past, though, is to just say 'This specific area is a fire hazard, so let's remove trees' and not supply any protocol for the decision. We're asking for a protocol to justify why they’d cut a tree, let alone take a tree out of the monument. It shouldn't be an arbitrary decision."
The draft plan would also allow logging within Giant Sequoia National Monument. While the agency is not planning to log Giant Sequoia trees, logging the trees near them and in their watershed will make the Sequoias more vulnerable. Logging damages the roots of the remaining sequoias and makes a forest drier, more flammable, and less able to adapt to changing climate.
Finally, Joe and the many other activists fighting to protect the Giant Sequoias think the Forest Service should manage the monument exactly how adjacent Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are managed - with natural processes.
"The Giant Sequoia groves in the monument are in the same ecosystems as the ones in the park. The National Park Service has been using prescribed fire as a way to restore the park's trees to their natural healthy condition successfully for 40 years. We want the same in the monument."
Giant Sequoias require wildfires to not only open up their seed-filled cones, but also to clear out nearby vegetation so the new trees can have a greater opportunity to grow.
"One hundred years of logging and exclusion of fire have allowed too many fuels to build up," Joe says. "They need to restore the forest."
For Joe, this mission to protect the Giant Sequoias isn't just because it’s a beautiful area.
“John Muir in the 1870s took a trip and visited all the Giant Sequoia groves known at the time, from Yosemite down to what is now Giant Sequoia National Monument. He said they should all be protected. What we feel we’re doing here in getting this monument created and getting a good management plan is crossing off one of the items on Muir's 'To Do' list.
"There's much more to do, of course, but we've done one thing he couldn’t do in his lifetime."