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Should the Giant Sequoia National Monument be Transferred to the National Park Service?


The caption for this USFS photo from the monument reads, "Old sentinels guard the ridge top overlooking Tule River canyon in Black Mountain grove. Note the young giant sequoias underneath."

A California congressman and a coalition of environmental groups are calling for management of the Giant Sequoia National Monument to be transferred from the U. S. Forest Service to the National Park Service. The debate highlights the long-standing confusion for many Americans about terms such as "national monument" as well as differences in the mission and management approach of the Forest Service and Park Service.

There's plenty of reason for the head-scratching by the public. According to a U. S. Forest Service publication dating to 2003, "Today, depending on how one counts, there are 81 national monuments administered by the USDI National Park Service, 13 more administered by the USDI Bureau of Land Management (BLM), five others administered by the USDA Forest Service, two jointly managed by the BLM and the National Park Service, one jointly
administered by the BLM and the Forest Service, one by the USDI Fish & Wildlife Service, and another by the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C.  In addition, one national monument is under National Park Service jurisdiction, but managed by the Forest Service while another is on USDI Bureau of Reclamation administered land, but managed by the Park Service."

A U. S. Forest Service website also summarizes that agency's view of national monuments and their history: 

"National monuments are areas of federal land set aside by the Congress or most often by the president, under authority of the American Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906, to protect or enhance prominent or important features of the national landscape."

"Such important national features include those land areas that have historic cultural importance (sites and landmarks), prehistoric prominence, or those of scientific or ecological significance." 

"Interestingly, the Forest Service under Chief Foresters Gifford Pinchot and Henry Graves opposed the creation of a new agency to administer the national parks and most of the national monuments.  In fact, as early as 1904 Pinchot wanted to have jurisdiction of the national parks passed to the Forest Service, since the lands were so similar." 

Each of the federal agencies that control national monuments has its own set of mandates and policies, and those differences seem to be at the core of the latest controversy surrounding the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California, which is managed by the U. S. Forest Service.

According to information from that agency, "The Giant Sequoia National Monument was designated by President William Jefferson Clinton in April 2000. The Monument now encompasses 353,000 acres," and includes 33 giant sequoia groves managed "for their protection, restoration, and preservation." The monument is said to include about 50 percent of the world’s remaining giant Sequoias.

Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) and a variety of conservation groups have taken exception to how the Forest Service is accomplishing those objectives, and Mr. Farr has prepared a letter to send to President Obama, asking him to "transfer jurisdiction of the Giant Sequoia National Monument to the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior."

As is often the case in such controversies the issues are a bit complicated, but key points of contention include building of roads and continued logging operations in the decade since the creation of the monument. The Forest Service contends that such activities are necessary to deal with threats from fire and hazardous trees and to promote forest regeneration.

Prompted by a 2006 court decision the Forest Service has been engaged in a lengthy process to prepare a management plan for the monument, although the agency's website is behind on updates and it's difficult to determine to current status of that effort. The draft EIS for that plan included two rather wry observations about some of the current points of controversy: "People are concerned about the circumstances under which a tree may be removed. There is considerable and meaningful public debate about the conditions under which trees need to be cut, and about when and in what form a tree should be removed from the Monument," and " There is ongoing debate about the methods that would successfully promote the regeneration, establishment, and growth of giant sequoias." 

Representative Farr and many others are part of that "debate." His apparently yet-to-be-released letter to the White House notes,

"In September 2010, 48 members of Congress wrote to the Chief of the Forest Service and to the Supervisor of the Sequoia National Forest criticizing the new Giant Sequoia National Monument management plan just released by the Forest Service, which would allow continued and even increased logging. The new plan draft would enable the destructive Ice, Saddle, and White River Timber Sales to be completed and would implement salvage logging and “hazard tree” logging without scientific basis and without complying with the letter and protective intent of the Monument Proclamation."

"After more than a decade of destructive logging and road-building by the Forest Service in Giant Sequoia National Monument, and after repeated failures to produce an environmentally sound and legal management plan for the Monument or to comply with federal court orders, the Forest Service has demonstrated it has neither the intention nor the institutional ability to protect this American national ecological treasure."

"Clearly, the time is long overdue for transfer of authority to the National Park Service, an agency with a 120-year record of properly managing the unique Sequoia ecosystems in Sequoia, Yosemite, and Kings Canyon National Parks, with the purpose of protecting the Sequoia forests and on behalf of the American people, not for a few local timber interests."

Is it time for this change in management to occur? Geographically, the shift would be relatively easy, since the area in question adjoins NPS land in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but there are plenty of other issues to consider, including impacts on already strained NPS budgets.

A key question may be whether the issue will actually receive serious debate in Washington, or if it will simply be lost in the growing melee over larger political issues.


These discussions are fascinating considering two rival agencies such as theNational Park Service vs the US Forest Service, the latter being largely controlledby the Big Timber Industry Congressional Lobby Interests.  The pioneering work infire ecology of the giant Sequoia was accomplished through professors of San Jose State University including Drs. Richard Hartesveldt and Tom Harvey along with entomologistRon Stecker and mammalogist Howard Shellhammer. The NPS was first to promoteprescription fire projects first at Everglades NP IN 1959 and later in the mid 1960's at Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP.  Reference: [color=#000099]THE GIANT SEQUOIA OF THE SIERRA NEVADA[/color]

Richard J. Hartesveldt
H. Thomas Harvey
Howard S. Shellhammer
Ronald E. Stecker

San José University, California
Although Bob Barbee deserves outstanding credit as a Yosemite resource manager
and as Superintendent both at Redwood and Yellowstone, fire management
at Yellowstone largely ignored the recommendations of Stephen Pyne prior
to the fires of 1988.  Pyne had outlined how the NPS should evolved out of a fire suppression bias into a fire management-prescribed fire program  with adjacent national forests.  Had the NPS been in communication with USFS
fire managers on adjacent national forests, NPS would have known early the severity of the drought which provided the critical fire weather fanning the Yellowstone Fires
of 1988 to spread exponentially.
The early fire ecology work in the giant sequoias was largely discredited by a charlatan NPS Biologist who later transferred to Redwood to create farther biological chaos in
numerous natural resource subject areas.  One key point here is that
the USFS is an agency within Dept. Agriculture which has always has a sound
science/research branch with many credible field scientists; whereas the NPS has largely had charlatan pseudo-scientists and resource managers behaving in an autocratic manner which is alien to promoting a credible scientifically-based resource program. Amen !

What happens to private land owned in the monument if management is transferred?

As someone who spends most his time inside the Sequoia National Monument year round I can attest to the fact that the US Forest Service is actually doing a great job and that the groves under their management are doing better then those that the NPS manages. All one needs to do is compare the experience of visiting a grove located inside the Parks that is developed for access to that of visiting one of the rustic and remote groves located in the Monument.
Also this fear or insinuation that the forest service is somehow going to allow Giant Sequoias to be logged is baseless. They have actually been protected for many years before the monument was established.

      I don't think there's any talk about cutting sequoias per se. Most of the forest is not giant sequoia, and they really don't have much commercial value. I think the discussion is about cutting other tree species when "deemed necessary".

It's pretty interesting there, with the campgrounds there serving to supplement SEKI's campgrounds. I saw people walking along the road collecting pine cones (which wouldn't be legal on NPS land). They also have a host of businesses (Kings Canyon Lodge, Montecito-Sequoia Lodge, and Stony Creek Lodge) that would have a different relationship with the NPS than with the FS. I've also enjoyed visiting Boyden Cave several times, which doesn't seem much different under FS control save they allow a concession to run it rather than a nonprofit (like Crystal Cave in Sequoia NP). I don't believe that the Hume Lake Christian Camp would welcome the NPS taking over. NPS decided years ago to eliminate all public gas stations within SEKI; that would be very different if they took over and closed the existing fueling options.

NPS actually has a pretty good relationship with the Forest Service. I remember going to the Grant Grove visitor center, and there was a FS ranger serving there. His advice was as good as any of the NPS personnel I'd talked to.

Someone mentioned the "rustic and remote groves". I would note that Redwood Mountain Grove (my avatar photo was taken there) does have that quality. However - I think it was annexed by Kings Canyon NP from the FS fairly recently.

It's a miracle these trees survived and flourished for millennia without being "managed" by anyone but Nature. How about some agency protects them from illegal logging leave it at that. So much of our nationally owned land is exploited by politicians, can we please just leave some of it alone? What would TR do??

Also, Farr's letter makes reference to:

"...the National Park Service, an agency with a 120-year record of properly
managing the unique Sequoia ecosystems in...Yosemite...National Park..."

Some would disagree with this statement. In fact, Yosemite's Mariposa Grove is sorely in need of restoration. Here is what the primary funder of this upcoming project, The Yosemite Conservancy, has to say on the subject:

"While we have long marveled at these magnificent trees we have not always
protected them well. Current conditions in the [Mariposa Grove] are posing a
threat to the trees’ survival and we need to act now."

It took NPS 40 years to get up the courage to reintroduce fire to the Mariposa Grove in 2008, after which the agency wrote:

" objectives were met, but there is still much work to do in restoring the pre-settlement tree species composition."

NPS strives to be the best possible steward of the resources in its care, but no one should kid themselves that NPS has all the answers, nor the organizational capacity to always apply what knowledge we do have.

What Yosemite Steve said:

"...having lands adjacent to a National Park that can allow for
other recreational uses (dogs allowed, hunting allowed, hundreds of
miles of logging roads to explore, dispersed camping) helps protect the
more intact park lands. This is especially true during busy summer
months and holidays. These two agencies have different missions, and
sometimes that's a good thing."

The park draws the tourists, the surrounding terrain draws the explorers...and usually in much smaller numbers. I spent Memorial Day weekend hiking with my dogs in National Forest land just outside the boundary of Yosemite NP. I had a ridgetop campsite to myself and saw almost no one else the whole time, while Yosemite campgrounds were packed and the Valley was so clogged with tourists that traffic came to a complete standstill for hours at a time. meanwhile, the only other people I met were four motorcyclists also out *legally* exploring little-used logging roads. I work hard at being a responsible trail dogger (no harassing of wildlife or other humans, no random barking, bury the poop, etc.) and I would venture to say that the motorcyclists were also treating the land with respect (staying on roads, muffled exhaust, etc.).

I don't agree with the automatic assumption that any wild landscape is best managed as a national park. Generally speaking, parks draw larger crowds and need more intensive visitor management - there really is no other way to care for something like Yosemite Valley. But I would like to see less emphasis on creating parks per se and more emphasis on creating a culture of responsibility when recreating outdoors, regardless of the activity or who owns/manages the land.

Back in the late 1960's, Bob Barbee was Yosemite's resource management specialist and was tasked with the job of determining why Sequoias in the park were not reproducing.  He found that the only places young Sequoias were growing were on road cuts and other places where the tiny seeds could reach bare mineral soil to germinate.  In other places, years of fire suppression had left such a thick layer of duff the seeds couldn't survive.

Bob discovered, too, that prior to white men the local people had burned off the forest floor to help maintain growth of oaks needed for some of their basic food supply.  In those days, the Sequoia groves had been largely open park-like grasslands.  Not only had fire suppression destroyed the oaks, it had allowed a heavy understory of large trees -- sugar pines and others -- to become established.  Between the heavy duff they produced and the fuel provided by those trees, Sequoias were in serious danger of destruction by both fire and insufficient reproduction.

Bob proposed very selective logging of the heavy understory trees followed by prescribed burns.  When I left Yosemite in 1970, there was controversy raging over that idea.  I never did really learn how it all turned out.

As someone who has lived and worked in Sequoia National Park for 20 years now, here's a few things that might be considered.
The first is location. The Hume Lake district of Sequoia National Forest (and GSNM) nestles up nicely with the NW boundary of Sequoia National Park, and it surrounds Grant Grove/Redwood Canyon in Kings Canyon. The vast majority of Sequoia National Monument is farther south, accessed through Porterville or Bakersfield in the Tule and Kern drainages (including the management of Lake Isabella) and is pretty darn far from all the land managers over in Sequoia NP. So I'm not sure how "easy" it would be to hand it over to Sequoia NP.
Secondly, having lands adjacent to a National Park that can allow for other recreational uses (dogs allowed, hunting allowed, hundreds of miles of logging roads to explore, dispersed camping) helps protect the more intact park lands. This is especially true during busy summer months and holidays. These two agencies have different missions, and sometimes that's a good thing.
Finally, Giant Sequoia National Monument is perhaps not as great as some might think. These lands have had a long history of continuous logging. Yes, there are mature monarch sequoia trees, thousands of them, but nearly every other species and individual tree has been cut down in the past 150 years. There are hundreds if not thousands of miles of roads, which ultimately need to be removed or maintained. There are hundreds of inholdings and leases which need to managed. Don't get me wrong, it's still some fine real estate. I've spent many days and nights exploring these areas in cars, trucks, bikes, and on foot. I've caved, climbed, backpacked and car-camped throughout both parts of Giant Sequoia National Monument, but it just doesn't "feel" like National Park quality. It feels like Forest Service land, and that's fine.

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