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.