What a lawsuit over planting sequoias tells us about mega fires

A person stands looking up at giant sequoias burned by fire.
Kristen Shive, director of science for the Save the Redwoods League, is shown on the 530 acres of the privately owned Alder Creek grove. She says that when sequoias die in a wildfire, it is usually because heat has scorched all of their needles, which are still on the tree.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Monday, Dec. 4. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Planting sequoias to help the population bounce back? A lawsuit says don’t even think about it.

Intense wildfires ripping through the Sierra Nevada have destroyed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years. The trees, which grow only in California, are a towering symbol of the majestic Golden State and its many natural wonders.

National Park Service officials want to help the forests recover and regrow by planting seedlings. ”Natural regeneration may not be sufficient to support self-sustaining groves into the future, particularly as the fires killed an unprecedented number of reproductive sequoia trees in the groves themselves,” the agency said in a news release.


But a contingent of environmental groups is suing NPS over its plan. The John Muir Project, Wilderness Watch, Sequoia ForestKeeper and the Tule River Conservancy argue it’s unnecessary, likely to do more harm than good and borne out of a misunderstanding of the forest’s natural ability to regenerate after fire.

The NPS estimates the sequoia population has shrunk by 13% to 19%. Its legal opponents put the number at 8%.

2020’s Castle fire alone destroyed an estimated 10% of mature sequoias in the Sierra Nevada — the only place in the world the species grows — according to a National Park Service report.

But there’s disagreement over who has the better data on sequoias. Research from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies put their estimated population loss at 13% to 19%, based on two major fires in 2020 and 2021.

Ecologist Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, cited his own research that put the figure at 8%. He argued that other estimates miscounted trees that had already died due to drought or age and even deemed some sequoias dead that were actually alive.

An NPS spokesperson pushed back, saying the estimates were well-researched by established agencies and institutions.


The NPS worries that without human intervention, the sequoia population won’t fully recover.

Officials said the reseeding effort is needed because of the low average of seedlings per acre found in the second year after a major fire — roughly 14,100, based on their estimates.

But the suing environmentalists also dispute that number, saying their own counts showed seedlings were abundant in many fire-scarred areas.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the National Park Service, but the news coming after the fires is very good,” Hanson told Times reporter Andrew J. Campa. “The regeneration of the forest is on pace to be the best in decades, but it seems like we’re allergic to good news.”

The core of the lawsuit comes down to “a fundamental disagreement over the role of high-intensity fires,” Campa explained.

“If the lawsuit is successful, it would stop the National Park Service from authorizing the use of dynamite, chain saws and mule trains to reach remote areas for reseeding,” he wrote.


Sequoias are built to withstand fires. But not the huge fires climate change has wrought.

UCLA geology professor Glen MacDonald studies fire from a historical perspective. He told me in August that we have to stop viewing wildfires — “a natural part of our ecosystems” — as an enemy to wage war against.

He and others have argued that by suppressing any and all fires, officials have prevented small and moderate blazes that naturally thin the forest. That means that when fires do strike, they’re much more intense.

“We have to leave behind the idea that we can suppress the fires and [if] we can throw enough money and resources at this, we’ll get past it,” MacDonald told me. “We can’t, so we have to plan for it.”

Sequoias are incredibly well-adapted to fire. In fact, they depend on it. Fire can burst their pine cones and help them reproduce, the AP reported. And their thick bark isolates them from small or moderate blazes.

But recent fires have pierced their defenses.

More on fires


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