Save Our Sequoias Act Poses More Threat than Promise
By Susan Britting and Isabella Langone
In the last two years, California’s leaders have allocated unprecedented funding to address the state’s longer and more extreme wildfire seasons. Those dollars translate to millions of acres of landscape treatments, with significant impacts to native habitats and ecosystems. CNPS and partners are tracking these treatments to highlight both the benefits and the consequences as they arise. This month we’re exploring three concerning government initiatives. In the first post, we examined the Los Padres National Forest Ecological Restoration Project. In this, the second post in our series, we take a closer look at the Save Our Sequoias Act (H.R. 8168), a bipartisan bill that aims to protect California’s giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) from severe wildfire by increasing restoration and reforestation efforts where this iconic species lives.
At first glance, Save Our Sequoias seems like a no-brainer. But upon closer review, H.R. 8168 would accomplish its objective by weakening existing environmental regulation, fueling the pernicious narrative that environmental “green tape” is to blame for the wildfire crisis. We believe the bill creates a pathway for rash actions or logging activities that could diminish the ecological integrity in and around sequoia groves with questionable benefit to wildfire mitigation. The legislation also sets a precedent for “short cuts” around environmental regulation that many expect to see invoked for forestry projects in the next Farm Bill in 2023.
California lost a tragic amount of giant sequoias in recent wildfire seasons, underscoring the need for urgent action to make forests more resilient. Today, policymakers have the unenviable task of crafting strategies that allow for the nimble and effective action needed to combat the effects of extreme wildfire and protect communities, while also safeguarding California’s world-renowned biodiversity. This is a difficult undertaking when the treatments often used to reduce wildfire risk (vegetation clearing, mastication, and other mechanical treatments) can wreak havoc on habitats and disturb ecosystem function. When urgency is paramount, it’s even more difficult to find the right balance between risk reduction and ecosystem protection. Leaders are under immense pressure to advance solutions and allocate resources, but with H.R. 8168, they appear to have missed the mark, opting for expediency over environmental protection.
What H.R. 8168 Will and Won’t Do
H.R. 8168 aims to facilitate wildfire mitigation work in sequoia groves through an emergency determination that directs responsible officials to carry out sequoia protection projects prior to initiating National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis and consultations required through the Endangered Species and the National Historic Preservation acts (ESA and NHPA, respectively). It also would establish a categorical exclusion that excuses protection projects from the preparation of an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, documents that would typically be required under NEPA. The result would limit public engagement and transparency, which are the keystones of smart planning and informed decision making.
Environmental organizations question whether a new categorical exclusion or emergency declaration will help increase the pace and scale of work in sequoia groves. As the Forest Service explained in a July press release, the Forest Service already has existing authorities under NEPA at its disposal to fast-track the type of projects proposed by the SOS, and it is unlikely that creating a duplicative categorical exclusion is going to help increase the pace of projects in sequoia groves. And it’s important to know that the Forest Service, under the current regulatory framework, is accomplishing a lot of good work to improve forest conditions in the groves, including an analysis of recent fire impacts and a robust plan to put the analysis into action; many projects are already underway.
The bill also would amend the Wilderness Act to allow reforestation activities in wilderness areas containing giant sequoias. The Wilderness Act serves the vital function of protecting the untrammeled character of wilderness lands by prohibiting the use of mechanical tools and road construction in wilderness, but these limitations do not preclude reforestation. Amending the Wilderness Act in this way is unprecedented, and a confusing addition to H.R. 8168 considering there are few—if any—limitations to reforestation in wilderness areas within existing law.
Why Should We Be Concerned?
Existing environmental regulations are needed to ensure comprehensive review of a project’s environmental impacts and the viability of the project’s promised outcomes. Undermining longstanding environmental protection laws while rushing to green-light insufficiently reviewed projects is a devil’s bargain, one in which we trade proven benefits for an uncertain outcome.
Just as we challenged the logic of remote fuel breaks proposed in the Los Padres National Forest Ecological Restoration Project, we question whether H.R. 8168 will help more than harm the sequoias and other native habitats. The Save Our Sequoias Act may in fact be a misdiagnosis of the problem at hand. Since the proposed solution in H.R. 8168 is already in place (i.e. emergency procedures and categorical exclusions), what is actually standing in the way of these projects? Despite the blame being directed at environmental regulation, our extensive experience shows that a significant barrier to accomplishing fuel reduction and restoration projects is the lack of professional staff to perform the work (coupled with the threat of litigation by advocacy groups who are against active management in any form). CNPS and partners are working to identify policy solutions that more precisely address this pinch point.
Beyond the Save Our Sequoias Act
H.R. 8168 is concerning not only for the impacts it could have on California lands, but also for its implications for future legislation and environmental deregulation at the national level. If passed, it could set a precedent for additional emergencies or categorical exclusions in the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill.
California needs thoughtful, science-based solutions to California’s wildfire challenges, and H.R. 8168 fails to meet that standard. Some members of California’s delegation understand this and are trying to rectify the bill’s weaknesses. On September 14, the Senate introduced a less troubling version of the act. Although it removes exclusion from NEPA, ESA, and NHPA compliance, it still includes an emergency determination which beckons a future in which no problem can be solved unless a state of emergency is declared. CNPS and partners remain concerned about the broader implications of both versions of the bill, which could still gain further support. Instead of throwing support behind Save Our Sequoias, we encourage colleagues and decision-makers to follow the policy recommendations outlined in “California’s Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial Fire” and turn to existing tools such as those provided through the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (IIJA). Let’s address the real barriers to forest resilience and stop recycling hackneyed legislative “fixes” that incorrectly cast blame on environmental regulation.
Susan Britting, Ph.D., is executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy, working on conservation in the Sierra Nevada for over 25 years. She is also a CNPS Fellow and has held leadership positions at the state and chapter level.
Isabella Langone is the CNPS Conservation Program Manager who applies her legal experience and skill set to help achieve CNPS’s native plant conservation mission.