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They are truly national treasures, these massive trees known as giant sequoia or sometimes Sierra redwoods. Sequoiadendrom giganteum (or Sequoia gigantea) trees are related to two other trees, the coast redwood and dawn redwood. Scientists tell us they once grew across vast swaths of the northern hemisphere. Certainly the native people of California knew the trees growing along the western slope of what we now call the Sierra Nevada. But the larger world first heard about these massive trees sometime after 1852, when newcomers were exploring the higher elevations of California’s interior.
About 50 years later, the author Rodney Sydes Ellsworth published a small volume entitled “The Giant Sequoia, An Account of the History and Characteristics of the Big Trees of California.” Many words had been written about the big trees before and since, but Ellsworth did a good job of describing the attributes of the great trees with the words in his first chapter:
“The Sequoia is nature’s most magnificent endowment. King of trees, it has no rival in size the world over, nor is it approached among living things in age. Nobles of all conifers, it has the grandeur of granite and the solemnity of marble. Venerable in aspect, it savors of great antiquity, seeming always to wrap itself in the memories of the past. So striking, indeed, is this feature of its appearance that the intellectual traveler often wonders if its race has played a grander part in the past. Is it a living survivor of an extinct age of monsters?”
Later, of course, a Great Basin bristlecone pine named Methuselah was determined to be the oldest living tree on earth. But by trunk volume, the top 30 or so giant sequoias are still considered the largest trees in the world.
And I don’t know if modern science supports Ellsworth’s romantic notion of dinosaurs walking about giant sequoias of the past, but I still enjoy his description of such a time:
“The record of the rocks discloses the fact that the Sequoia flourished on earth when these dragons of old time and their weird kin inhabited it. Its forests extended over three continents and it blessed with its shade these creatures more strange and huge that the earth has since borne. Under its high, arching columns dinosaurs took toll of all that could be conquered. Within sight of its imposing forests others, equally formidable, wallowed in shallow seas, while overhead soared pterodactyls, neither bats nor birds, but giant lizards that had acquired the power of flight.
“This was millions of years ago. It was during the middle period of life, or, what geologists term the Mesozoic.* It was before the advent of fur and feathers — aeons, almost, before man’s coming. In point of time the antiquity of all living things on earth today is of a recent yesterday when compared to the antiquity of the Sequoia. The frail tenure of human works is as but a thousand years amid eternity; nothing; a mockery.”
When Ellsworth wrote his little book about the big trees, only two species of redwood were known — the giants of the Sierra Nevada and Sequoia sempervirens, the coastal redwood. It was not until the 1940s that scientists confirmed that a deciduous tree growing in a mountainous area of China was identical to the fossil Metasequoia then believed extinct for 20 million years. Thus the third redwood cousin (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) became known to the modern world.
Ellsworth described the range of the giant sequoia as a belt about 250 miles long extending from Deer Creek in Tulare County to the middle of the American River near Lake Tahoe. His description of the range of the big trees approximates that of the U.S. Forest Service today. Likewise, I think his description of the trees “congregating in groves” and “living in family clusters” while “mingling with Sugar and Yellow Pine, with White Fir and Incense Cedar” is fairly accurate, although he identified only 26 groves and some of the areas where the trees now grow had not been discovered when his book was published in 1924. Accounts vary, but today there are believed to be at least 67 giant sequoia groves.
And Ellsworth was correct that even within that long belt the giant trees cannot be found in all areas of the Sierra Nevada forest. They grow “in protected spots where the sunshine is abundant and the soil rich, deep, and moist,” he wrote.
He referred to the earlier writings of Willis Linn Jepson, who wrote in the 1921 “Handbook of Yosemite National Park,” that “in some of the rhapsodies which have been spoken or written about the Sequoia gigantea, it is the habit to speak of this tree as passing out, as a relic, as making its last stand upon the western flanks of the Sierra Nevada, and as being a decadent survival. In a sense it is a survival but it is a most lusty and vigorous survival. No other tree grows to so great a size; no other tree has such longevity; and no other coniferous tree has such resistance to disease except its cousin the Redwood of the Coast. In open spaces in the forest, seedlings appear in great numbers, especially in the southern part of the range of the species. Here they often form weedy thickets through which it is impossible to force one’s way. In the southern Sierra Nevada the Big Tree forms extensive forests, and is often the dominant tree in its areas of best development.”
Certainly 100 years ago it may have appeared that these great trees could live forever. And as recently as 2000, when his book, “A Guide to the Sequoia Groves of California,” was published author and big tree enthusiast Dwight Willard reflected on the future of the trees.
“Some fear that natural sequoia groves are shrinking due to their limited distribution and twentieth-century climatic warming trends,” Willard wrote. “Others assert that the sequoia resource is ‘just hanging on,’ and that the natural groves could disappear in a millennium or less. Studies suggest otherwise.”
He noted that “only minor changes in grove sizes have been detected in recent centuries. Most groves are maintaining or even slightly expanding their size.”
And, Willard noted, “Recent research indicates that the sequoia population is now as high as it has been for the past several centuries. While logging did substantially reduce the population of mature sequoias, most of the mature and old growth sequoias survived. The number of literally ‘giant’ sequoias over eight feet in diameter will continue to increase in the absence of logging, wildfire, and other catastrophic events.”
Ah, the caveat. Logging can be controlled by law. But we haven’t yet managed to legislate wildfire and other catastrophic events — drought comes to mind. And so, barely 20 years after Willard wrote those words, there are grave concerns about the future of the giant sequoia of the Sierra Nevada.
In July 2022, Save the Redwoods League issued a press release supporting Forest Service efforts to provide initiate fuels reduction treatment and claiming “the loss of almost 20% of all giant sequoias over 14 months in 2020-2021.”
The trees and the forests where they live have been studied since the 1850s. Not yet, that I have found, has there been consensus about how best to manage the forest to ensure their health and longevity. There have been many efforts to “protect” the trees, including setting aside lands under varied public ownership and management. Some giant sequoias were once “sold” to the public, along with small building lots, ostensibly to protect them. When the venerable Save the Redwoods League in 2018 bought the 160-acre Red Hill grove, a privately-owned piece of land with 110 ancient giant sequoia trees surrounded by Giant Sequoia National Monument, it said the land was “protected forever.”
Sadly, even with funding and approved plans, the organization could not address the dense vegetation on the property in time. Instead, the 2021 Windy Fire swept through the Red Hill grove, killing dozens of mature giant sequoias. According to the National Park Service, six fires (between 2015 and 2021) killed many large sequoias.
Giant Sequoia National Monument, established by President Bill Clinton in 2000, was also hailed as “protecting” the trees that gave its name to the 328,000-acre area administered by Sequoia National Forest. But the proclamation hasn’t stopped wildfire. And in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, where giant sequoia have been protected since 1890, the drought of 2012-2016 is blamed for widespread giant sequoia foliage dieback and native bark beetles killing the big trees.
As to consensus, there is little. In June 2022 a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress called the “Save Our Sequoias Act.” According to proponents, the bill would prioritize $5 million in the National Park Service and $5 million in the U.S. Forest Service to support efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires killing giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada.
As introduced, the bill would also allow grove-specific hazardous fuels reduction plans to be developed prior to conducting an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and allow shared stewardship of giant sequoia groves by the Tule River Tribe. The bill would also establish a Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition made up of representatives of the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, state of California, county of Tulare, Tule River Tribe and an academic institution representing Whitaker’s Research Forest.
A coalition with the same name but without a formal role has been meeting. The new coalition would be charged with assessing giant sequoia health and resiliency and making recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture concerning projects and a reforestation and rehabilitation strategy.
Although Save the Redwoods League and The Nature Conservancy signaled support for the bill, it is opposed by a coalition of more than 80 other environmental organizations. Even before the bill was introduced, the letter was circulating, urging opposition to the “Save Our Sequoias Act.” The letter claims that “Some provisions in the bill could actually exacerbate the threat to the Giant Sequoias and our forests.”
So, I’m back to another old book about giant sequoias to wrap this up.
“The Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada” was published in 1975 by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. The small volume represented a research study by Richard J. Hartesveldt of the NPS and three professors from San Jose State University — H. Thomas Harvey, Howard S. Shellhammer and Ronald E. Stecker. I found their introduction to a section on the significance of the giant sequoia to be valid nearly 50 years later:
“Man has invested the giant sequoia with a significance that probably has no counterpart among other trees. The reasons, of course, vary, whether deriving from the scientific or the lay community. Undoubtedly, its great size, longevity, and comparative rarity have prompted the ardor and respect expressed for the tree ever since its discovery, as evidenced in the abundant writings about the sequoia over the past 120 years… Curiosity about a tree of such novel dimensions was understandable in the years immediately following its discovery. An even greater significance was attached to it because of its assumed rarity. Although the novelty wore off somewhat with the discoveries of new groves, man’s regard for the sequoia was enhanced only by increasing knowledge of its seemingly unique attributes… Obviously, the lumberman and the sideshow opportunist regarded the giant tree as a source of board footage and personal profit. But the giant sequoia, unlike other species in the Sierran forests, proved to be of small importance as a timber, and perhaps the great brittleness of its wood was its eventual salvation. Certainly, the carnage wrought by the lumbermen aroused the feelings and brought forth public efforts that succeeded in reserving** nearly 90% of all sequoia acreage. Truly, the reservation** of no other species of tree rests upon so dedicated a foundation.”
*In his original text, Ellsworth referred to Miocene here, but a note in the book’s bibliography corrected this to Mesozoic and I have made this change here. This error was addressed in criticism by Charles L. Camp, a paleontologist and zoologist, in a review of the book published by the California Historical Society in October 1924. According to Save the Redwoods League, the oldest known redwood fossils date back to the Jurassic period (more than 200 million years ago). The U.S. Geological Survey provides greater detail about what dinosaurs lived during the Jurassic period HERE.
**When I checked over this text I wondered if I had made typographical errors and the authors had meant preserved and preservation instead of reserved and reservation. No, the latter is what they meant and I understand this to be the fact that at the time of publication (1975) most land with giant sequoia groves had been reserved, or set aside, by the various governments.