A monarch giant sequoia at Trail of 100 Giants, Giant Sequoia National Monument, July 2022. — Photo by Claudia Elliott

‘A formidable challenge’

IN THE EARLY 1990s, I lived in Cambria, a small town on California’s Central Coast. I worked at the newspaper there. One day a friend came into the office to ask that we do an article about all of the oak trees being allowed to die in Paso Robles.

For those who don’t know, Paso Robles is located about 30 miles inland from the coast. Its first name was El Paso de Robles (the pass of the oaks). Oak trees, you might imagine, are pretty important there.

My friend was concerned about the great number of very large dead oak trees she had seen on a recent visit over the hills east of Cambria to Paso Robles. She was horrified that all the big oak trees had died.

In discussion with her, I learned two things: She lived in a coastal area of Los Angeles before moving to the Central Coast and she had never before visited Paso Robles during the winter.

Most oaks growing in California’s coastal zone are evergreen live oaks. The huge oak trees my friend saw in Paso Robles were valley oaks. They drop their leaves in the winter.

The trees weren’t dead, I told her. They were taking a winter break.

I tell this story because people generally interpret what they see based upon what they know. If you’ve never seen a valley oak come to life in the spring with bright green leaves, you certainly might think it’s dead.

It is very easy for us to have an emotional reaction to things we see but don’t necessarily understand.

This is important to remember when we consider giant sequoias because most giant sequoias trees aren’t the long-lived monarch specimens we see in parks and forests. Most are part of thousands of acres of forested lands of the Sierra Nevada in areas seldom visited by people. They are part of a complex ecosystem that most of us don’t understand or appreciate. Fire is part of that ecosystem, like it or not.

But the giant sequoia in many ways has become a symbol of these lands. And one way or another, nearly everyone who lives in California is impacted by what happens in the Sierra Nevada.

Giant sequoias are magnificent and many people have become concerned about the startling loss of these trees to wildfire over the past few years.

Not only giant sequoias, but other trees and habitat have been lost to California wildfires. Human lives and homes, even whole communities have been wiped out.

I was able to tell my friend that the oak trees weren’t dying because I had seen valley oaks through the seasons many times. I knew their fresh green leaves would emerge in the spring.

I wish I could offer more comfort about how we Californians can cope with wildfire. A study published last November in the journal Science Advances, suggests that the Sierra Nevada will continue to have more and larger wildfires, largely due to hotter and drier summers. Wildfire simulations prepared for the state’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment  indicate “the greatest increases in burned area are projected to be in forested areas, with annual average area burned in many parts of the Sierra Nevada doubling to quadrupling by end of century (comparing 2070-2099 to 1961-1990) under the most extreme warming.”

If these scientists are correct, the places we value, the air we breathe and much more will be impacted. 

We are facing, as the authors of the study wrote, “a formidable challenge.”

I have to believe we must do a better job of facing that challenge if we can find a way to end the blame game and get on the same page about forest management.

Some people blame the timber industry, politicians and the Forest Service for the state of our forests. Others blame environmentalists, politicians and the Forest Service for the state of our forests.

I think the blame game needs to end.

Note: I wrote this “Perspective” column as part of the first issue of my newsletter, “Giant Sequoia News,” on Aug. 8, 2022. My intent at the time was to post items from my newsletter to this website, and vice versa (when appropriate). But I was busy with other things and now in January 2023 I am catching up on posting articles from the newsletter here if they are still viable. — Claudia Elliott


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