I’M SURE YOU’VE HEARD the old saying, not being able to see the forest for the trees. Dictionary.com reports that the expression describes someone too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole.
But I think the saying has meaning when interpreted more literally, especially when discussing giant sequoias.
Particularly the trees we call monarchs — extremely large and old trees — can command our attention and fascination to the point that we don’t realize they are part of a forest.
In the case of giant sequoias in their natural habitat today, the forests are also part of California’s Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile long mountain range that includes Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
To say that these mountains are remarkable is an understatement. They are home to three national parks, two national monuments and 20 wilderness areas. The headwaters of some of California’s most important rivers are in the Sierra. Forests cover much of the Sierra Nevada, and part of the forest includes giant sequoia groves.
It is easy to read about giant sequoias. It is harder to fathom the whole of related issues when you consider the trees and human relationships with the forest where they grow, with the mountain range covered by those forests and other plants and animals that live there too. It is no wonder there is so much controversy.
In August 2022, I had an opportunity to visit Converse Basin Grove, which is one of the most interesting places to learn about giant sequoias. This grove is noteworthy for many reasons. It’s the largest contiguous giant sequoia grove in the world. The Boole Tree, the largest giant sequoia on National Forest land, grows there. And as the Forest Service notes, this grove “gives us a glimpse of a time when Manifest Destiny was the slogan of the day. The axe was king, and engineering feats in the mountains including lumber mills, water flumes, steam locomotives, and unrivaled will power.”
Many of the old photographs that you might have seen of people standing next to giant downed giant sequoias were taken in Converse Basin. Huge stumps are visible throughout the area. The land was privately owned in the late 1800s, and after logging, it was sold to the Forest Service.
Because this was a day trip that included seven hours of driving to and from the grove, I didn’t have much time to see the forest or the trees. But seven years ago, this region was hit by the 151,623-acre Rough Fire, the largest California wildfire in 2015. Not just land on Sequoia and Sierra National Forests but also land in Kings Canyon National Park and some privately owned and state land burned.
Noteworthy is the fact that the Rough Fire was the first large wildfire in modern times to kill a significant number of giant sequoia trees.
Since then, the wildfires have been even larger, and we’ve been shocked by the extent of the damage.
During the Rough Fire, firefighters wrapped the lower area of the Boole Tree (the largest giant sequoia on National Forest lands) to protect it from the fire. But they couldn’t wrap them all.
According to the National Park Service, the Rough Fire burned into seven different sequoia groves or grove complexes. A total of 27 large giant sequoias were killed on NPS land in Grant Grove, and on Forest Service groves, at least 74 fire-killed large sequoias were documented.
When you look at the land today, seven years later, much of the ground is covered by green deerbrush. Away from roads, blackened skeletons of trees still stand on hundreds of acres. These trees were not all giant sequoias. They include black oak and other conifers — firs, pines and cedars.
I’ll write more about my recent visit to Converse Basin Grove. I’m still trying to understand everything I saw (including natural regeneration of giant sequoias).
The area is also an interesting intermix of lands managed by the Forest Service and National Park Service (Kings Canyon National Park). While there, I noticed tour buses taking visitors to see the world’s second-largest sequoia tree, the General Grant Tree, which is part of Grant Grove on NPS lands.
The enormous trees visited by most tourists are important, and we raise awareness when they’re threatened by fire and photos are sent around the world showing the efforts to protect them.
But it’s not enough to see those trees. We need to understand the forest, too.
Note: I wrote this “Perspective” column as part of the second issue of my newsletter, “Giant Sequoia News,” on Aug. 15, 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. This article has been edited to reflect the time of my field trip — Claudia Elliott