Why environmentalists are suing the National Park Service to prevent it from planting trees

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By Jonathan Park and Janna Van Vranken

(CNN) — The National Park Service wants to replant sequoia groves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, where wildfires in 2020 and 2021 inflicted lasting damage on the iconic sequoia forests. Environmentalists in California say it’s a huge mistake.

Four groups filed suit against the NPS on November 17, saying the agency’s effort violates the law as it includes planting in designated wilderness areas, where human involvement in the ecosystem is explicitly prohibited.

The NPS announced the seedling-planting project earlier this fall, saying it was “concerned that 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.”

Chad Hanson, the director of the John Muir Project, one of the groups that filed suit, disputes that conclusion. Sequoias are among the species of trees that actually “depend on high-intensity fire in order to reproduce effectively,” said Hanson told CNN.

“Nature doesn’t need our help,” Hanson said told CNN. “We are not supposed to be getting involved with tending it like a garden.”

Advocates at Wilderness Watch, Sequoia Forest Keeper and the Tule River Conservancy first sued the NPS in September to stop a separate project by the agency to cut and burn trees in the same designated wilderness areas. Coined the “Fuels Reduction Project,” that plan would authorize cutting a thousand acres of timber and make 20,000 additional acres subject to “manager-ignited fires and associated activity,” according to the complaint.

The John Muir Project, a nonprofit focused on ensuring federal public forests are protected, joined the lawsuit on November 17, amending it to include the sequoia replanting project as part of the complaint. The groups now jointly accuse the NPS of illegally encroaching on federally protected land in both of the projects.

A spokesperson for the NPS declined to comment, citing the agency’s policy on ongoing litigation, but confirmed replanting had already begun in two sequoia groves in mid-October, before the latter complaint was filed.

“The Park Service has to abide by the 1964 Wilderness Act,” said Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director at Wilderness Watch. Even if climate change aggravates natural phenomena such as wildfires, the Wilderness Act requires that “we should still allow these natural ecosystems to respond as they want to the changes brought about by the changing climate,” Proescholdt said.

The groups also allege both projects were approved after having circumvented “required processes of environmental review and public engagement,” according to the lawsuit, by declaring them as “emergency” projects that would not have to meet those requirements.

High-intensity wildfires have been a “natural component” of California’s sequoia forests for “tens of millions of years,” Hanson said, and sequoias have evolved since then to adapt to, and even depend on, those fires.

The cones on giant sequoia trees are serotinous, meaning they “need fire that’s intense enough to melt the resins in the cones, and cause the cones to release … millions and millions of seeds,” Hanson said. High-intensity fires also clear the forest floor of organic material — turning it into mineral-rich soil where those seeds can take root — and kills most of the trees in the forest canopy, allowing in the necessary sunlight for saplings to properly grow.

But several agencies, including the NPS and the National Forest Service, have operated on a “Smokey the Bear mentality,” treating natural fires as needing to be suppressed and prevented, without understanding their “historic ecological roles,” Proescholdt said.

“The more that agencies will allow natural fire to burn and perform its role, the better these wilderness forests will be,” he said.

The NPS said in its project announcement it would only replant in areas that field surveys showed “insufficient natural regeneration for forests to successfully re-establish … as they would have done naturally had they not experienced extensive severe fire effects during recent fires.”

Hanson believes, after analyzing three decades’ worth of geological data and satellite imagery of wildfires, that those planned interventions have an effect opposite of what’s intended.

“What we found is that the forest with the fewest environmental protections and the most tree removal had the most intense fire, even in the same forest types,” Hanson said.

If the NPS is allowed to proceed with the projects, it would set a “terrible, terrible precedent for wildernesses across the nation,” Proescholdt said; but he strongly believes the court will side with the plaintiffs.

“We know what the [Wilderness] Act says, and we know how the courts have interpreted the Wilderness Act in the past,” he said. “And that’s why I believe that we will prevail in this case as well.”

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