Giant sequoia trees are the biggest living things on Earth. They can exceed 30 feet in diameter and 300 feet in height. That's taller than the Statue of Liberty! Why is it important that we protect the giant sequoias?
Millions of years ago, sequoias grew throughout America's West. Today, they grow naturally only on a narrow band 15 miles wide and 260 miles long on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California. These towering giants have inspired awe in human beings for centuries.
The largest stand as tall as 26-floor skyscrapers; their bases exceed the width of most city streets. The Paiute and Shoshone Indians used to drink sequoia sap in the belief that it would help them ingest the power of the trees.
In addition to their size and majesty, giant sequoias are special because of their age. In the 38 groves contained in the new national monument, there are some sequoias that are more than 3,000 years old. The region the sequoias grow in is also important to preserve because it supports many rare species of animals and birds such as the California spotted owl, the wolverine, and the Pacific fisher. These threatened species need to live in old-growth forests that contain trees at least 200 years old. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, only 10% of the original old-growth forests remain in the continental United States.
Until Clinton's declaration last month, about half of the nation's sequoiasthose found within the Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parkswere protected. But more than half of the nation's sequoias are located in Sequoia National Forest. Logging had been off-limits here since 1992, but the long-term safety of the trees was never guaranteed. The national monument status means that approximately 400,000 acres are now protected permanently from logging and the building of new roads. People will still be allowed to hike, horseback ride, camp, fish, hunt, and ski in the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Other natural geological features that have received national monument status include the Petrified Forest in Arizona and the Grand Canyon. These were later converted to national parks.
The redwood family consist
of three kinds of trees: coast redwoods,
which are found on the West Coast from
central California to southern Oregon;
the giant sequoias this article talks
about; and China's dawn redwoods. The
California varieties are often confused,
but they are very different trees.
The Redwood Family
The redwood family consist of three kinds of trees: coast redwoods, which are found on the West Coast from central California to southern Oregon; the giant sequoias this article talks about; and China's dawn redwoods. The California varieties are often confused, but they are very different trees.
Sequoias are unusually hardy trees. (This is why their reddish, decay-resistant wood was often sought after to make furniture.) Their bark can be 2-feet thick, which helps them withstand threats such as insects and fires. Ironically, throughout history, forest fires sparked by lightning provided the ideal living environment for the giant sequoia. Fire would heat the sequoia cones, which released the seeds. The fires also cleared out brush and other trees, providing the seeds with the bare soil they needed to germinate and the large forest openings the seedlings needed to get enough sunlight.
Around 1900, however, people began thinking that they should try to control forest fires. The United States Forest Service began fighting fires in the Sierra Nevada in 1905.
It didn't take long before the new policy began affecting the ecosystem. By the mid-1900s, new giant sequoias were no longer taking root because thick vegetation on the forest floor was choking off the seedlings. Also, different types of shade-tolerant trees, such as the white fir and incense-cedar, were growing alongside the giant sequoias. In this way, whole generations of young trees were lost, either because the seeds failed to sprout, or because the young saplings couldn't compete with the surrounding trees for sunlight.
Today, the Park Service intentionally sets fires in sequoia groves to restore this natural process.