The intervention comes in response to a lawsuit filed by timber and off-highway vehicle interests whose damaging uses of the lands now inside the monument are eliminated or restricted by the designation. Sadly, the industry groups have been joined by local groups and citizens who fear the repercussions of the designation, despite having much to gain from the new monument. The lawsuit asks the court to invalidate the monument designation, which President Clinton created under the Antiquities Act on April 15, 2000.
"This legal assault on the Giant Sequoia National Monument seeks to erase the protections that the giant sequoia groves need to survive in the long term, and at the same time subvert the President's ability to protect our national treasures as monuments," said Earthjustice attorney Michael Sherwood. "The fate of the monument and the Antiquities Act as a conservation tool are at stake. We hope to uphold both for the use and enjoyment of future generations."
The lawsuit, brought by Sierra Forest Products, Sierra Nevada Access Multiple-Use & Stewardship Coalition, Tulare County, and other groups, is just one of several legal challenges to the Clinton administration's national monument designations. Elsewhere, conservationists represented by Earthjustice lawyers have been forced to intervene to defend the Grand Canyon-Parashant, Canyons of the Ancients, Cascade-Siskiyou, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments from lawsuits seeking to overturn their designations. Judging from past comments made by President Bush and other officials of the new administration, the federal government will do little to defend the new national monuments.
"The obvious antipathy of the Bush administration toward Clinton's public lands legacy, especially the national monuments, makes it all the more crucial that conservationists intervene in this lawsuit to defend the Giant Sequoia Monument designation," said Nathaniel Lawrence of NRDC, who is co-counsel for the conservation groups. "We can't count on the new administration to mount a vigorous defense."
The 327,769-acre national monument, in the southern Sierra Nevada, protects 34 of only 70 remaining groves of giant sequoia. These groves are the last remnants of a once widespread species that has been a part of the North American landscape for millions of years. Giant sequoia are the largest trees on earth, and are among the oldest. Individual trees can live more than 3,200 years, and preserve in their annual growth rings a long record of climate change, drought, and fire regimes.
Because the big trees are a dependent part of the larger forest ecosystem, the monument also includes the wide areas within each grove's watershed, including an elevation range of 7,000 feet, habitat for sensitive species like the Pacific fisher and great gray owl, and multiple Native American archaeological sites. In achieving this protection, the monument designation eliminates only the most damaging former uses of the area. Though timber harvest will no longer take place and OHV use will be reduced within its boundaries, the monument provides for recreation of all kinds, maintains private property rights and existing special use permits, and will allow for fuels reduction under a new management plan.
"The fundamental purpose of the monument designation was to provide protection to the giant sequoia, as well as to the overall ecosystem in which these trees are found," said Jay Watson, Regional Director of The Wilderness Society. "The giant sequoia are the sentinel trees of the Sierra Nevada -- California's Range of Light, and they deserve complete protection."
For all their bulk and longevity, giant sequoia are ecologically fragile. They grow only on sites with an ample supply of subsurface water, and their shallow roots leave them vulnerable to toppling when the surrounding forest is cleared.
"A few years of timber harvest can do damage to a sequoia grove's watershed and surrounding environment that takes a lifetime to repair," said Joe Fontaine, vice-chairman of the Sierra Club's Sequoia Task Force. "We've known for years that in the long run it's ineffective to protect individual trees while the forest around them is stripped bare. Sequoia depend on a healthy forest ecosystem."
Carla Cloer, a founder of the Tule River Conservancy and chair of the Sequoia Task Force, agreed, "Sequoia ecosystems include the physical environment and all living organisms found where giant sequoia grow, from soil and groundwater to bacteria, chickarees, and the big trees themselves. The monument designation is the first management scheme that truly recognizes these relationships."