A federal judge in Washington, DC threw out a lawsuit Friday seeking to dismantle the Giant Sequoia National Monument, which was created by President Clinton to conserve nearly 330,000 acres of forest ecosystems and the last unprotected giant sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada. The suit was 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.
Strongly reaffirming the President's power under the Antiquities Act to reserve public land for the purpose of protecting objects of historical and scientific interest, the court held that plaintiffs could demonstrate "no set of facts" that the President had violated the law in establishing the monument. The court also firmly rejected plaintiffs' other assorted challenges to the monument, including allegations that it violated the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
"The ruling is a clear victory for the environment and sends a strong message to those lodging such spurious challenges to well-established law. As our judge recognized, the Antiquities Act had been challenged six times before and courts have upheld its use each time," said Earthjustice attorney Michael Sherwood.
Earthjustice represented a coalition of environmental groups who had sought to intervene in the suit, which was brought by Sierra Forest Products, Sierra Nevada Access Multiple-Use & Stewardship Coalition, Tulare County, and other groups. "We are extremely pleased that the judge saw that the case had no merit and decided it should go no further," Sherwood added.
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 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 sequoias are the sentinel trees of the Sierra Nevada -- California's Range of Light, and they deserve complete protection."
"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."
Giant Sequoia National Monument website