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A news photographer is dwarfed by a giant sequoia in Lost Grove as smoke haze from the KNP Complex fire fills the air on September 17, 2021 in Sequoia National Park, California.

A news photographer is dwarfed by a giant sequoia in Lost Grove as smoke haze from the KNP Complex fire fills the air on September 17, 2021 in Sequoia National Park, California. (Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Conservationists Warn the 'Save Our Sequoias Act' Would Do the Opposite

One critic called the legislation "nothing more than a trojan horse" that would do more to harm than help the iconic trees.

Kenny Stancil

A coalition of more than 80 environmental organizations representing millions of Americans has sent a letter urging members of Congress to vote against the so-called "Save Our Sequoias Act"—legislation the groups warn would do the very opposite of what its name suggests.

Smart planning and public engagement as required by NEPA are integral to success, not a barrier to success.

The groups acknowledge in their letter that "[p]rotecting the iconic Giant Sequoias is an important goal," but argue that the proposed legislation, co-authored by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), would "weaken existing environmental law to expedite potentially harmful logging projects that undermine the ecological integrity of sequoia groves."

"Some provisions in the bill," the letter states, "could actually exacerbate the threat to the Giant Sequoias and our forests."

According to the coalition, "bedrock environmental laws"—including the Endangered Species Act (ESA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)—would be "severely undercut" if the proposal were enacted.

Although it is locally focused on California's fire-ravaged sequoia groves, Earthjustice senior legislative representative Blaine Miller-McFeeley warned Wednesday in a statement that "the bill would set a precedent for further weakening of environmental laws that could have far-reaching repercussions nationwide."

"It's nothing more than a trojan horse," said Miller-McFeeley, "to diminish important environmental reviews and cut science and communities out of the decision-making process."

The San Francisco Chronicle, which obtained an advance copy of the bill that McCarthy and Peters plan to introduce this week, reported that under the legislation, "the existing Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition—a group of nonprofit, tribal, local, state and federal land managers who oversee many of the burned areas—could expedite forestry projects aimed at boosting fire resiliency in the standing groves, such as cutting fire lines, thinning brush and prescribed burning, as well as reforesting places where sequoias have died."

"The bill calls for a federal emergency declaration, which would streamline regulations that can potentially hold up the work," the newspaper noted. "The measure also would provide $325 million over 10 years for projects."

In their letter, the environmental groups note that "our primary objections are to Section 6(a)(2), which would waive environmental laws under a broad so-called 'emergency.'"

Neutering the NEPA process and placing decision-making authority into the hands of the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, the groups contend, would amount to deregulation given that the body "does not have to abide by standard transparency requirements afforded by the Federal Advisory Committee Act."

The letter continues:

The legislation would prevent the voices of community members, scientists, and others from being heard. This legislation would lead to rushed and poorly planned logging projects with major impacts on soil, streams, and wildlife that could result in increased wildfire risk and harm recreational opportunities and other uses. Smart planning and public engagement as required by NEPA are integral to success, not a barrier to success. This is especially important when addressing an iconic forest species such as the Giant Sequoias.

The bill would similarly bypass the ESA. In the same section, the bill would waive consultations that ensure proposed projects do not drive species toward extinction. This decision-making process is critical to protect threatened and endangered species. The ESA waiver contradicts the stated intent of the bill, and would make it more likely to harm imperiled species than to help them.

The legislation also creates a new 'categorical exclusion' that must be used by federal land managers to implement the provisions of the law, but the Forest Service and National Parrk Service (NPS) already have an extensive number of authorities and categorical exclusions to complete this type of work. There is no evidence to suggest that needed ecological restoration cannot and does not advance in the absence of yet another categorical exclusion.

McCarthy and Peters' bill, the letter argues, "will do nothing to protect these trees."

"The fact that these trees are experiencing such high mortality is directly related to climate change and fire suppression, and there is already active management occurring on the lands," the letter adds. "We encourage you to protect our forests, protect science and community input, and oppose this highly problematic legislation."

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