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Under Review: What's At Stake In The Giant Sequoia National Monument?

May 16, 2017

Last month President Donald Trump signed an executive order putting 20 plus national monuments across the country under review including Giant Sequoia National Monument in the mountains of Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties. Now 17 years after the monument's creation, its existence is in question.

"If I have the energy I will keep fighting if the worst comes to pass." - Carla Cloer
There are 33 giant sequoia groves in the monument.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Carla Cloer fell in love with giant sequoias as a kid riding horseback through the forest. We’re sitting on a log under the canopy of her favorite grove of giants in the monument, Belknap Grove.

“Well this place is really my heart's home,” says Cloer. “It’s where I feel connection to the earth and to nature. I’m hoping human beings will treasure it.”

The 74 year-old’s family homesteaded in the area and she’s fought to keep the 33 groves in the monument safe for decades. Cloer doesn’t think the monument needs to be reviewed and says if it loses its status giant sequoias could be in danger.

“Opening up these lands to commodity extraction I believe is the motive,” Cloer says. “You ask me what’s at stake here. Prior to the designation of the monument these forests, right here where you’re sitting, were in what they call the timber base.”

In the executive order President Trump signed last month, he asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to look into a variety of things. Things like are the monuments too big, do they hurt the economy and do to people like them. The 328,000 acre Giant Sequoia National Monument was designated by former President Bill Clinton in 2000 and is split between two areas. The northern portion is near Kings Canyon National Park and the southern part is near Sequoia National Forest. The Forest Service manages the monument.

"It does not include that authority, because Congress didn't give it to him. There's the power to create, but no the power to modify or revoke monument designation." - Bob Keiter
Credit US Forest Service

But what’s really at risk here? Part of the fear of those opposing the review is that if its status is lost it could open the door for logging or mineral exploration. They wouldn’t be cutting down 2,000 year old giant sequoias.

And right now there’s no commercial logging happening here, but they are cutting down trees killed by bark beetles around homes, roads and campsites. Critics fear without the monument the entire area could be opened up to logging. Even if the sequoias themselves aren’t cut down environmental advocates like Carla Cloer say logging could still destroy the ecosystem here.

Crews are removing dead trees killed by bark beetle within the monument around homes, roads and campgrounds.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“You drive a bulldozer around the sequoias and you make it hotter and drier,” Cloer says. “You subject it to greater wind effect, you change the microclimate and I say you really have ensured the demise of those trees even if you haven't been able to see it in your own lifetime.”

The President wouldn’t have to get rid of all of the monument. He could rezone the boundaries of the monument for separate uses, like logging.

How the forest is managed is a big part of the controversy over the monument. Eric LaPrice is the District Ranger for the Western Divide Ranger District in Springville. He says his crews haven’t focused on thinning out dead trees near sequoia groves recently because of lack of resources, even though he says the dead trees increase the risk of wildfire around the groves.

“We had to prioritize, because we can’t do it all at once,” La Price says. “That does not mean we’re forgetting about those areas that are not a direct threat to the public. Even though we have not been able to actively thin around the groves, we have been able to manage some fire on the landscape.”

Not everyone likes the idea of the monument. There have been several lawsuits over the monument including one involving Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley. He says he doesn't think the Forest Service manages the monument well and says he explained that to Interior Secretary Zinke a few weeks ago on a trip to Washington.

“The monument has been a failure on the part of the Forest Service to administer the mission, which would be the protection and perpetuation of giant sequoias,” Worthley says. “You’ll see a lot of dead trees surrounding the groves. There’s been nothing done to preserve or protect the groves.”

"Even though we have not been able to actively thin around the groves, we have been able to manage some fire on the landscape." - Eric LaPrice
Eric LaPrice manages the Sequoia National Forest as well as the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Worthley says the giant sequoias should be protected, but he doesn’t think they have to be within in a monument to do so. He says the creation of the monument hurt the local economy and says he wouldn’t mind if areas of it were open for activities like logging.

“It had that effect of destroying an industry that had been in place since 1949,” Worthley says. “Since then the Forest Service has basically taken a passive approach to Forest management, which means do nothing and we’re now living out the results of that passive management.”

But what happens if the Secretary of Interior recommends the President drop the monuments status? Does President Trump really even have the authority to remove the status?

“There is not any precedent in history of a president acting through his executive authority revoking or rescinding a national monument proclamation,” says Bob Keiter, a specialist in public lands law at the University of Utah College of Law.

Keiter says if a president does that it may present a legal problem because the Antiquities Act, which gives the president the right to create a monument, doesn’t say much about the president stripping a monument of its status.

“It does not include that authority, because Congress didn’t give it to him,” Keiter says. “There’s the power to create, but no the power to modify or revoke monument designation.”

Keiter says if the Secretary recommends a status loss it would result in lawsuits and could take years to change and maybe even require a congressional vote.

“So the question is whether that power can be inferred from the Antiquities Act, because it's certainly not given to the president explicitly in the constitution,” Keiter says.

At 74 Carla Cloer says she's not going to stop fighting for the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

We reached out the Department of the Interior but did not receive a response to our requests for an interview.

Back in the monument under the trees along the middle fork of the Tule River Carla Cloer says she’s not going to let her decades of defending these ancient giants go to waste.

“If I have the energy I will keep fighting if the worst comes to pass,” Cloer says. “There will be a whole new generation of others that will fight because if they undo the sequoia monument there are many other national monuments they’ll be after next.”

In the meantime as the monuments are being reviewed the public can weigh in by filing comments until July 10. In a press release both the secretary and the president say they “strongly believe that local input is a critical component of federal land management.”