Protecting Wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

The National Park Service plans to cut most of the trees surrounding these Giant Sequoias in the Lost Grove within a Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness area. Photo by René Voss.

“With regard to areas of wilderness, we should be guardians not gardeners.”

– Howard Zahniser, Wilderness Act author

Last September, Wilderness Watch, Sequoia ForestKeeper, and Tule River Conservancy filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service (NPS), challenging the agency’s unlawful decision to implement extensive and motorized tree cutting and burning across thousands of acres of designated Wilderness within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. The original complaint was amended in November to also challenge the NPS’s unlawful decision to implement extensive tree planting across designated Wilderness within the same national parks. At that time, the John Muir Project was also added as a plaintiff group. The lawsuit is now awaiting action in the federal courts.

The National Park Service authorized the fuel reduction and tree planting project through an October 2022 decision memorandum that was styled as constituting “alternative arrangements” for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However, the agency short-circuited NEPA’s requirements for public involvement and environmental review. Furthermore, the thousands of acres of tree cutting with chainsaws and other motorized activity directly contravenes earlier plans implemented by NPS, which acknowledged the ways in which such activity is unlawful within Wilderness.

The Wilderness Act prohibits NPS from intentionally altering natural processes in designated Wilderness areas and specifically prohibits the use of motor vehicles and motorized equipment (helicopters and chainsaws) by which the agency plans to implement its tree cutting, burning, and planting project. Nonetheless, NPS made the now-challenged decision to intensively reconfigure the forest structure in and around sequoia groves deep within the Wilderness areas.

The National Park Service decided to forego the environmental analysis and public engagement process typically required by NEPA. Instead, the agency fashioned its project authorization as “emergency” activities, citing certain provisions applicable to NEPA that allow agencies to act quickly in the immediacy of discrete emergencies and to thus adjust the mode with which they then satisfy their NEPA obligations.

The National Park Service’s approach to “fuels reduction” and tree planting in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks does not fit the mold of a qualified emergency. Instead, the agency’s project spans tens of thousands of acres of landscape-scale modifications, with planning that was framed prospectively to be implemented over an indefinite period of years. Our legal challenge focuses on the detriment to the public in allowing federal agencies to shield large-scale and controversial projects from public involvement under the guise of “emergency.”

Abundant natural regeneration of giant sequoia seedlings in a large high-intensity fire patch in the Redwood Mountain Grove within the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness, one of the groves the National Park Service claims is not regenerating and in need of artificial plantings. Photo taken September 29, 2023 by Doug Bevington.

Additionally, experts from outside the NPS, like Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project, have noted that mortality of the mature sequoias from recent fires has not been as extensive as the NPS first reported. Dr. Hanson and his team have also seen that natural regeneration in many of the burned sequoia groves in designated Wilderness has been quite robust, just as the sequoias have evolved to do after fire. Dr. Hanson has walked among thousands of sequoia seedlings already pushing up from the forest floor, absent any NPS meddling.

The National Park Service often demonstrates a certain arrogance and hubris toward the 1964 Wilderness Act and designated Wilderness. “The National Park Service,” quipped one of my colleagues, “thinks it answers to a higher calling than those pesky laws like NEPA and the Wilderness Act.” That seems to be the case in the agency’s plans to log, burn, and plant in the designated Wilderness portions of Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

In September of 2024, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Wilderness Act into law. Given humanity’s ever-increasing onslaught to damage, develop, and manipulate natural landscapes, the need for the Wilderness Act is greater than it has ever been.

That’s why it’s so important to defend those precious areas that Congress has designated as Wilderness, and at times, to protect them even from the agencies that administer them. And that’s why wilderness advocates will continue to fight to protect the wild, unmanipulated, and untrammeled Wilderness of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks from the Park Service’s misguided plans.

Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis serves as the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization. He has worked to protect the BWCAW for nearly 50 years, guided wilderness canoe trips in the area for 10 years, helped pass the 1978 BWCAW Act through Congress and co-authored the definitive history of that effort: Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.