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Saving sequoias.

EVER SINCE GIANT SEQUOIAS WERE "DISCOVERED IN 1852--and, no doubt, long before--generations of visitors to groves scattered along the western slope of California's Sierra Nevada have marveled at these relics from another age. We stand next to them, craning our necks to look up and up at their sheer sky-scraper mass. We walk among them, awed by the Gothic magnificence of groves where columnar red trunks supporting soaring rafters of green form a forest architecture more inspiring than the grandest manmade cathedrals. And, pondering their almost incomprehensible longevity, we are humbled by trees that were already a millennium old when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. "The wonder," poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have remarked upon first seeing the giant sequoias, "is that we can see these trees and not wonder more."

Even the West's 19th-century politicians, who normally thought of trees only in terms of board feet, recognized the sequoias, nobility when they pushed through legislation creating Sequoia, General Grant (later to become Kings Canyon), and Yosemite national parks in 1890. Urged on by the likes of John Muir and the California Academy of Sciences, the politicians wanted specifically to protect the biggest trees and most spectacular groves from logging Although trees so immense tended to shatter when felled, limiting their usefulness, they made durable fence rails and roof shakes. By the late 1880s, hundreds of acres of giants had been leveled throughout their limited range.

A century later, many people are still concerned about sequoias and the effects of the saw. Only about a third of the world's remaining big trees are protected in state and national parks; 41 percent are in national forests where, for most of the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service routinely permitted clear-cutting of all trees in sequoia groves except for the venerable giants themselves.

A lawsuit followed by two years of negotiations among environmentalists, the Forest Service, and the timber industry resulted in an agreement (known as the 1990 Mediated Settlement Agreement), which, among other things, banned future commercial logging in old-growth sequoia groves. But now an environmental coalition, the Sequoia Alliance, argues that the agreement was only a first step, and that the only way to ensure the survival of the last unprotected groves is to create a Giant Sequoia National Forest Preserve that would vastly expand the logging ban. Some foresters and timber industry representatives argue just as strongly, however, that logging is necessary if sequoias are to survive.

You can't truly appreciate how big giant sequoias are, or begin to understand what is happening in their groves, until you see this country from the air," insists Martin Litton as we climb into his vintage Cessna 195 at the Porterville airport. Firing up the engine, the 76-year-old crusader for sequoia preservation pulls on a headset over a mane of hair as white as his beard and motions for me to do the same. "Don't worry," he crackles over the intercom as we lift off the ground. "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." Suddenly he leans the plane into a tight 360[degrees] turn to point out stacks of pine and fir logs from Sequoia National Forest at a lumber mill in the foothill town of Terra Bella. "Of course," he deadpans, "I'm not all that old."

The destination of our early-morning flight is an area south of Sequoia National Park that is the largest of three units in the proposed giant sequoia preserve. The Cessna climbs quickly toward the southern edge of Sequoia National Park. In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Great Western Divide glitter like diamonds in the brilliant sunlight; below us, the shadowy foothills quickly rise to steep, forested ridges as we cross into the proposed preserve. Still climbing toward and with the sun, the plane approaches a ridgetop that suddenly blazes to life with a backlit incandescence that snaps the uppermost trees into focus. Towering above the pointed tops of neighboring pine and cedar, the older sequoias thrust gnarled branches up and out from lofty red trunks to support regal green crowns. Weathered by century after century of freezing snow and brutal storms, these ancient survivors have a savage, almost primeval appearance, with huge, angular limbs and thinning, broken branches that give them the defiant look of primitive totems.

"In all my years of studying sequoias, I've never seen one that has died on its feet," Litton remarks. "If fire or insects don't get them, about the only thing that will naturally kill a sequoia is falling over. Then, of course, there's man."

Litton swings the plane south along the Tule-Kern divide, over Freeman Creek, the craggy pinnacles of The Needles, and then Long Meadow, where he banks into another tight, gut-churning turn. Below the right wing, I see scarred red hillsides that appear to have been stripped of everything but the solitary spires of big sequoias.

Long Meadow was one of the first big-tree groves in Sequoia National Forest where the Forest Service allowed logging about 10 years ago. "They say it was done to help sequoias reproduce," says Litton, "but that's a lot of bull. The only reason the Forest Service started logging in sequoia groves was to get more logs to that mill down in Terra Bella."

Angling back toward Porterville, we fly over grove after grove--Starvation Creek, Peyrone, and the complex of groves on Black Mountain--where saws and tractors have left slopes raw beneath the giants. "Most people think the sequoias are protected in national parks," says Litton, as he points out a trio of solitary sequoias dubbed the Three Sisters on a steep, barren slope. "The fact is, most have no permanent protection. And if what we see down there is any indication, I don't believe we can trust the U.S. Forest Service, which manages more sequoia groves than all three national parks combined, to do the right thing on its own."

Bob Rogers, giant sequoia specialist for Sequoia National Forest, grips the wheel of the pale green government carryall with both hands as he steers slowly up a washboard road leading through a thick, dark wood. We're heading to a 60-acre sequoia grove called Bearskin where, in 1983, white firs and pines were cleared from 17 acres.

"I know there are people out there who believe our only motivation for logging in sequoia groves is to cut timber, but the issue is much more complicated than that." Rogers speaks softly but firmly, with the quiet confidence of a forester who has spent 16 years working among the sequoias. "Giant sequoias need disturbed land and sunlight for new seedlings to grow. In nature this some times occurs when a big tree falls, but most natural regeneration occurs after a fire. Over the last hundred years, we have done a pretty good job of keeping fire out of the forests."

Rogers pulls over at the foot of a slope marked here and there by solitary big trees, and, jumping out of the four wheeler, leads up a deer track through clumps of long spined whitethorn that claw at my jeans. Halfway up the slope, we climb out on the trunk of a fallen sequoia, and he points to the thick, uncut timber edging the road to the clearing, where crowns of sequoias are unmistakable above the lesser trees.

"This slope looked like that before the cut. With forest that dense, only shade-tolerant species can reproduce there now, and with pine and fir that big, a fire there today would likely reach the crowns of those sequoias, killing them." As we head back to the carryall, Rogers points out the green caps of sequoia seedlings poking up through the scrub and whitethorn. "After burning off the slash, we planted 6,300 giant sequoia seedlings here in 1986, but a lot of what you see is a bumper crop of natural volunteers."

When I ask about the much larger cuts I had seen on Black Mountain, Rogers hesitates, gathering his thoughts, then admits, "If we had stopped and been more sensitive to the concerns of the public at the beginning, we probably would have managed the other areas differently. The controversy we created was one of scale, going too large and taking too many trees too quickly."

It's already a warm morning in the orange grove-covered foothills around Terra Bella, and under the fabricated steel roof of the Sierra Forest Products mill, it's downright hot. General Manager Kent Duysen leads me past a conveyor of rattling chains and rollers, where big logs groan and crash as they run through the whirling scrapers of the debarker, then head toward the first, and biggest, saw in the mill: an oily, sawdust-covered monster called the head rig.

Duysen's words are lost against the hissing of hydraulic pistons as the head rig's steel fingers roll a log under computerized sensors that determine the most efficient way to make the critical first cut. Clamps grip the timber as the movable rig runs it once, twice, three times through the saw before the next log crashes onto the rig. When we climb stairs above the fresh-cut wood to the control booth,the air is filled with the familiar fragrance of . . . pencils.

"Today we're cutting cedar into 3- by 3-inch pencil squares," explains Duysen, who has lived in Porterville since his father built the mill in 1967. Dressed in blue jeans and work boots, he looks more like a mill hand than a businessman. "We have one of the most efficient multidimension small mills in the state," he states proudly.

"Nothing is wasted. Bark goes to nurseries, and chips and sawdust are burned in our cogeneration plant, which produces 9 megawatts of electricity.

Duysen frowns as he looks out over the cedar boards getting smaller as they roll from saw to saw. "With a worldwide fiber shortage already beginning, we should be in great shape, but our biggest problem is supply. For the last two years, we've been 90 percent dependent on salvage logging of timber killed by fire or bugs. The 1990 agreement was bad enough, but now a bunch of local environmentalists have filed another lawsuit challenging four timber sales outside sequoia groves. We've had to cut down to one shift a day, and even then, if those sales are blocked, we only have a six-month supply of timber left."

The 1990 agreement was a difficult one for Duysen to sign. It reduced the allowable cut on Sequoia National Forest lands by 25 percent--a big bite for a mill that depends on the national forest for almost all of its logs. But what made signing most difficult was that Duysen, who has a degree in forestry and has worked in the woods most of his life, doesn't buy the premise that a logging ban is good for the forest. "We are facing an ecological and economic disaster in Sequoia National Forest if we don't allow professional foresters to manage those resources to reduce fire danger and keep the forests healthy. We signed the 1990 agreement because we wanted to get beyond the litigation and to work with the Forest Service and environmentalists to benefit sequoias and to assure a supply of timber. But there seems to be no compromise or middle ground with some of these people; they want it all. If this new proposal for a national preserve becomes law, it will close the rest of the forest to commercial timber harvest and to sound forest management. There is no question that it will put us out of business."

Porterville fifth-grade teacher Carla Cloer pauses to order another iced tea from the waitress at the local coffee shop where we share a hard-benched booth, then resumes her story about a favorite grove of sequoias that she rides into on horseback every summer. A third-generation native whose family homesteaded here in 1876, she knows the timeless sequoia groves tucked back in these mountains better than most.

Cloer has been riding her horses through the high forests behind Camp Nelson since she was 12, but it wasn't until 1962, near her 20th birthday, that she saw her first clear-cut. "Over the years since then, I've watched as more and more of the forest has disappeared, but I didn,t real shortly before my friend Charlene Little discovered the logging in the Long Meadow sequoias. I was shocked. I thought sequoias were protected.

"The Forest Service had assured us there was no logging in sequoia groves," she continued. "After Charlene, s discovery, we started looking at other Forest Service records and discovered that eight more sequoia groves totaling about a thousand acres were under contract as part of larger timber sales. That's when we decided to take the Forest Service to court."

Riffling through a satchel of photos and documents, Cloer bristles at talk of forest lockups. "Over the past 40 years timber companies have cut most of the available old growth in Sequoia National Forest. And the kicker is that logging here isn't even profitable anymore," she insists, citing an independent consultant's report that claims logging in Sequoia National Forest actually cost taxpayers $6.5 million last year.

Putting aside her research, Cloer looks out the window to ward the haze-obscured mountains. She sighs, and pushes her hair back from tired eyes. "I never intended to become an activist, but part of what really drives me is that this agency wasn't doing the right thing; greed and bureaucracy were ruining these mountains.

"For the short term, the giant sequoias themselves are probably protected, but I'm concerned about the long term. Policy can chance and I don't want to keep fighting this battle. I grew up believing the forests would always be here, and I found I was wrong. I'm fighting now for the preserve--it's the only way to assure that sequoias will be there not only for me, but for my daughter."

The best and biggest: A guide to giant sequoia hikes and drives

ALTHOUGH THE LARGEST concentrations are in the southern Sierra, giant sequoia groves range as far north as the American River. Here are some of our favorite discoveries throughout their range.

Giants of the north

The two sequoia groves in Calaveras Big Trees State Park are the northernmost groves easily accessible to visitors. While the park's long-popular North Grove is no slouch, the much larger yet less visited South Grove is truly magical. It does take more effort to get to, though. From the entrance station just off State Highway 4, a winding road leads 9 miles down one side of the Stanislaus River Canyon and up the other to the grove's trailhead parking area. From there, it's a mile hike to the grove and the 3 1/2 mile trail that circles through it.

Yosemite's secret groves

To avoid the crush of summer crowds overflowing parking lots and waiting in lines for shuttle trams at Yosemite's Mariposa Grove, head north to the park's pair of more intimate groves.

Tuolumne Grove is just 1 1/2 miles down Old Big Oak Flat Road. One of the park's least traveled roads, the 6-mile, one-way lane meanders across a wooded canyon between Tioga Road and Hodgdon Meadow. From a small parking area, short interpretive loop trail offers an introduction to sequoias and the mixed forest they inhabit. Nearby, a dirt road detours about 50 yards to the park's original tunnel tree, a standing snag with a drive-through hole cut in 1878.

For even more solitude, head back about 4 miles toward the valley on the main Big Oak Flat Road to a roadside pullout on the right. A 2-mile dirt road open only to hikers leads down-through stately sugar pines to the small but impressive Merced Grove, nestled in a moist valley.

A mighty survivor

Converse Basin, just outside Kings Canyon National Park, is a good place to see examples of both victims and survivors of logging, including the largest tree in any national forest.

From Grant Grove Village in the park, take State Highway 180 north about 4 1/2 miles, then turn left on Forest Road 13S55. In about 2 miles, you drive through Stump Meadow, a marshy clearing where only mammoth stumps remain as evidence of a sequoia stand that may have rivaled Kings Canyon's Grant Grove before it was logged over in the 1880s.

Park at the end of the road to hike Boole Tree Trail, a nearly 3-mile loop. Named for the mill superintendent who spared the venerable sequoia after all the others surrounding it had been cut, the Boole Tree is a brooding monster overshadowing its second-growth neighbors.

Don't miss the generals

Like Yosemite's Mariposa Grove, the major groves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks are, if anything, too popular. And yet, groves like Giant Forest in Sequoia and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon--stands of ancient redwoods containing a number of the world's largest trees--are among the most sublime anywhere, and so shouldn't the missed.

The strategy for visiting either grove is simple: go early. Get on Generals Highway while other campers are still frying bacon and you'll have the corridor through these natural cathedrals almost to yourself. At Grant Grove, the 1/3-mile General Grant Tree Trail loops past the tree once believed to be the world's largest. At Giant Forest, park just across from the General Sherman, the generally acknowledged champion. Allow at least an hour to stroll the paved, 2-mile Congress Trail, which loops through the Senate, House, and Founder's groups.

More than sequoias

The sequoia groves near Freeman Creek are as impressive as any, but it is the diversity of plant species mingled in these woods that persuaded the Forest Service to designate the entire drainage as a botanical preserve. A 6-mile round-trip hike leads down through tall stands of sugar pine, white and red fir, and incense cedar before hitting the first stands of giant sequoias.

The trailhead is about a 1/2-hour drive up State Highway 190 from Camp Nelson. From Quaking Aspen Campground, head north on the highway about 1/4 mile, turn right, and follow the paved road about 1/2 mile to a signed dirt road on the right, which leads about 1/4 mile to the Freeman Creek trailhead.

A long way from anywhere

By most measurements, the Long Meadow Grove is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. It's one of the most dramatic sequoia groves outside a park, though, and well worth searching out.

The Trail of a Hundred Giants, a 1/2-mile disabled accessible path built primarily by local volunteers, weaves through this deep and peaceful stand of ancient redwoods. (For a sobering contrast, drive 1/2 mile south of the trailhead and hike up through the sun-baked clearing to the right to survey the hill side cleared by the Longsaddle timber sale in 1985.) The trail head is across State Highway 190 from Redwood Meadow Campground.

A sequoia country visitor's guide

Most sequoia groves are far from civilization, so a visit requires some advance planning. We've rounded up some information that will make planning easier. Unless otherwise noted, all phone numbers are area code 209.

National parks: Reservations are essential for accommodations in all parks. Camp sites in many Yosemite campgrounds and at Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia can here served by calling Mistix at (800) 365-2267.

Yosemite: For general park information, call the Park Service at 372-0200; for lodging call the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. at 252-4848. If park lodging is full, ask for referrals in Wawona and Fish Camp, which are near the Mariposa Grove.

Sequoia and King's Canyon: Early arrival will help land a campsite on a first-come basis in all park campgrounds. For park information, call 565-3134; for lodging reservations, call Guest Services Reservations at 561-3314. Note that weekday road construction starting in September will cause traffic delays around Sequoia's Ash Mountain entrance.

Sequoia National Forest: Your best bet for camping in the southern sequoias outside of crowded Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks is one of the 59 campgrounds in this sprawling national forest. This summer, you can reserve sites at 33 of those campgrounds by calling Mistix at (800) 283-2267.

For maps or information on areas north of Kings Canyon stop at Hume Lake Ranger Station (open 8 to 5 weekdays, to 4:30 Saturdays) on State 180 just east of Squaw Valley, or call 338-2251. For areas south of Sequoia National Park, call Tule River Ranger Station (539-2607), on State 190 just below Springville, or Hot Springs Ranger Station (805/548-6503), just beyond California Hot Springs, off Hot Springs Road on Road M50; both are open from 8 to 4:30 daily in summer. For maps and information on the entire forest, write or call Sequoia National Forest, 900 W. Grand Ave., Porterville 93257; 784-1500.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park: For park information, call 795-2334; reserve camping through Mistix by calling (800) 444-7275.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Phillips, Jeff
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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