They are the largest living non-communal organisms on the planet. Some were alive when Confucius was born; some even when Ancient Rome was founded. They have stood rooted in place and thrived while fire raged around them. The giant sequoia is one of Earth’s most astounding treasures. And though they once covered North America, towering above even the tallest dinosaurs, today the western Sierra Nevadas are their only home.
Efforts to protect and preserve these keepers of history have been long and complex, but historically, September has been an auspicious month for giant sequoia trees.
On September 25, 1890, the first part of a battle for giant sequoia conservation that had already been waged for over a decade came to an end when a bill was signed ensuring protection for certain areas of the forest. Yet the struggle was far from over. The lands that became a national park that day were but a small part of the area that early conservationists hoped one day to protect, and a tiny percentage of the giant sequoia’s habitat. Some of the remaining lands, including those surrounding the famous Grant Grove, which had previously been cut off from other protected areas, were added to the park exactly one week later when a second mysterious bill — one whose author has never been identified — came to Congress in the last week of September and was signed into law on October 1. Kings Canyon did not gain national park status until 1940, forming the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks that visitors enjoy today.
Still, between Sequoia & Kings Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, only about half of the giant sequoias were protected. Luckily, the national parks are not the only place where giant sequoias are protected today. In April 2000, President Bill Clinton created Giant Sequoia National Monument on lands within Sequoia National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service was tasked with drafting a management plan for the newly established national monument, but when the plan was completed two years later, several environmental groups, along with the California attorney general, found it lacking and challenged it in court. Judge Charles R. Breyer of the United States District Court for Northern California sided with them and the Forest Service was asked to begin again.
They went at it with renewed vigor. This time, the process took six years and a lot of input from the public. Finally, this year, another September victory was won for giant sequoias. The new management plan became official on September 4th, allowing more than 300,000 acres of forest to join those in the national parks as protected lands that will never be used as timber.
It’s difficult to pin down one day of the year to celebrate our giant sequoias and the advances that have been made over the years in protecting them for future generations. Some would say tomorrow, September 25, is the anniversary of the park; others would say it’s October 1. Some might say we were not truly able to celebrate until a few weeks ago when the management plan for Giant Sequoia National Monument was complete. Perhaps it’s better not to choose a day. It serves as a reminder that we should celebrate these herculean trees every day as well as a reminder that our work protecting forests is still not done.