Video: The unbelievable Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park became the nation's second national park, after Yellowstone National Park. (At Home in Wild Spaces)

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SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK — Imagine actually coming across Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster and, suddenly, what was previously only legend and folktale — leaps from myth into reality.

That's exactly what happened when Anglo-Americans first encountered the giant sequoias of California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Trees so massive that people simply couldn't believe they were anything other than a fable.

Several of the largest trees were cut down and partially reassembled for public viewing in cities across the nation, and the public still repeatedly dismissed the evidence of their own eyes, theorizing that the unbelievably massive tree trunks were not from a single gigantic tree but, instead, assembled from several trees as part of an elaborate hoax.

It would take decades for the reality of California's giant sequoias to penetrate public skepticism and make way for the preservation of the largest trees on earth. But in 1890 came a breakthrough. Sequoia National Park became the nation's second national park, after Yellowstone National Park.

But this designation was different. For the first time in history, a park was created, not for the purpose of preserving scenery, or geothermal oddities, but to preserve and shelter living organisms — some more than 3,000 years old, reaching the height of a 30-story skyscraper.

And, 133 years following the creation of the Sequoia National Park, it can still be hard to believe just how colossal these mammoth trees are.

The largest of all known trees on the planet can be found in Sequoia National Park, within the grove known appropriately as the Giant Forest. This video includes a stunning, one-of-a-kind high-dynamic range look at the famed General Sherman, but also cautions that this remarkable forest is so much more than the home of the largest known tree on earth.

This is an ageless landscape that strains every list of adjectives, and there are growing fears that these titans might soon be lost forever.

Between 2015-2021 more than 85% of all remaining giant sequoia groves have been ravaged by unprecedented fires. Only 25% of sequoia groves were similarly charred in the previous century. In many areas, fires have burned so intensely and the resulting tree mortality is so severe, that according to the National Park Service, it's unlikely the forest will ever naturally recover. Instead, mountainsides and canyons that once housed some of the most colossal trees on earth will become scrublands and vastly more susceptible to fire in the future.

In areas where natural regeneration is unlikely, National Park Service officials are considering a plan to replant the lost forests and asking for public input, according to Sequoia National Park public affairs officer Sintia Kawasaki-Yee.

Even if the plan moves forward with trees planted this year, it would take thousands of years to restore the iconic stands of lost giants. Sequoias are among the fastest-growing trees on the planet, but restoring lost, iconic forests will take many, many, many human lifetimes.

Giants in crisis

By the numbers, the fiery carnage of the last few years has been staggering. And according to Sequoia National Park fire and communication specialist Rebecca Patterson, those losses are deeply, deeply troubling to public lands managers.

In 2020, the Castle fire scorched more than 170,000 acres, killing anywhere between 10-14% of all large surviving sequoias. The following year, the Kings Canyon National Park Complex fire and the Windy fire incinerated an additional 88,000 acres and 97,000 acres respectively. Aerial surveys, and damage estimates suggest that the two-year mortality rate of all large sequoias is near 20%, or close to 12,000 large, old-growth trees.

Even the most aggressive logging efforts in the 1800s, restricted by the logistics of harvesting such massive trees, could never compete with the loss caused by recent fires.

Patterson cites one particularly heart-wrenching event where the titans of Redwood Canyon in Sequoia National Park were essentially lost overnight. Redwood Canyon was one of the largest and most impressive of all sequoia groves and in 2021 it fell prey to a phenomenon called a "running crown fire," where flames reached high into the forest canopy and jumped from tree to tree, far above ground, where fire crews could not have mitigated its spread.

Flames from the KNP Complex Fire burn along a hillside above the Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park, California on Sept. 14, 2021.  The blaze burned dangerously close to the Giant Forest, which is home to more than 2,000 giant sequoias.
Flames from the KNP Complex Fire burn along a hillside above the Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park, California on Sept. 14, 2021. The blaze burned dangerously close to the Giant Forest, which is home to more than 2,000 giant sequoias. (Photo: Noah Berger, Associated Press)

"It's an insanely powerful fire event," she said, comparing running crown fires in sequoia groves to freight trains "that can kill, as we saw (in Redwood Canyon) thousands of monarchs at a time."

Fortunately, old-growth sequoias have an adaptation that helps make running crown fires "an uncommon occurrence" says Patterson. The canopy of monarch sequoias — the largest and most impressive trees — begins many stories off the ground. "That's not a coincidence" she said. "It's an evolutionary adaptation." And an adaptation allows giant sequoias to benefit from low- to moderate-intensity fires on the forest floor, far below the sequoia canopy.

Still, there's no ignoring the death of nearly 20% of all large sequoias in just a couple of years.

What can be done?

Prescribed burns remain the most important tool in the National Park Service's toolbox. Low- to moderate-intensity fires are a critical part of sequoia ecology and facilitate the release of seeds from sequoia cones, return crucial nutrients to forest soils, clear the forest floor, encourage regeneration and make the forest more resilient to the effects of climate change.

As effective a tool as prescribed burns are, the severity of recent fire seasons has stretched fire management resources extremely thin. This is especially true when multiple fires are burning simultaneously across the West and fire management crews are forced to decide between protecting homes and property that are under threat and preventive prescribed burns in old-growth forests.

"There are definitely years when we didn't get nearly as much done as we had hoped," Patterson said.

And thanks to years of severe drought and longer fire seasons, the prudent window for employing prescribed burns has narrowed. The harsh reality is that the efforts to save California's giant sequoias is a fight against the clock, "because there are going to be more fires," she said. "We want to do all we can."

Where prescribed burns are not possible, the mechanical removal of fuels or "restorative thinning" can be employed. But there are limits to those strategies as well.

Trees stand hundreds and thousands of feet tall in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California.
Trees stand hundreds and thousands of feet tall in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California. (Photo: At Home in Wild Spaces)

Park managers are also seeking help to respond to the effects of climate change.

"Land managers in all places that have giant sequoias have really, really doubled down on fuel treatment efforts, whether that is thinning or prescribed burning," Patterson said. "There is a really, really serious effort on doing everything that we can to protect this species and the monarchs of the species, and take as many proactive actions as possible."

Is this the giant sequoia apocalypse?

"We hope not," says Patterson. Certainly, with "this really alarming 20 percent-ish mortality figure, that does seem like, you know, the 'End Days' when you see numbers like that." But recent fires have really spurred all public lands managers with responsibility for the remaining sequoia groves to "take as many proactive actions as possible to avoid big losses" like those in 2020 and 2021.

But even with an "all we can do" approach, there's still some uncertainty about the future of the world's largest trees. There's also a glimmer of hope to be found in the ashes of the Redwood Canyon tragedy.

According to Patterson, "There were areas even within (the) running crown fire" that decimated Redwood Canyon, an event she describes as "insanely powerful" but, "when the fire reached areas where we had recently done prescribed burns the (running crown fire) diminished significantly in intensity." This success amidst tragedy gives hope that fuel reductions and prescribed fires can help the surviving sequoias survive even serious fire events.

Does record snowpack help?

"No. Not very much, said Patterson. While the extra moisture has been "great for the mountain ecosystem" and is definitely beneficial to forest ecology, heavy snow years also result in aggressive springtime and early summer growth that dries out later in summer and fall, adding to fuel loads, in some ways increasing rather than diminishing concerns about wildfires.

What can you do?

When asked what the average person can do to help save California's iconic and treasured giant sequoias, Patterson's council is simple: "Find ways to learn about and fight climate change in your community." She also invites the public to learn about fire management and support measures like prescribed fires, adding, "If you have an opportunity to be an advocate for fuels work and prescribed burning, we always love to see that in the public."

"You know, we want people to come to the parks and really form relationships with the trees, and let that inform your stewardship," she said. "Get to know these places that belong to all of us. And, even as you're enjoying (these trees) and having a wonderful trip, remember: We all have a responsibility to cultivate a stewardship ethic and try and make sure that we are able to preserve these places so that people can enjoy them in the future."

As you watch this video tour of the Giant Forest, ponder your place in this equation. Perhaps the best thing you can do is visit yourself and connect with treasures that could be lost if the threats of climate change are not taken seriously.


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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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