Wither the Gordian Knot

Wither the Gordian Knot

By William Wade Keye

The following Forestkeeper essay was published in The Forestry Source, November, 2014:

The western Timber Wars are over. The ongoing struggle between utilitarian and preservationist values continues, as it always will – and should.
What I’m referring to is the historically bitter conflict over the fate of our national forests, intensifying in the 1970-80s, exploding in the 1990s, and finally settling into a sort of post-revolutionary phase this century.
The environmental movement “won” the Timber Wars a generation ago, razing “Temple Forestry” as it had existed during the post-World War II decades. Federal harvest levels plunged 80%. There was a very real question as to whether Gifford Pinchot’s progressive-era vision would be snuffed out entirely, to be replaced by a Zero Cut (no commercial logging) custodial regime, channeling John Muir and advocated by the Sierra Club. Continue reading


Nutrient Cycling

The Forestkeeper blossomed and died.
Root rot of change,
Inspiration and decay,
Burning a New Beginning.

The Forestkeeper no more exists.
Tight grip lies open:
Forest primeval,
Forest imagined,
Nurturing and productive
Or long gone to the plow, the road,
Scavenging today too poor for tomorrow.

You take it, World.
You take the Vision and treat it well.
It’s all in these pages.
It’s all written down.

There is more to do, but not here.
Time is flowing, downward it sinks and I must go.

I was the Forestkeeper
Splendid green and hot on the trail.
Now I am Bill,
In wonder still.

Sequoia National Reckoning, Part 7 — The Conclusion






There is a better way of achieving the Monument’s stated objective of ecological restoration – better as in safer, cleaner, cheaper, more effective and much more nurturing to the local human community, and, I would argue, to the human spirit itself. It would be to actively manage the Monument to produce deKRAL photo of Forestkeepersired conditions, efficiently deploying all available tools.

Standing in the way is a Timber Wars holdover that remains a central faith totem among some of the most uncompromising environmental activists and organizations – a puritanical and socially divisive opposition to all commercial timber harvest on federal public lands, no matter how limited, sustainable, or carefully regulated; and no matter how effective a tool for generating revenue to reduce or eliminate land management costs. That the Sierra Club could support a reduced Sequoia Forest timber harvest level of 45 million board feet in 1987, yet vote to endorse a blanket federal public lands harvest ban only 9 years later, in 1996, illustrates the fervor of the times and how quickly the conservation pendulum swung from utilitarian to preservation extremes.Forestkeeper and friends

As it stands now, management constraints built upon old fears and discredited claims ensure that the Giant Sequoia National Monument’s burden on American taxpayers will always be artificially high. The biggest threat to the Monument today is its own Rim Fire, an apparent inevitability unless the public demands an alternative future.

William Wade Keye is a California forester and writer.

Forestkeeper at Three SistersKRAL photo of The Spot

Sequoia National Reckoning, Part 6

The "Three Sisters" as they appeared following a 1987 timber harvest and subsequent slash burning.  Photo credit USDA Forest Service, Gen. Tech. Report PSW-151, 1994.

The “Three Sisters” as they appeared following a 1987 timber harvest and subsequent slash burning.  Note the road at the right, which runs along the bottom of the unit.  Photo credit USDA Forest Service, Gen. Tech. Report PSW-151, 1994.

It turns out that the dire warnings about deforestation, desertification or toppling trees were just false alarms. Revisiting the infamous “Three Sisters” (featured in Audubon, National Geographic and other reports), one finds the Sisters nestled within a dense carpet of vigorous young saplings. Many are giant sequoia trees, both planted and naturally regenerated. They became established, as planned, following “grove enhancement” harvests and site preparation. They represent the future of the species, because no matter how long the venerable Sisters, or any other of the wondrous centuries-old giants lives, each will eventually die and return to the soil.

The "Three Sisters", in 2010, from the same location as the above photo.  Note that the road at the right is no longer visible.

The “Three Sisters”, in 2010, from the same vantage point as the above photo. Note that the road seen in the earlier image is no longer visible.

Such resilience is practically nonexistent in undisturbed groves. It can be argued, in fact, that the controversial “grove enhancements”, a quarter century later, have turned out to be exactly that. In each of the Monument’s “enhanced” units the “fabric of the forest” is very much alive and well, demonstrating natural resilience in response to ecological disturbance.

2014 photo of the Three Sisters.

2014 photo of the Three Sisters.

Recognizing that aesthetics played a large role in past logging objections, a promising way forward today would be to use logging much more sparingly, coupled with prescribed fire. Because sequoia seedlings require adequate sunlight to thrive, small patch cuts could provide these needed openings. As before, logging slash and surface fuels could be burned, freeing nutrients and exposing bare soil for seedlings to colonize. Adjacent non-sequoia “whitewood” stands could be thinned and selectively harvested to allow for the careful reintroduction of prescribed fire. Visual impacts would still exist, but at a much diminished scale.

Young growth, Three Sisters grove, 2014.

Young growth, Three Sisters grove, 2014.

Over time, this type of management approach would ensure the total preservation of all existing giants, copious amounts of young-growth sequoia, and all Monument lands at significantly reduced risk of damaging high-intensity fires. It could also provide revenue, jobs, valuable forest products, optimal recreational opportunities and evidence that the divisive Timber Wars may finally be over.

Not so fast – problem not solved. Not in today’s Giant Sequoia National Monument. Its 2012 Management Plan, modeled upon the Clinton proclamation, allows no such flexibility.

Young growth, Three Sisters, 2014.

Young growth, Three Sisters grove, 2014.

The Plan is an environmental Potemkin Village. It calls for management to restore ecosystems and to reduce catastrophic fire risks, but all but eliminates one of the best available tools – timber harvest – from consideration. Instead, it puts most of its management eggs into one basket – prescribed fire – under the naïve premise that the Monument will be able to burn itself to sustainability.

Young growth, Three Sisters grove, 2014.

Young growth, Three Sisters grove, 2014.

Prescribed fire is a valuable, but blunt, instrument. Risks include smoke emissions, inconsistent outcomes and escaped burns. The Sequoia Monument is within the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Management District, one of the most polluted air basins in the nation. Available burn days are limited and may continue to decline as regulators struggle to attain clean air standards. It is questionable whether, even in the unlikely event of adequate funding, the Monument will ever achieve its prescribed fire goals.

Three Sisters, from below, 2010.

The “Three Sisters”, from below, 2010.

Sequoia National Reckoning will conclude next week, with the posting of Part 7.

Sequoia National Reckoning, Part 5

The Rim Fire incinerated tens of thousands of acres of timber stands in the Stanislaus National Forest before finally exhausting itself against the granite of Yosemite National Park.

The Rim Fire incinerated many thousands of timbered acres in the Stanislaus National Forest before eventually exhausting itself against the rocky heights of Yosemite National Park.



The 1906 Antiquities Act was passed in reaction to a steady plundering of Native American archeological sites in the pioneer southwest. It has an interesting and colorful history that stretches way beyond its original intent. Many of our national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, began as national monuments.
Because the Act grants a President broad discretion to create national monuments out of federal public lands, most subsequent chief executives have put it to use. National park and wilderness area designations require congressional approval, but not national monuments. That makes the Antiquities Act especially attractive to preservation interests, and to presidents hunting for a legacy. Although the Act refers to “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest… which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” history has shown that some presidents, (notably Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) were more than happy to push the envelope when it comes to the exercise of these extraordinary powers.

The Sequoia Monument contains highly dynamic forest vegetation.

The Sequoia Monument contains highly dynamic temperate forest vegetation.




Clinton’s Sequoia proclamation shuttered one of the two remaining sawmills in the southern Sierra region, eliminating hundreds of forestry-related jobs. The decision was bitterly opposed by local and regional elected officials, business and civic organizations, but to no avail.
Apart from ongoing socio-economic impacts is the question of ecosystem health under a preservation regime that limits active management. The Sequoia Monument is unique because of the scale of its grip on dynamic, renewable yet readily combustible forest resources. It’s easy to proclaim a forest a preserve, much harder to keep it – especially in the seasonally dry West. If reminders are needed, look no further than the massive Rim Fire (2013), which burned 257,000 acres, or the King Fire (2014), which torched 98,000 acres. Both of these blazes devastated vast tracts of publicly owned lands in the Sierra Nevada north of the Sequoia.

Dead trees as a result of the Rim Fire, shown in early 2014.

Damage as a result of the Rim Fire, shown in early 2014.


Most national monuments are geologic formations, archeological or historic sites. Uncontrolled fire is either a marginal concern, or can be mitigated by fire hydrants and sprinkler systems. But the Sequoia Monument is mainly comprised of highly productive mixed coniferous timberlands, the vast majority of which contain no sequoias. These stands include thousands of acres of rapidly growing forest plantations established, at great public expense, during the Forest Service’s timber production boom. Much of the Monument is densely overstocked in comparison with historical ecological conditions. These timber stands, including the sequoia groves themselves, are faced with the perennial threat of uncontrolled wildfire. A heavily forested Monument set aside in reaction to logging could actually benefit from a bit of it, combined with other management tools, to increase the chances that healthy trees and groves are there to enjoy for coming generations.

TO BE CONTINUED... and yes, the end is in sight!  Patience, kind reader!!

Sequoia National Reckoning, Part 4

The May, 1990, issue of Audubon  attacked the Forest Service for its giant sequoia "grove enhancements."

The May, 1990, issue of Audubon attacked the Forest Service for its giant sequoia “grove enhancements.”

By 1990, the pivotal year of the spotted owl listing, activists hit a more strident tone. The May issue of Audubon contained unsettling photos of fresh harvest disturbances in an article titled, “They’ve Been Raping the Giant Sequoias.” The villain was the U. S. Forest Service. Included was a statement from preservation activist Martin Litton: “The fabric of that forest won’t forgive logging between or all around the groves.”
Audubon related the Forest Service’s explanation that the sequoia trees, due to decades of fire exclusion and dense understory competition from other tree species, were failing to regenerate. The harvest of the groves’ “whitewoods” was needed to create space necessary for the successful regeneration of the legendary giants. The article went on to question the agency’s reforestation success, including this dark testimonial from activist Charlene Little: “It aggrieves Little that some Forest Service employees don’t share environmentalists’ concern for the forest’s longevity. “I’ve had some tell me, ‘You’re gonna be dead anyway before it’s all gone – what do you care?’” she says. Or, “’By the time it really shows up that these trees won’t grow back, we won’t be here anyway.’”

Activists called attention to the "Three Sisters" as a prime example of unsustainable logging.  This image is from the September, 1990 edition of National Geographic.

Activists called attention to the “Three Sisters” as a prime example of unsustainable logging. This image is from the September, 1990 edition of National Geographic.

The Sacramento Bee included the controversy in its 1991 “Sierra in Peril” series. Describing the final phase of a trip into a recently completed Sequoia Forest “grove enhancement,” the Bee’s Tom Knudson wrote, “For a few miles, the forest is lush. Near Deadman Creek, though, lies a wasteland of stumps, blackened logs and torn-up earth. All that remains standing are three giant sequoias, huddled together like mourners at a funeral.” The article continues, quoting Martin Litton, “Just look at this destruction. How long is it going to be before this looks like a forest again – if ever?”
Not to be outdone, in 1992, the Sunday, May 24th San Francisco Examiner weighed in with “Logging Threat to Sierra Giants,” including a photograph of Litton seated on a stump, looking very much like a latter-day John Muir. The front page “exposé” made little attempt at journalistic balance. Under a subheading “Forest giants need safe haven,” the article reiterated claims that logging around sequoias had exposed them to a risk of wind throw. It quoted activist Carla Cloer: “’The cutting was probably a one-time harvest, because these trees are never going to grow back,’” Cloer said. ‘What’s coming back is a high-mountain desert instead of a forest.’”
By this time the Forest Service had put a stop to the contested “grove enhancements.” President Bush’s Sequoia Forest visit and proclamation took place two months later.

Audubon, May, 1990.

Audubon, May, 1990.

The environmental backlash was in full swing. National forests across the west were in disarray, scaling back harvest levels and scrambling to embrace a new conservation model, “Ecosystem Management.” By the end of the decade, federal harvest levels would be down 80% and there would be a Giant Sequoia National Monument.

To be continued:  Part 5 coming soon…!!

Sequoia National Reckoning, Part 3

In the Sequoia National Forest, aggressive timber targets set by Congress came home to roost in the 1980s. Foresters began selling timber from beneath giant sequoia trees located in groves that local environmentalists thought were off limits. The stated rationale for the “grove enhancements” had a sound basis in forest ecology, but pressure to meet timber production goals was also clearly in play. From an ecological standpoint, it was known that although the groves contained majestic specimens of old-growth sequoia, these giants were failing to

Activist Martin Litton, shown here in an article (5/24/92) from the San Francisco Examiner, played a major role in opposing logging near giant sequoias and the eventual creation of Sequoia National Monument.

Activist Martin Litton, pictured here (5/24/92) in the San Francisco Examiner, played a major role in opposing logging near giant sequoias and the eventual creation of Sequoia National Monument.

reproduce. Decades of aggressive fire suppression (now termed fire exclusion) had kept periodic low-intensity wildfire out of the natural ecosystem. The forest understory in the groves had become choked by other species of conifers. This left inadequate openings for tiny sequoia seedlings to germinate, and a growing threat of high-intensity, destructive wildfire.
In a sense, the trophy giants were being loved to death. It remains a legitimate stewardship goal to manage sequoia groves both to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fire and to create site-specific conditions needed to ensure young-growth cohorts of the species. This includes creating forest openings of sufficient size for seedlings and young trees to enjoy direct sunlight – sequoia cannot reproduce in the shade.
Unfortunately, the 1980s-era “grove enhancements” looked, especially to activists, like garden-variety clearcuts carefully masked behind official doublespeak.
Misunderstanding and mistrust led to anger, litigation and bad press: Reports on environmental clashes in the Sequoia during the period reflect collapsing support for the established conservation model of “multiple use sustained yield” and a growing push toward outright forest preservation.

The "Three Sisters," 2014.

The “Three Sisters,” 2014.

Population demographics were also changing, severing past connections to the land. Increasingly, urban America saw no distinction between national forests and national parks, and wondered why any trees at all were being chopped down on public lands. Besides the increasingly shrill tone of Sequoia Forest press coverage, another telling feature is its record of activists’ grim warnings of logging-related environmental catastrophe which the intervening years have proven, on the ground, to be unfounded.
A 1987 article in the San Diego Tribune reported on Sierra Club objections, citing concerns about the risk of wind throw – strong winds toppling the newly exposed giants within “enhanced” groves. The story related Club claims that “steep slopes and relatively low rainfall” would make efforts to establish young sequoia seedlings “impossible.” The article went on to cite Ralph Bradley, an attorney retained by the organization, stating that “Sierra Club officials have told him repeatedly that they do not want to shut down old-growth timber sales completely, just slow them down to a reasonable pace – about half of the current annual harvest of 90 million board feet a year.”

To be continued…