Park Service should not hasten death of Big Trees

Speaking Out by Charlie Castro

(Published September 11, 2009 in the Kaweah Commonwealth)

For some folks, seeing or just knowing that a giant sequoia has fire in its crown and its limbs are crashing to the forest floor below is enough to evoke tears of sadness and stir deep emotions. To witness the death of one of these majestic monarchs is a tragedy that anybody who witnesses it will ever forget.
—from “Monarch burns in Crescent Meadow,” THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH, Aug. 28, 2009

This is being written to follow up on THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH’s article (“Monarch burns in Crescent Meadow”). I know that this has happened more than one time in our parks.

The National Park Service’s goal is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” All efforts should be made to protect every large, majestic sequoia tree, the defective and non-defective. The recently burned giant sequoia — even though it was an unnamed monarch with structural weakness — may have survived this fire.

Prescribed fire: Utilize it wisely. The original objective of the prescribed-fire program was to examine the role of fire in the reproduction of the giant sequoia. It is now used in other parks and agencies for the reduction of accumulated fuels.

Prescribed fire is now part of the process to remove tree litter and duff from the forest floor. It is used to remove brush and other accumulated fuels in our lower oak woodland forests. It is used to help balance the mixed conifer species, mainly the fast-growing white fir in giant sequoia groves. It affects the succession of sequoia seedlings, survival, and reproduction. It is a major tool used to lower the possibility of a major wildfire.

Prescribed fire is a great program when planned and executed within strict prescribed-burning procedures and guidelines. It allows fire personnel to plan, prep, and ignite burns in specific locations at the correct time of year.  This is the time for management and fire personnel to thoroughly inspect a burn site, to identify potential hazards and, hopefully, plan ignition methods around the base of standing monarchs, especially the named ones.

All is good when fire is used at the right time of the year and at the right elevation for specific fuels. To ignore these factors and misunderstand burning prescriptions can turn a planned prescribed burn into a raging wildfire.

From the time I started in the “prescribed fire” program at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, I was involved in small half-acre to one-acre burn plots in giant sequoia groves. That was in 1964, and it was not called prescribed fire. Prescribed fire began a couple of years later to continue and support the giant sequoia ecology program.

It was very hard for me to change my years of training in fire suppression to the introduction of fire, however, both practices were highly beneficial during my years with the federal fire management project team.

Managed fire was first introduced by Richard J. Hartesveldt, Ph.D. He was concerned about the effects of human impact on giant sequoias and their environment in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park. He studied those impacts and, in 1962, shifted his studies to Sequoia-Kings Canyon . The following year, he and his partner, Dr. H. Thomas Harvey, discussed the issues and many facets of giant sequoia ecology. In 1964, they were joined by Dr. Howard S. Shellhammer and, in 1966, by Dr. Ronald E. Stecker.  This ecology research team from San Jose State University is a pioneer in the use of prescribed fire and giant sequoia reproduction. I am very proud to have worked with this team (1964 to 1974), where I conducted all the high climbing, as well as the rigging of an elevator in a 287-foot giant sequoia; these efforts being accomplished for the preservation of all giant sequoias.

It is inevitable that all living things will eventually die. But giant sequoias are some of the oldest living things on earth. Let’s not hasten their termination.

CHARLES E. CASTRO is a 45-year resident of Three Rivers. He is a Native American who was born in Yosemite Valley, where he began a career with the National Park Service that spanned more than 40 years. In 1964, Charlie transferred to Sequoia-Kings Canyon as the forestry foreman, where he worked until his retirement in 1995.
In 1965, he received an NPS Special Achievement Award for saving a giant sequoia from fire. In 1967, he received his second Special Achievement Award for his efforts in saving the California Tree from fire.

Charlie also plays drums for the world-famous High Sierra Jazz Band.

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