Statement for the Record
Michael B. Murray
Chair of the Executive Council, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Committee on Natural Resources
United States House of Representatives
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 2989, the “Save Our Sequoias Act”

May 10, 2023

Chairman Westerman, Ranking Member Grijalva, and members of the Committee, I am Michael B. (Mike) Murray, Chair of the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). The Coalition is a non-profit organization composed of more than 2,400 retired, former and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS) who collectively have over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting our national parks. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. We appreciate the opportunity to present this statement for the record on H.R. 2989, the “Save our Sequoias Act.”

The Coalition supports the findings of ecologists and agency staff who have collected scientific information over at least the past decade on the effects of drought, insects/disease, and severe fire behavior from climate change on sequoia trees. These experts have sounded the alarm on the health of the last giant sequoia groves in the world. Therefore, the Coalition supports the primary intent of the Save Our Sequoias bill to address this emergency situation.

However, the Coalition also has concerns over some of the elements of this bill, especially regarding the potential precedents being set for circumventing environmental laws and regulations that could potentially reach well beyond giant sequoia groves.

The following are section-by-section comments on the bill.

Section 2
The section separates Public Lands into multiple definitions, which is confusing. We recommend one public lands definition that includes lands within the National Forest system and Department of Interior lands. Also, clearer definitions for tribal, as well as state and county lands, should be included.

Sections 3 and 4
The Coalition supports the development of shared stewardship agreements and certification of the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition (GSLC), an entity already in place, to ensure collaboration and coordination across jurisdictional boundaries. This will most adequately provide landscape-scale protection of groves.

Most of the GSLC is made up of agencies and partners already trying to move forward collaboratively. We support language included requiring the Secretaries to provide support to the GSLC, which is essentially asking agencies to direct priority towards Protection Projects. We support the language in the bill related to helping the GSLC work more efficiently.

Section 5
The Coalition supports completing a comprehensive grove assessment as well as annual updates. Understanding the extent and severity of disturbance from fire, coupled with fire suppression history and elements such a ladder fuel buildup across the entire population is the best way to determine the highest priorities for treating the health of sequoia trees and groves.

Providing a timeline and a schedule of completion will help agencies remain focused on completing these high-priority projects.

The Coalition applauds the use of the best available science as well as traditional ecological knowledge to inform management strategies that will be supported with databases and best available technologies.

Section 6
This section discusses the process of emergency response. As we have been informed by agency experts, the procedures in place for ensuring compliance with environmental and cultural resources laws, while very important, have contributed to the dire health of individual trees and giant sequoia groves. It is typical, for example, for a few days of treatment to take 5 years for approval. The length of time to treat fuels buildup directly led to severe fire damage in sequoia groves during the KNP Complex Fires in 2021, especially to those groves where treatments have not kept up with buildup. This is very clear in Giant Forest, an area where treatments have kept buildup in check; this same area survived the KNP Complex much better than other groves due to less severe fire behavior.

The Coalition recognizes the need for expedited efforts to build resistance and improve resiliency of giant sequoia groves but is concerned about the precedent that waiving the process before treatment may set for other environmental health issues not related to giant sequoias. We believe the Senate companion bill is better in addressing how the process should work. We encourage discussions with the Senate sponsor to find common ground. We recommend these discussions include the agency personnel and scientific experts who will be most knowledgeable on the risks that exist in regard to endangered species, historic properties, and tribal concerns in and adjacent to giant sequoia groves.

While the Coalition supports the intent of the Categorical Exclusion (CE) described in the bill, we are concerned it will be confusing given other CEs already available and used to various degrees under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (Public Law 108–148). We recommend clarifying the CE language to reduce this confusion. Also, the bill should clarify if the CE will continue to follow the consideration of Extraordinary Circumstances that would not allow for its use under a list of reasons (which include, for example, the presence of endangered species). We realize, at times, informal consultation as described in the bill will be sufficient for some Protection Projects to move forward.

The Coalition requests the bill further emphasize the use of streamlining tools such as programmatic agreements to better address impacts and mitigations to both endangered species, historic properties, and tribal concerns across the entire landscape. The Coalition recommends the Strike Teams, which are a necessary and important component of this bill, be first focused on facilitating expedited project surveys, and/or for completing these programmatic agreements.

Also, current CEs do not allow for the use of pesticides or herbicides in fuels reduction projects. We recommend this restriction remain in place under the emergency action CE described in this bill.

The Coalition recommends further requirements provided under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act be added, which should include requirements for Public Notice and Scoping as well as Accountability (annual reporting of CE usage) under Section 603 of Public Law 108–148.

Section 7
The Coalition supports the development of the Giant Sequoia Reforestation and Rehabilitation Strategy (Strategy) as part of the Giant Sequoia Assessment as authorized in the bill. This Strategy would be useful in cementing priorities and establishing steps for completion of necessary projects to improve resiliency of groves post-fire. But the Coalition would like to see more detailed language that includes establishing the scientific need for and the demonstration of the effectiveness of such actions to ensure funds expended make a difference under a changing climate.

Section 8
As noted above, Strike Teams must play a key role, especially in expediting legally required surveys and/or programmatic agreements. This section, though, needs clarification and the removal of limits set on the numbers of members. Multiple Strike Teams will be required to ensure the success of Protection Protects. Teams should include, for example, a Contracting Coordination Strike Team, a Survey Coordination Strike Team and a Compliance Coordination Strike Team. It should also emphasize the use of Service First agreements, so this work can occur across jurisdictional boundaries.

Section 9
The Coalition supports the authorized Grant program. The has concerns, though, regarding the use of biomass. Establishing biomass use markets has been difficult, which may require more incentives for developing these markets or storage areas. The use of biomass should be focused as much as possible on non-carbon emission generating methods with an emphasis on carbon storage.

Sections 10 and 11
The Coalition supports these two sections. Providing economic incentives for completing some Protection Projects will help facilitate the improved health, resistance and resiliency of sequoia groves in a more efficient manner.

Section 12 and 13
The Coalition supports the cooperation between the National Park Foundation and National Forest Foundation in managing the Giant Sequoia Emergency Protection Program and Fund. We also support the Authorization of Funding for this bill.

In closing, the Coalition realizes our National Park System has many priorities but recognizes that, in this case and based on scientific evidence, the protection of the continued existence of giant sequoias is in peril. The protection of sequoia groves was the impetus for creating some of our earliest national parks. The NPS arrowhead includes a sequoia tree in acknowledgement of this effort and as a symbol of our national parks. Climate change threatens many NPS resources; some of which we may not be able to protect in time, such as glaciers. But in this case, the Save Our Sequoias Act, once crafted with more protective language to reduce precedent and create better expedited compliance processes, is a critical means towards protecting our national treasures.