Climate Change Threatens Famous Giant Sequoias

Reader Contribution by Smithsonian
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Back in 1852, a hunter named Augustus T. Dowd running through the forest after a grizzly bear first discovered the famous giant sequoia trees of California. From there, the “Big Tree Mania” began, causing Americans to flood into California from every part of the new country to see the giant trees for themselves.

During this period, sequoia wood souvenirs were sold by the dozens, allowing tourists to purchase wooden candlesticks, wooden canes, hotel postcards, and other memorabilia during their visit. Visitors could also take carriage rides through passages cut out of the trunks of the giants. Americans became so obsessed with these trees that they put the species in danger.

One by one, timberman came to cash in on the sequoias, cutting them down for the colossal amounts of wood available for profit. By the end of the 1800s, the American frontier was closed to visitors in an attempt to protect the remaining trees from the greed of timbermen and tourism. The first national parks were established to safeguard the remaining sequoias, and to bring back the wild buffalo and pigeon populations that used to reside in surrounding areas of the trees.

However, many efforts to protect these trees actually destroyed the populations even more, particularly the efforts to prevent any small wildfires near the trees out of fear that the fires would damage the remaining trees. At this point in history, conservationists did not know that sequoias required small wildfires in order to clear the ground for more sequoia seedlings, and to clear out competing species.

The constant prevention of wildfires eventually caused a natural buildup of smaller plants surrounding the sequoias that could – and did – easily catch fire. This resulted in a massive forest fire that killed 10 of the 500 large sequoias left in the area.

Nowadays, grove mangers work to return the land to a more natural state, but they are still facing a looming and new threat: climate change. In 2014, after 2 years of drought, many of the sequoia trees lost their needles, something that nobody alive – possibly anyone ever – had seen happen before. Scientists later discovered that the trees had shed their needles in order to conserve their water during the drought.

Eventually, the drought ended, and the sequoias were able to grow their needles again, but extreme weather conditions such as this are becoming more and more common due to rising temperatures. Preventing increasing climates to protect these beloved trees is up to Americans, by understanding how their way of life can affect the lives of this and other species. On this, John Muir, known as the father of national parks in America, wrote, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand storms, but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools; this is left to the American people.”

Scientists believe that if climates continue to rise, these trees will not survive another 50 years. Since their discovery, the actions of Americans have threatened these trees, and now it is up to them to protect them for the future. Americans must now do their part in stopping climate changes for the sake of these famous natural giants.


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