Today is the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate the founding of the United States and all the things that make our nation unique. More than 150 years ago, for example, the U.S. created the world’s first national park when Congress set aside 3,400 square miles of land in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872. It was what writer and historian Wallace Stegner called “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Yet on this Independence Day 2017, we have much to fear for many of those cherished places.
Earlier this year, in April, the president signed an executive order directing the Department of the Interior to review national monuments established since 1996 and larger than 100,000 acres in order to determine whether they should be rescinded or reduced in size. Giant Sequoia National Monument in California is one of them.
That means that our last, few remaining giant sequoias—the world’s largest species of tree—could become vulnerable to logging.
On the opposite side of the globe, however, I see a reason for hope. It comes not from cutting down trees, but from ensuring that millions more of them will be planted. And these trees won’t be set aside in preserves but will be allowed to live and thrive right alongside us—in our cities.
It’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard.
A national monument made of trees
Established on April 15, 2000, by President Bill Clinton, Giant Sequoia National Monument in Fresno, Kern and Tulare Counties protects 34 groves of the ancient trees. The giant sequoia only grows naturally in a narrow, 60-mile band along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The monument spans 327,760 acres and is composed of two sections located north and south of Sequoia National Park.
In 2005, the George W. Bush administration drafted the original management plan for the monument, which allowed commercial logging. Conservation groups sued to stop that plan; and on August 22, 2006, a federal judge ruled that commercial logging in Giant Sequoia National Monument was illegal.
Now, with the Trump administration, the timber industry has begun lobbying again for greater logging in national forests. The California Forestry Association, a timber industry group, takes the stance that the best way to protect the sequoias is to thin the surrounding forestlands to reduce fuel loads, thus protecting the trees from catastrophic wildfires. The agency believes that restricting forest management within the monument has created overly dense forests.
However, ecologists point out that giant sequoias actually require fire for their seeds to effectively germinate and grow into saplings. Hundreds of scientific studies show that post-fire habitat is some of the best and most biodiverse.
On Tuesday, June 27, 2017, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors met to consider a resolution urging U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to “clearly permit the removal of dead or dying hazard trees and to allow the U.S. Forest Service to actively manage the groves.” Another mandate calling on Secretary Zinke to reduce Giant Sequoia National Monument by 200,000 acres was also up for a vote.
While the resolutions mention avoidance of the specific groves where the giant sequoias are found, conservationists say that they ignore the biological necessity of protecting the entire ecosystem. For the sequoias to thrive, the forests surrounding them also have to prosper. And, say those against the measures, the current 300,000-plus acres of protection are necessary to give sequoias the ability to spread to new areas as temperatures increase due to climate change.
The board voted 3-2 to send a letter to the Department of the Interior requesting additional funding for the removal of dead trees in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. An amendment to the original funding request recommended a reduction in size of 90,000 acres within the current national monument boundaries.
A city made of forests
The Tulare County Board’s vote is puzzling, given that as climate change accelerates, we need our trees now more than ever. We don’t need less of them set aside in parks; we need more of them and more of them in our cities, too.
While the world as a whole is getting hotter, the cities—where, according to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population (54 percent) lived in in 2014, with a projection of 66 percent by 2050—are getting even hotter due to the urban heat island effect, the tendency for cities to be warmer than surrounding rural areas because building materials such as asphalt and concrete trap heat. Intensive heat can cause significant health and well-being problems for urban residents over the long term, especially for the elderly. Understanding how to mitigate its negative impacts is one of the most important research issues for urban ecology and urban climatology.
For example, average temperatures in the built-up areas of Beijing, China, increased by 5 degrees between 1984 and 2014, as reported in the June issue of Science China Earth Sciences. During this 30-year period, the urban heat island effect in Beijing increased most dramatically from 2004 to 2014, a period of especially rapid expansion in the city’s construction of parking lots, structures and roads.
Some innovations are coming in the building materials we use in our cities. But China has come up with something that might work even better.
In Liuzhou, Guangxi Province, one of the most beautiful cities you could ever imagine is being built. Here, hospitals, hotels, houses, offices and schools are entirely covered by plants and trees.
Designed by architect Stefano Boeri, the new city, once completed, will be home to 30,000 people. Other inhabitants will include a million plants from more than 100 species, as well as 40,000 trees. Because of this immense amount of flora, the city will absorb almost 10,000 tons of CO2, 57 tons of pollutants and produce approximately 900 tons of oxygen annually.
The plants will allow the energy self-sufficient city (thanks to geothermal and solar energy resources) to improve air quality, decrease the average air temperature, create noise barriers and enhance biodiversity, generating habitat for small animals, birds and insects that live in the Liuzhou territory.
This isn’t a far-off dream. It is hoped this stunning and smart city will be completed by 2020.
A national holiday filled with action
On Friday, May 5, 2017, the Department of the Interior opened the first-ever formal comment period for the public to weigh in on whether the 27 monuments under review were appropriately designated and if the present uses are compatible with the expectations of area residents and stakeholders. Following the close of the comment period, which is Monday, July 10, Secretary Zinke is expected to submit a report with public comments attached and recommendations for what, if any, changes in size, status or management might be appropriate for the public lands in question.
Today is the Fourth of July. You have six days.
If, like me, you value our nation’s trees and you dream of cities made of forests, add your voice.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,