Two fundamental visions for how to manage forests — specifically the Giant Sequoia National Monument — clashed around the Kern County Board of Supervisors over the past five days.
On Tuesday, supervisors said it wasn’t their place to act on the question of whether the monument should be left alone or shrunk, a possibility being considered by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Supervisor Mick Gleason, who represents the Kern River Valley and the small portion of the monument that extends into Kern County, said he wasn’t sure why the board needed to chime in on the issue at this time.
“It’s a decision made by another body,” he said.
Supervisors took no action.
But they did get an earful from the two sides in the long-standing dispute between environmental groups that support the monument and ranchers, multi-use groups and others who would like to see more public lands opened for forest management and recreation.
The hubbub was triggered by a Kern County Planning Department proposal, made public on Thursday, to send a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior calling for the National Monument to be reduced from 328,000 acres to 90,000 acres.
Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said the proposal was brought forward quickly because the 30-day comment period the Department of the Interior was setting for the debate over the monument will close on July 10, before supervisors’ next meeting.
It was originally proposed by a multi-use trails group called Stewards of the Sequoia whose leader, Chris Horgan, said Tuesday that the monument restricts the U.S. Forest Service from properly managing the forest and creates a serious fire danger.
With dead trees and years worth of accumulated fuels clogging the forest, fires burn hotter, bigger and more dangerously, Horgan argued.
“We can manage our lands well. But you have to actively do it,” he said.
That idea triggers passionate opposition from groups like the Sierra Club that support the monument at its current size and came out Tuesday to urge supervisors to leave the monument alone.
The entire monument at its current size is needed to provide protection, water and habitat for the Giant Sequoia trees, speakers argued.
“The Giant Sequoias are a world-class treasure and we should protect the Giant Sequoias,” said Gordon Nipp, vice chair of the Kern Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Since news of Tuesday's proposal went public, the county has been bombarded by nearly 500 emails, phone calls and letters as both sides strove to influence the board's decision.
“I don’t know how many staff other departments have. I have two,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard. “They did nothing else between Thursday and today except deal with this issue.”
That passion rolled over to Tuesday’s board session even though supporters and opponents had been warned that Oviatt was recommending supervisors take no action on it.
Sierra Club leader Joe Fontaine of Bear Valley Springs came prepared to argue passionately about the need to protect the monument. But with Oviatt’s proposal off the table, he said he would just urge the county to be careful about making sure people had time to get involved in the future.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” he said. “I hope in the future, if you decide to get into this issue, that you will ask for public involvement before you get anywhere near a decision.”
Horgan said his organization was very disappointed with the decision to back away from a stance supporting reduction of the monument’s size.
He believes people got a misleading perception of his group from initial stories in The Californian that described his organization as being an off-highway vehicle group.
The Stewards of the Sequoia supports all types of recreational use in public lands including hiking, fishing, horseback riding and bicycling, he said Tuesday.
And they put their work where their beliefs go.
The group’s volunteers donate their time to clear brush and fallen trees from trails to make sure they are safe to use. The have planted more than 500 trees, he said, and contributed 21,000 volunteer hours to the forest.
But they also support opening public lands to more recreational use, Horgan said.
Glennville rancher Nathan Carver told supervisors the monument needs to be managed but the environmental groups have put massive pressure on the U.S. Forest Service and that has resulted in an unhealthy forest.
“If you don’t prune your apple tree you get bad apples,” Carver said.
Failing to thin the forest, he believes, will result in more fires like last year's Cedar Fire, which scorched a massive amount of forest in 2016.
Oviatt said her staff plans to review the issue of fire on the monument very closely through an upcoming Kern County General Plan process and address the debate about how best to manage the forest then.
Gleason said his priorities are making sure he’s doing the best thing for the health, safety and well-being of the people in the Kern River Valley.
More recreation in the area improves its economic outlook, he said.
“The people I’ve talked to in the Kern River Valley, the majority of them support the decision to (resize) the monument,” Gleason said.
But he has to balance that with the need to protect the Giant Sequoia trees and to minimize the fire danger of millions of trees that have died from drought and the attacks of the bark beetle.
He said the county planning process is the correct place to discuss the best way to accomplish all his goals.