‘It could be a big tree in 1,000 years’: tiny seedlings of giant sequoias rise from ashes of wildfire

Good News Notes:

Ashtyn Perry was barely as tall as the shovel she stomped into barren ground where a wildfire last year ravaged the California mountain community of Sequoia Crest and destroyed dozens of its signature behemoth trees.

The 13-year-old with a broad smile and a braid running to her waist had a higher purpose that, if successful, she’ll never live to see: to plant a baby sequoia that could grow into a giant and live for millennia.

“It’s really cool knowing it could be a big tree in like 1,000 years,” she said.

The bright green seedling that barely reached Perry’s knees is part of an unusual project to plant offspring from some of the largest and oldest trees on the planet to see if genes that allowed the parent to survive so long will protect new growth from the perils of climate change.

The effort led by the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a Michigan non-profit that preserves the genetics of old-growth trees, is one of many extraordinary measures being taken to save giant sequoias that were once considered nearly fire-proof but are at risk of being wiped out by more intense wildfires.

The giant sequoia is the world’s largest tree by volume and closely related to the redwood, the world’s tallest. Sequoias grow naturally only in a 260-mile (420km) belt of forest on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They have a massive trunk and can grow over 300ft (90 meters) tall. The coast redwood is more slender and is native near the Pacific Ocean in Northern California.

Giant sequoias, and redwoods, are some of the best fire-adapted plants. Thick bark protects their trunks, and their canopies can be so high they are out of reach of flames. Sequoias even rely on fire to help open their cones to disperse seeds, and flames clear undergrowth so seedlings can take root and get sunlight.

In recorded history, large sequoias had never incinerated before 2015. Destruction of the majestic trees hit unprecedented levels last year when 10% to 14% of the estimated 75,000 trees larger than 4ft (1.2 meters) in diameter burned. Thousands more potentially were lost this year during fires that burned into 27 groves, about a third of all groves, in Sequoia national park and the adjacent Sequoia national forest. Scientists are still tallying the damage.

Climate change and a century of policies emphasizing extinguishing wildland blazes rather than letting some burn to prevent bigger future fires are to blame, said Christy Brigham, chief of resource management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Hotter droughts have led to more intense fires that have burned through fuels accumulated through fire suppression.

Last year’s destruction to the sequoias brought Brigham to tears. “They’re so big and so old and so individual and iconic and quirky that even people who don’t love trees, love them. They speak for all the trees,” Brigham said. “The fact that we’ve now created fires that they can’t survive is very heartbreaking.”

To save the trees this year, extreme measures were taken, including wrapping trunks of the largest trees in a fire-resistant foil, setting up sprinklers, raking the flammable matter from around the trees and even using gel in the canopies to repel flames.

But those labor-intensive measures are not practical, Brigham said. More needs to be done before fire approaches, including thinning vegetation and using prescribed burns to reduce the buildup of vegetation. They are also thinking about replanting.
One of the areas that burned intensely last year was the Alder Creek grove, where the Sequoia Crest community has stood since the middle of last century. Half the 100 homes and cabins were destroyed, leaving empty concrete foundations next to charred tree stumps. Some blackened giants still stand sentry on steep hillsides in the area.

It was in that grove, one of the few privately owned, that Archangel had gathered cones and taken clippings over the past decade to clone and preserve the genes of two of the oldest and largest trees. One of those trees, named Stagg, the world’s fifth-largest, survived while the fire killed one named Waterfall….”

View the whole story here: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/02/california-giant-sequoias-wildfires-climate-change-trees

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