Growing old gracefully -- for eons

Sequoias: Visitors tread more lightly around the giant trees, which count their age in centuries.

May 28, 2000|By Eric Noland | Eric Noland,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

At the new Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park, a musty book is tucked in among the reading selections in the lobby: "Hammonds' Illustrated Nature Guide." It doesn't appear to get much attention from guests, probably because of its age -- it was published in 1955.

Look up the tree species for which this park in California's western Sierra Nevada is famed and you'll read this entry: "For how many centuries or millennia our present sequoias will go on living nobody knows; their chances seem excellent as they are almost indestructible."

Irony fairly spills off the page.

Indestructible? Exactly five years before this book was released, park rangers determined that a sequoia in nearby Giant Forest Village, leaning ominously, was in danger of flattening some cabins if it were to topple. So they lifted the cabins with jacks, rolled them out of the way and felled the tree. Cut it down.

Then they counted rings in the trunk. The tree was more than 2,200 years old. It first poked through the ground and shed its seed coat in 261 B.C., about the time Roman legions were tangling with Carthage in the first of the three Punic Wars.

Today, Bill Tweed, Sequoia's chief naturalist, can only shake his head. "There was a symbol there," he said. "We were cutting down sequoia trees to make it safe for visitors to come to see sequoia trees. In the long run, that just didn't add up right."

The stewardship of the park now conforms to a much different philosophy, and visitors will notice it the instant they wheel in among these towering trees, one of the largest living things on Earth.

Over the past three years, nearly all the development has been removed from the Giant Forest Village. Cabins, parking areas, side roads. Tourist lodging and services were moved to an area a bit farther along the road, just past the Lodgepole region, in an area of pine trees.

Last month, President Clinton moved to further protect the trees in Sequoia National Forest by establishing a 328,000-acre preserve called Giant Sequoia National Monument. Clinton called the trees "the work of the ages."

The Wuksachi Lodge, which opened there last spring, accommodates visitors with 102 rooms, a main lodge building, a restaurant and bar, and a small gift shop. Its most impressive feature: It is safely removed from any of the sequoia groves that dot these western slopes.

Giants' one weakness

These are truly magnificent trees. They're not as tall as redwoods or as old as bristlecone pines, but other tree giants cannot match its volume. The General Sherman tree here, which is 275 feet tall and 103 feet around, is estimated to contain 52,500 cubic feet of wood, enough to build 40 houses.

Impressive immune systems enable these trees to grow so tall, gain such bulk and last so long. Their bark is virtually devoid of pitch, which creates the equivalent of an asbestos suit, impervious to fire. Their bark and heart wood is also laced with a bitter tannin, deterring insects attempting to bore in.

And yet these giants have feet of clay. The sequoia spreads its roots outward in shallow soil, and it has no tap root. Thus, if its root system is damaged or if its surrounding soil is eroded, it simply topples over.

The tree can usually hold its own under natural circumstances. But it faces the fight of its life when trenches for water pipes are dug nearby, when road beds alter normal drainage, when pollutants work their way into the surface water. This was the sequoias' plight after a village was built in their midst in the early 1900s.

Most of the village has now been removed, but a couple of structures deemed historic remain, notably the market that served Giant Forest. They're to be converted to a museum and a learning center, due to open next spring.

In one year's time, the forest has already made a remarkable recovery. Most of the development in the area had been small cabins dotted among the trees, not sprawling lodge complexes that would have required extensive bulldozing. After the cabins were plucked out, the ground was smoothed over, covered with mulch, planted with seedlings and interlaced with irrigation tubing. It regained the look of natural forest floor.

It's impossible to know if irreversible damage was done by man's 100-year handprint (a tent camp went up in 1899; the last cabins were removed in 1999). "Did we do damage that will take a while to show?" asks Tweed. "Quite likely, yes. But you have to change your thinking from human time to sequoia time."

A given tree might topple prematurely, but that could happen in 100 years or 500 years, he says -- only a fraction of a life that can span 30 centuries.

Tweed does not impose a harsh judgment on his forebears in the park. "It's not that people were in any way evil or shortsighted," he contends. "Sometimes it just takes time to see the impact of what you're doing.

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