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Giant sequoia falls, raising questions about what to do next

The Forest Service must decide what to do with the ancient tree, which is blocking a path. Build over it? Dig under? Or do nothing at all?

October 29, 2011|By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times
  • The giant sequoia lies across the popular Trail of 100 Giants at Sequoia National Forest, Calif. No one was hurt when it fell.
The giant sequoia lies across the popular Trail of 100 Giants at Sequoia… (Sequoia National Forest )

Along the Sierra Nevada's famed Trail of 100 Giants, the mammoth sequoia had stood sentry since King Arthur's knights gathered at the Round Table.

It witnessed the arrival of the first European settlers and the flurry of miners in search of gold. The onset of the Medieval Warm Period and the passing of the Little Ice Age. It stood, unperturbed, through the Great War and the one that followed.

Then a month ago, as a handful of amazed tourists looked on, it toppled — crushing a bridge over a small stream and blocking the path.

Now, the U.S. Forest Service must decide what to do.

Slice a big hole in the 300-foot-long roadblock? Go around it? Over it? Under it?

When you're dealing with a 1,500-year-old sequoia in a national monument, the questions aren't just logistical. They're environmental, emotive and potentially legal.

Officials closed the popular tourist trail, cleared the debris and solicited ideas from the public on how to deal with the fallen giant — actually two trees fused at the base.

Among the 30 or so suggestions: Reroute the trail. Tunnel under the trunks. Carve steps and build a bridge over them. Sell what would be one heck of a lot of firewood.

"This has not happened in the Sequoia National Forest before," said public affairs officer Denise Alonzo, explaining the indecision.

The now-prone twins — two-thirds the height of Los Angeles City Hall — were among the bigger specimens in Long Meadow Grove, part of the Giant Sequoia National Monument. About 17 feet in diameter at their common base, the trees are middle-aged for giant sequoias, which can live 4,000 years and have the greatest mass of any living organism on Earth.

The Forest Service isn't sure why the trees hit the dirt Sept. 30, because they appeared to be healthy.

A German tourist, one of only a few people on the 1.3-mile loop trail at the time, recorded the crash on video.

"It can't be possible," Gerrit Panzner told the Visalia Times about what went through his mind when he realized the sequoias were falling.

"I wasn't afraid," said his wife, Sigrun Rakus. Her only thought was to get out of the way.

The trees may have toppled because the wet winter left the ground too soggy to hold the roots, which are relatively shallow.

"Sequoias do fall. That's how big sequoias die," said Nathan Stephenson of the U.S. Geological Survey. "It's never anything that I consider with alarm."

After a wet winter in 1969, he said, one of the giants fell in a picnic area of nearby Sequoia National Park and killed a woman. Over the years, there have been a couple that thudded onto trails in the park. Officials cut openings in the downed trees to allow visitors to pass through, as well as to give tourists an appreciation for their immense size.

When the Trail of 100 Giants was built several decades ago, it actually was routed around a long-fallen sequoia.

Since the Forest Service reopened the path a week ago, visitors have been climbing on the hulking trunks and treading where only birds and animals have been for more than a millennium.

"We got up there and everybody was just in awe of what was in front of them," Alonzo said. "And until the snow falls, it's open for anybody to go up and visit."

In considering its options, the Forest Service wants to keep the paved path accessible to the disabled and make sure nothing is done to damage the root systems of surrounding trees, Alonzo said.

Ara Marderosian, executive director of the environmental group Sequoia ForestKeeper, knows exactly what the Forest Service should do.

Nothing.

"I thought it was a great classroom for what nature does," said Marderosian, who submitted a three-page letter to the agency after visiting the grove. "It's quite a beautiful sight to see on the ground the way it is."

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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