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What happens when a 1,500-year-old tree falls?

By Kristen Dahlgren
NBC News

I had never seen a giant sequoia before. As we set out on the Trail of a Hundred Giants of the Giant Sequoia National Monument, I found my eyes searching skyward, my neck craning as my steps quickened. What I quickly learned is that you don't have to search for a sequoia.

About 10 steps down the path, and smack dab in front of me rose a trunk so massive that my first thought was, "This can't possibly be real." Twenty feet wide and more than 300 feet high, it looked like something dreamed up at Disneyland. But as we ventured into the cool forest, in the shade of the giants, it’s quickly apparent they’re anything but fake. They're the world's largest living organisms, shading the hillside and standing sentry in that exact spot for more than 1,000 years. 

Think about it. These same trees were here while the pharaohs ruled ancient Egypt, as King Arthur and his knights sat at the Round Table, and well before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. They've lived through an ice age and survived countless wildfires.

But on Sept. 30, a pair of 1,500-year-old giants (middle-aged in sequoia years) crashed to the ground. A German tourist was there at that very moment and  kept his composure as the ground must have started to rumble. He recorded the scene as the twin trunks toppled through the forest. (Make sure you check out our video!)  

We came upon the enormous trees lying straight across our path, and as impressive as a sequoia is standing upright, seeing them lying the length of a football field on the ground is enough to take your breath away. I quickly found some debris and scrambled up the side to survey the damage from above.

NBC News

NBC's Kristen Dahlgren poses with a giant sequoia

The base of the trees had fused and was three times my height. The branches alone are the size of most ordinary trees. The trees crashed right on the path - a handicapped accessible path that allowed everyone to view more than 100 massive sequoias. Not only does the Forest Service have to deal with logistics - how does one move not one, but two of the world's largest trees? -  but it also has to consider accessibility, since alternate path routes are too steep for wheelchairs.

The trees were declared a national monument in 2000, and there is no easy solution. Conservationists say do nothing, let Mother Nature be. As Forest Service authorities look to balance cost, accessibility, environmental, and emotional concerns, they are also asking the public what to do. 

Suggestions have included slicing through the tree in the spots it crosses the winding path, tunneling through it, building a bridge over it, and even cutting it up for firewood. Park service officials declined to say how much wood that would yield and only said it would, indeed, keep them warm this winter. They now hope to make a decision by next summer.