Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Five:
Selling Sequoia: The Early Park Service Years


Unimpaired by What Measure? Resources Management 1916-1931

The tremendous popularity of the natural history program, the meteoric rise in visitor numbers, and the huge infusion of infrastructure spotlighted the government's efforts at natural resource management. Unfortunately, these advances were not matched by similar improvement in the preservation of the parks' vegetation and wildlife. During the first fifteen years of the Park Service, resources were manipulated (or sometimes preserved) for aesthetic and emotional, rather than scientific reasons. In addition, surrounding landowners again resumed grazing their cattle and horses in Sequoia. From a modern perspective, the decade of the 1920s represents a period of immature and almost destructive policy in resource preservation. Yet during this period questions about resource practices first arose, questions that would later evolve into serious doubts and major shifts of policy and administrative technique.

Vegetation management during those years consisted of fire suppression and, beginning in 1917, of efforts to control native insects. Total suppression of fires became institutionalized by the addition of several score miles of new fire roads, mainly along the western and southern fringes of the parks and by the establishment of regular, annual fire prevention appropriations in 1928. Although sequoia regeneration had ceased in all the developed areas, as well as in most other groves in the two parks, White and his staff took few active steps to replace the missing seedlings or address the issue through commissioned research. [52] One exception was an important study conducted by eminent forest pathologist Emilio Meinecke at the request of Director Mather. [53] In his 1926 report, Meinecke principally directed his attention to the negative effects of human trampling and construction on the sequoias; he recommended an active but scientifically controlled program of reforestation, not only of sequoias, but of all the species that had been eliminated by development. A few years later, White opened a nursery at Ash Mountain which provided seedlings for both parks over the next decade and a half. [54]

In wildlife management, Park Service programs were inconsistent throughout the system. At Sequoia and General Grant, Colonel White halted the use of steel traps for predator control-particularly for coyote and mountain lion—but only in response to emotional condemnation of the cruelty of their use. The superintendent lectured Horace Albright about the improper destruction of predators within national parks, but occasionally resorted to those actions himself when it seemed necessary and propitious. In 1920, legislation gave the Park Service permission to destroy "dangerous animals" when it was necessary to save human lives or prevent injury to visitors or employees. At Sequoia, this act spurred various aggressive measures, particularly against rattlesnakes which were virtually eliminated from some areas of the parks. Through the Mather years, the Park Service also accelerated a program of poisoning rodents. Unfortunately, one of the side-effects of this effort in Sequoia was elimination of the native black-tailed jackrabbit which also ate the poisoned bait. The original target of the poison campaign, the common ground squirrel, easily survived and continued to plague park housing and concession areas, at least in part due to reduction of one of its chief predators, the rattlesnake. [55]

Perhaps in no area has the clash of human emotion and ecological principles been quite so harsh as with bear management. By the time the new Park Service took over Sequoia and General Grant, the state's emblem, the grizzly bear, was nearly extinct in the park area. The last known siting of a grizzly in 1922 was by Jesse Agnew at Horse Corral Meadow. He promptly shot and killed the creature. [56] Black bears had fared much better, due perhaps to the perception that they were less dangerous. However, they had proven troublesome in the parks as marauding vandals even during the military period. The first bear officially killed as a pest fell to army rifles in 1912. But, by 1922 and possibly two or three years earlier, destruction of problem bears had become standard procedure. Between 1922 and 1931, fifteen black bears were killed while several others were relocated within the park or to zoos. [57]

While this desperate and aggressive measure became policy, the Park Service ironically increased visitor contact with these large and potentially dangerous animals. For years, park visitors had enjoyed the spectacle of bears pawing through garbage at the park's dumping area in Giant Forest. By 1921, "Bear Hill," slightly southeast of the future Giant Forest Village site, had become a regular evening attraction. In time, park rangers erected bleachers and several hundred visitors at one time would surround the garbage dump where up to two dozen bears foraged through the piles. Even though the black bear is relatively docile by comparison to the grizzly, problems were inevitable. Rangers waded through the refuse trying to keep bears and visitors apart, not always successfully. This resembled a circus, a sideshow, and many tourists forgot that these were still wild animals. Although no deaths or even serious injuries occurred, many frightening and occasionally harmful encounters befell those tourists who got in the way of a bear intent upon its cubs, its food, or making its way out of the ring. [58]

Amid the general confusion and groping that characterized resource management and preservation by Park Service administrators, a grave threat arose during World War I. The Park Service and preservationists found themselves hard pressed to defend the position of excluding cattle from park lands. The United States had assumed the role not only of supplying her own war effort, but also her war-weary allies. Added to the problem were several successive years of drought in many parts of the West. The federal Food Administration, western congressmen and, of course, ranchers clamored for access to the only lands in the nation deliberately withheld from use for food production. Mather and Albright were torn between the dangerous precedent that would be set if the parks were opened to cattle again, and the potentially disastrous results of having the young and fragile Park Service appear unpatriotic at this time of national emergency.

The response by Mather again showed his political acumen and diplomatic skills. He granted small, token permits to park neighbors who did not intend to use the land heavily. Meanwhile, he and Albright circulated among congressmen the idea that western ranchers had far less concern for the war effort than they did for recovering access to lands they had lost when the parks were created. Preservationist and civic groups helped out by publishing highly visible reports on the threats to the parks and by courting reticent congressmen. In retrospect, by granting token permits the Park Service managed to resist the most serious damage to the parks and to park policy. [59] But there was a hitch—once the ranchers and their cattle got onto park lands, it proved a devil of a job getting them off again.

One of the parks most attractive to western cattlemen was Sequoia. Accordingly, in June 1918 Superintendent Fry conducted a series of meetings with the local cattlemen's association which resulted in a plan to allow 2,675 cattle to graze the park's backcountry. With the conclusion of the war, the emergency ended and with it the excuse for using park lands. But, cattlemen claimed that they had adjusted their herding and cropping practices to include this range and would be financially hurt without access to the park. Director Mather agreed and for the entire decade of the twenties cattle roamed the areas around Hockett Meadow, Kern Canyon, and the foothills north of Ash Mountain. Through those years many more requests were received for access. However, despite Colonel White's intercession on behalf of some individuals whom he knew and respected, the director rejected all further applications. Approximately 1,300 cattle grazed the park each year, not enough to do serious damage but enough to prevent regeneration from past excesses and to give credence to claims by other cattle men that they too should have fair access to the park, especially during dry years. Finally in 1930, White and Albright suspended the few remaining permits, citing four decades of park policy and philosophy. Although protests were immediate and applications to resume frequent, the Park Service has managed to resist further interruptions of this oldest and most basic founding policy of the national park system. [60]

In sum, the period 1916 to 1931 marked a nadir in resource management. The return of cattle grazing threatened to tear down the philosophical walls that carefully preserved park resources and provided the underpinning of the entire system. in matters of vegetation and wildlife, the Park Service experimented with active controls, but for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately, the weight of scientific inquiry and evidence accumulated during the years to force some grudging moves toward more responsible management. In 1931 Walter Fry released a twenty-five-year survey of the status of wildlife in Sequoia National Park. His statistical report was alarming and caught not only Park Service attention, but that of zoologists outside the Service as well:

Of the 63 known species that inhabited the park in 1906, two have increased, 35 have held their own, 21 have been greatly reduced, three are verging on extinction, and two have disappeared. One animal has been added, the opossum. . . . [61]

Later in the same year, Director Albright published a new predator control policy which recognized predators as integral parts of the parks' protected ecosystems. He ordered discontinuance of control programs that used steel traps and poison with a few emergency exceptions. [62] Nineteen thirty and 1931 also saw a great expansion of the Ash Mountain Nursery, initiation of studies of the insect control policy, and a rise in scientific investigation of both vegetation and wildlife. The reactions and reversal of philosophy exemplified by these steps were a harbinger of efforts to come in the management of visitors and their interaction with the limited area and resources of the two fragile parks.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap5f.htm — 12-Jul-2004