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


Preservation: The Conflict for Giant Forest Begins

Dr. Emilio Meinecke's report on the status of the giant sequoias and their susceptibility to human-caused damage came during an important year for the two parks. In 1926 the park's acreage more than doubled, the new road to Giant Forest opened, and Howard Hays brought concession stability to the parks. Meinecke's report was like a bucket of cold water thrown on the cheery scene. He demonstrated that the giant sequoia suffered serious root damage when confronted with roads, buildings and massed human traffic. Its shallow roots seemed particularly susceptible to soil compaction and the danger of severing during construction. With a badly damaged root system inhibiting the intake of water and nutrients, how long would it be before the tree died? As an added matter of concern to Colonel White and his staff, the scenery and serenity of Giant Forest in particular was being gravely harmed. Subsumed under scores of buildings and up to several thousand cars at a time, nature appreciation was nearly impossible on busy summer days and evenings. It went against the superintendent's nature to interfere with visitor enjoyment of the park's primary resource, but there was no ignoring the serious breach of quality that beset the grove. [63]

For Colonel White the solution was always some measure that would encourage people to go elsewhere in the big park. Construction of the High Sierra Trail and limits on cabins, recreation buildings, services, and amenities in Giant Forest, were actions aimed at dispersing use and focusing attention on the park's spiritually uplifting qualities. Meinecke's report added fuel to the fire of these thoughts by simply stating that the best solution to the damage caused by construction among sequoias was to stop building. [64] Much harm had already been done by the new Generals Highway; prevention of further damage was paramount.

The superintendent fired the opening shot on May 26, 1927, in a letter to Director Mather. He wrote that after careful consideration he believed that limits should be placed on the concessioner's housing capacity in Giant Forest. White suggested limits of 600 guests at Giant Forest Lodge and 600 more at Camp Kaweah for the 1927 season. Further, he suggested that at the end of the season the Giant Forest Lodge cabins be removed from under the sequoias to some unspecified location—possibly near Beetle Rock and Camp Kaweah or perhaps even to Lodgepole. [65] Mather initially agreed but recommended that they wait a month until their scheduled meeting with Hays during which time the concessioner would submit his plans. There is no record of that meeting, but whatever Howard Hays told his old friend worked because no more was heard of White's recommendations for several years. [66] A few years later, in 1929, White did gain one victory by blocking Hays' request to build a new auto camp at Round Meadow. The Park Service had just cleared the ramshackle litter of campsites that had covered the area for the previous twenty summers. It sharply opposed building a new camp there. Hays was forced to develop the auto camp at Pinewood instead. [67]

On July 4, 1930, a disturbing and increasingly familiar scene unfolded before Colonel White and his staff. Cars crowded around Giant Forest Village, honking and jostling for parking places in the lot and along the road. Over at Giant Forest Lodge more cars clogged the sprawling complex of housekeeping cabins. People coursed this way and that between their cars and cabins, and from the dining room to the visitor center. At Camp Kaweah the scene was repeated. There were traffic jams at the Moro Rock road junction, at the new Giant Forest Village gas station, and at the access roads to Giant Forest Lodge and Camp Kaweah. More cars and more people packed into the four campgrounds and Pinewood Auto Camp. In all nearly 1,200 cars brought almost 4,300 people into Giant Forest that day. A few years earlier that would have been more than a month's total. [68]

On that Independence Day of 1930, White worried about what he saw and a few months later put those worries to paper in his report to the director:

The problem of handling such numbers (of visitors) in the congested central Big Tree area at Giant Forest is a serious one; and much study and planning must be given to developing new areas for hotels, housekeeping camps, public camps etc. in order to accommodate the increasing crowds. If we do not plan carefully and transfer the major part of the present activity away from the heart of Giant Forest, the beauties of that area—already badly tarnished—will be further impaired. [69]

It was a desperate situation that threatened to leave the world's greatest forest anything but "unimpaired for future generations." In Giant Forest something drastic was required; something that would restore the grove and make sure that its beauty and inspirational qualities were never again tarnished. That something was the complete evacuation of concession facilities from among the Big Trees.

map of Giant Forest Development Area
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The opening of this battle came in 1931 with Hays' request to add five new redwood cabins to Giant Forest Lodge. It was a simple and modest request; Hays believed that it was scarcely more than a formality before construction began. However, to his amazement, Colonel White rejected his proposal and answered that Hays ought to be planning instead to move the entire lodge complex to another site. White's idea was nearly five years old, but this time he meant it. To Hays and his manager, George Mauger, the rejection threatened the viability of their operation. They believed that visitors came to the park to stay among the Big Trees, not to pay short visits from their lodgings in a mundane pine forest. Removal of the facilities from Giant Forest might spell a serious fall in concession customer numbers. In addition, they believed that whatever damage might befall the "half dozen" sequoias on their grounds (a considerable underestimate at the time) would be minimal compared to the damage done by "hundred of thousands of sightseers and campers who will be motoring through and picnicking under the Big Trees." Hays concluded his response by writing:

No money payment as damages or expense could compensate us for the moving of our Hotel from our present site out to (say) Lodgepole. There is no National Park feeling at Lodgepole. Among the finest pages of John Muir are those where he writes of his poignant sorrow because the venerable Emerson was restrained from joining him (Muir) for a night under the Big Trees. [70]

The lines were drawn and two resolute, erudite and savvy men, John R. White and Howard Hays, faced off over the future of the concessioner's major investment and the park's principal resource. [71]

For Hays the next step was obvious. Whenever he had problems with his concession operations in Sequoia and General Grant, he simply went to his old friend Horace Albright, now director of the National Park Service. This practice infuriated Colonel White who believed that only the superintendent could really make such decisions based on fact, observation, and the best interests of the park uninfluenced by outside concerns. Left unsaid was White's increasingly proprietary feelings about his two charges. The Colonel had begun to see Sequoia and General Grant as his fiefdoms and resented any activity in them that was not directly under his control. He fired off letters to Albright, to members of the director's Washington staff, and to friends in the Sierra Club bitterly complaining about the concessioner's penchant for going over his head. [72]

In the end, Hays' tactic worked. Albright overruled White and flatly stated that he would never insist that the Giant Forest Lodge be removed from the sequoia belt. Indeed, if some reason was found why they should move from the site they occupied, then they should move to another site under the Big Trees. That settled the matter of moving the lodge out of Giant Forest, at least for the time being. In addition, the director approved construction of the five redwood cabins that had triggered the whole conflict. [73] It was a crushing defeat for Colonel White and those who would protect the sequoias.

Nevertheless, it was not a total victory for Hays and his company either. Albright, like his predecessor, was gravely concerned about protection of the sequoias and of the park values in Giant Forest. He recognized that limits had to be placed somewhere lest the magnificent grove be turned into a residential neighborhood with rather large backyard trees. Thus on November 23, 1931, Albright ordered that the Giant Forest Lodge capacity henceforth would be limited to 200 guests or "pillows" and a number of still-to-be determined employee quarters. This pinned the concession company to a total only slightly higher than they already had. A few months later, the director expanded the "pillow limit" concept to cover Camp Kaweah where up to 500 guests could be housed and pinewood Auto Camp which would be limited to 300. Both complexes were well below those totals and allowed the concessioner considerable further expansion within Giant Forest. However, the areas directly among the major sequoias, those of the lodge, were virtually closed to further construction. [74]

The magnitude of this decision can scarcely be overestimated. It was the first time the Park Service placed a limit on tourism development in any of its parks. It was a revolution of sorts in policy and philosophy and arose from men who had campaigned vigorously for recreation development. Mather had been leaning toward control, Albright had implemented it. Some of the evidence to back the latest decisions came from Walter Fry's nature observations. But it was Colonel White, the increasingly dominant and preservation-oriented superintendent, who drove the Park Service to the decision, and who was far from finished in his efforts to force the concessioner out from among the sequoias.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap5g.htm — 12-Jul-2004