Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Nine:
New Directions and a Second Century


Giant Forest Reconsidered

Public involvement in the planning process soon had an unexpected and startling impact. In response to planning problems raised about Giant Forest in the Master Plan, the NPS decided to produce a "Development Concept Plan" (DCP) for the Giant Forest/Lodgepole area. Preparation of the development plan fell to a private contractor, Sasaki, Walker Associates, working in conjunction with the NPS systemwide planning staff at the agency's new Denver Service Center. During preparation of the DCP, Sasaki, Walker Associates rediscovered what others had known for several decades—that the preservation of Giant Forest required significant reductions in development within the grove. The new DCP described the visitor experience at Giant Forest in starkly unflattering terms:

Upon cresting the hill. . . the visual impression in Giant Forest Village and Kaweah is that of old dilapidated buildings bounding a rather large, disorderly area of asphalt paving—cars every where—some at a standstill . . . with occupants reading signs. . . . This anticlimactic, confusing and disorderly arrival brings traffic to a standstill and prolongs the frustration caused by the climb into the Giant Forest. [2]

To correct the dismal situation, the DCP called not only for the relocation of a portion of the accommodations, as had the recent master plan, but also for full removal of all overnight visitor facilities from the grove. Once again, Colonel White's grand plan resurfaced, this time with a variety of complicated new twists. New structures at Lodgepole would replace the hundreds of small Giant Forest concessioner cabins. Near Wolverton, on the site of the existing pack station, the DCP proposed the construction of a large "staging area," which would serve as the terminal for interpretive bus tours of Giant Forest. The tours would make use not only of the existing Generals Highway between the Sherman Tree and the Village, and the existing Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road, but also of a new interpretive roadway to be constructed across the northeastern portion of the grove, connecting Crescent Meadow with Wolverton. Thus, the DCP went well beyond previous plans for removing traffic from the grove by attempting to replace auto touring with public transportation.

On the issue of camping, the plan remained vague. The 1971 Master Plan called for maintaining existing campsite capacity and relocating the Giant Forest campgrounds to the "Clover Creek-Willow Meadow" area north of Lodgepole. However, by August 1974, after the three remaining Giant Forest campgrounds had been closed, the DCP itself made no specific allowance for any camping construction at all, except to note that: "All camping at Lodgepole may eventually be phased out, allowing room for the village development with the balance of open space to be returned to a more natural state." [3] On several other issues mentioned in the master plan, including the proposed tramway up Alta Peak, the DCP remained silent.

In August 1974, a confident Park Service released the draft DCP to the public and held public hearings in Visalia, Fresno, and Ash Mountain. At the hearings, required by NEPA, the Park Service ran directly into a shocking crossfire. Frustrated campers complained bitterly that first they had lost the Giant Forest campgrounds, and now the Service wanted to phase out camping at Lodgepole, too, with only a vague promise of additional development in the undefined future. To the park's many longtime campers, the proposal to move Giant Forest Village's functions to Lodgepole was offensive and biased in favor of lodge visitors. Significantly, however, while repeated critics angrily attacked the use of Lodgepole for accommodations construction, and others questioned the need and potential impact of an additional road through Giant Forest, most supported the concept of removing facilities from the grove, if only another site could be found for the new development.

The Park Service's first public hearing under the new NEPA procedures had not gone well. Nobody on the park staff could have expected such a vigorous and angry public response. But through the cloud of criticism, park planners and managers saw the bright light of opportunity. With apparent public support for removal from Giant Forest, perhaps it would at last be possible to break the generation-long stalemate that continued to threaten Sequoia National Park's most cherished feature. Quickly, the Park Service moved to exploit the limited public mandate it had received during the summer hearings. In November Superintendent Henry Schmidt announced that since the public agreed with the concept of relocating facilities to less fragile sites, and objected only to the designation of Lodgepole as the new hotel site, the park would revise the draft DCP and seek alternative development locations. [4]

In his November 1974 news release, Superintendent Schmidt promised to have a revised Giant Forest plan available for public review by early summer, 1975. What came out instead, in May, was a set of four "planning alternatives" together with a "response booklet." Stung by the response to the Sasaki, Walker proposal, yet encouraged by the public's general support for the removal of facilities from Giant Forest, the Service now proceeded cautiously. The four alternatives included a "no action" option, which left Giant Forest's facilities largely intact, and three possible patterns of relocation. One option followed closely the Sasaki, Walker plan of 1974, while the remaining two proposed either centralizing most visitor accommodations at Clover Creek, two miles north of Lodgepole, or scattering the accommodations through the Lodgepole/Wolverton/Clover Creek region. All the facility relocation options included proposals for a public transportation system using only existing roads, and all four proposals carefully spelled out provisions for maintaining a substantial number of campsites. [5]

In July 1975, a chastened but quietly optimistic Park Service held another series of public workshops to accept comments on the four planning alternatives. Trying to avoid the camping problems that had blown up so badly the previous summer, these workshops occurred not only in Visalia and Fresno, but also at Lodgepole Campground. Parks' officials also took their workshop format to six local service clubs. Again, several themes came through clearly in the public's response. Generally, the public strongly supported converting Giant Forest to a day-use-only area and did not object to a public transportation system, as long as accommodations and camping were maintained in the Lodgepole/Clover Creek area and campsite numbers did not drop below the existing level. Conspicuous in its absence was any strong criticism of the removal alternatives from Government Services, Incorporated (GSI), the company that had purchased the Fred Harvey concession operations within the park in 1972. Previously, Howard Hays and George Mauger had violently opposed removal for decades, insisting that the public would never accept accommodations that did not stand beneath the Big Trees. But now, with visible public support for removal, the new concessioner remained largely silent, tacitly accepting at least the concept of change.

Two years passed while professional park planners at the Denver Service Center analyzed the public comment received in 1975 and converted it into a viable redevelopment concept. Finally, in December 1977, the Park Service announced the availability of a new draft plan for the Giant Forest/Lodgepole area. [6] The package the NPS presented to the public in late 1977 differed markedly from that first experiment of three years earlier. No longer did the plan set out boldly to solve every problem once and for all. Indeed, the first words inside the document set a cautious tone: "This plan has not yet been approved. Its purpose is to provide planning information for further consideration and discussion, and it may undergo considerable revision." [7] In content, the new plan drew mostly from elements evaluated during the 1975 public review. It called for the redesign of Giant Forest as a day-use-only area, with public transportation access near Wolverton. At Clover Creek, north of Lodgepole, the concessioner would build its new lodges, keeping to the limit of 1,240 pillows established in 1964. Camping would remain at Lodgepole, with no significant change in the number of sites. Additional provisions included interim improvement of waste-water processing in Giant Forest and major changes in NPS employee housing and maintenance. [8] To meet the requirements of NEPA, an additional public document supported the new draft DCP, the Draft Environmental Statement. This 280-page document discussed in detail the possible environmental impacts of the proposed action. [9] Altogether, the 1977 package, based on public reaction to the four alternatives of 1975, and supported by a detailed environmental assessment, reflected how thoroughly NEPA had changed park planning in Sequoia during the 1970s. Never again would the Service have the luxury of planning park development without having to explain its actions to the public.

On December 21, 1977, new Superintendent David D. Thompson, Jr., announced public meetings to discuss the new plan. At two February meetings, in Fresno and Visalia, a majority of the attending public voiced support for the central portions of the scheme. Again, the concessioner did not object. However, during the public comment period which followed the meetings, Government Services, Inc. President Walter Williams clarified the concessioner's stance with an ominous warning: "in our past comments we have not suggested that it was within the concessioner's purview to argue against the relocation of visitor facilities from the Giant Forest Village area." Yet, Williams continued, "the scope of concessions activities at Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks is not sufficient to finance, either through debt or revenue . . . a capital investment approaching $11 million." [10] Williams had picked that figure from the total project construction costs estimated in the new draft DCP, which called for almost $20,000,000 of NPS work and over $11,000,000 of "concessioner-related costs." During the 1980s, the issue of economic feasibility for the concessioner would prove to be yet another stumbling block in the ongoing effort to restore Giant Forest.

In November 1979, still moving slowly and deliberately, the Service issued the final Environmental Assessment for the project, and on December 31, 1979, the last public comment period for that plan passed without additional surprises. NPS Regional Director Howard Chapman quietly approved the final Development Concept Plan for Giant Forest/Lodgepole on January 17, 1980. The final plan differed little from the second draft that had been released in 1977. For the first time since 1952, when the removal effort instigated by Colonel White collapsed, the Park Service had a formal plan to restore Giant Forest and correct the development mistakes of the 1920s. It took nearly a decade to secure the new plan, starting from the vague 1971 Master Plan and the 1972 concession contract which called for no real changes, and persevering through a seemingly endless cycle of planning documents and public meetings. Those meetings proved crucial, however, for they allowed the public, an interest group whose views had long been assumed by both the NPS and the concessioner, to speak for itself about Giant Forest development, and to show its willingness to accept change. With public support, the other necessary aspects of the plan, including acceptance by the concessioner, followed in due time.

With the plan in place, restoration of Giant Forest moved from the arena of policy to the arena of implementation. During the early 1980s the fight to restore Giant Forest became a battle for money, a battle intensified by a new round of federal budget cutting under President Ronald Reagan which began in the same year that the final Giant Forest plan was approved. By 1982, parks' managers perceived the funding shortage to be so acute that they feared that removal of Giant Forest facilities might be delayed indefinitely. In response to this fear, and to pressure from the concessioner to upgrade worn out facilities in Giant Forest, the park reluctantly granted permission to replace fifty old housekeeping cabins in the Giant Forest Village area with fifty new motel units. Park planners retained enough faith in the plan, however, to insist that the new buildings be constructed modularly so that they could be dismantled and moved.

The 1982 push by the concessioner to improve facilities in Giant Forest led finally to a commitment by the director of the Park Service to initiate funding for Clover Creek development in fiscal year 1984. Actual work on the site began that summer. During the next three summers the NPS constructed roads and utilities at the site, including a four-mile water line from Wolverton Creek, and a new maintenance yard at nearby Red Fir. By the end of 1987, when national funding shortfalls caused work on the project to stop temporarily, nearly half of the necessary Clover Creek infrastructure had been constructed. During the same years the money issues raised by the GSI's Walter Williams began to receive attention. An agreement in 1987 finally resolved the value of the company's existing facilities in Giant Forest, all of which the government had to purchase before they could be closed and razed. At the time these words were being written, removal of visitor facilities from Giant Forest looked more likely than at any previous time in the history of Sequoia National Park. With strong public support, with tacit concessioner acceptance, with new resolve among Park Service management, and with almost $20,000,000 already invested, it seemed possible that critical momentum had been achieved at last.

map of Giant Forest/Lodgepole DCP
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap9a.htm — 12-Jul-2004