Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Four:
Parks and Forests: Protection Begins


George Stewart Campaigns to Protect the Mountains

At times all it takes to focus attitudes such as these is an individual with sufficient vision and drive to turn a concern into a movement. Fortunately for the ecosystems of the southern Sierra one of those individuals appeared in Tulare County in the late 1870s. George W. Stewart came from a new generation of westerners. Born in Placerville, California, in the waning years of the gold rush, Stewart saw the California landscape in ways far different than did the emigrants of his father's generation. In 1872, only fifteen years old, Stewart moved to Tulare County, where he soon found a vocation that would occupy much of his life—journalism. It was in 1876 that Stewart began writing for the Visalia Delta, one of two newspapers in the growing town. Two years later, Stewart assumed the position of city editor. [2] In that same year, Stewart, only twenty-one years old, first addressed the destruction in the mountains east of Visalia. In a Delta editorial, he called for a state law to prohibit the cutting of giant sequoias. [3] Nothing concrete came of the suggestion, but Stewart had chosen sides in a battle that was just beginning. As a native Californian, he had convinced himself that Big Trees had higher uses than being converted into fence posts and shingles.

In the early 1880s, Stewart was not entirely alone in his interest in protecting the mountain country. The U.S. Surveyor General for California had withdrawn from sale four sections of land surrounding the General Grant Tree in 1880, an action supported by the valley residents of Tulare County. And the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation had been created in 1883, after the meeting of the Langley expedition and the Wallace-Wales-Wright groups in 1881. Upon their return, the Wallace party also began actively to advocate a Sierran alpine national park which would focus, as had their journey, on the Mt. Whitney region. In this proposal they received considerable support from several members of Langley's scientific group. [4]

Stewart championed a similar idea. Seeking support for his 1880 candidacy for the U.S. Senate, General John F. Miller had come to Visalia to talk with the editors of the Delta. During Miller's visit, Stewart filled his ear with local concerns about the mountains. After his election to the Senate by the California Legislature, Miller introduced Senate bill 463, "a bill to provide for setting apart a certain tract of land in the State of California as a public park." Miller's proposal, which did not receive serious attention from his colleagues, sought to protect an extensive tract of land including most of what is now Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Its significance lay not in its fate, for it was premature in many ways, but in its expression of what Stewart and his friends had in mind nearly a decade before any Sierran national park came into being. [5] Within a few short years Stewart had moved from trying to protect certain species of Sierran trees through state law to attempting protection of the entire southern Sierra through federal action.

In their proposals for a federally-established public park in the Tulare County mountains, Stewart and William Wallace drew upon several existing western precedents. In 1864, recognizing that it was in the public interest to preserve the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of the Big Trees, the U.S. Congress withdrew the two tracts from the public domain and transferred them to the state of California to be managed for the public good. After an idealistic start, however, California's administration of the Yosemite reservations eventually proved subject to political intrusions of all sorts. The state granted numerous uncontrolled concessions, and its administration of the reservations could only be described as haphazard. In 1872 a similar situation arose in the northern Rocky Mountains, with a proposal to preserve in public ownership the thermal areas near the head of the Yellowstone River. This time, however, there was no state government to put in charge of the lands. Hence, Congress responded by creating a "national" park. Again, like Yosemite, the early administration of Yellowstone was replete with difficulties, many of which negatively affected the landscape and its natural residents. Nevertheless, as a national park, Yellowstone represented an alternative to the Yosemite model, and after 1883, when the frustrated Interior Department finally turned protection of Yellowstone over to the U.S. Army, the model began to look increasingly attractive. The lands and resources that Stewart and his contemporaries hoped to protect were under federal control, and thus could be protected only by federal action. Nowhere in his public papers did Stewart discuss his perceptions about the successes and failures of the state's Yosemite reservations, but from the beginning he advocated not the Yosemite but the Yellowstone model for the southern Sierra.

It was into this milieu that the Kaweah colonists stumbled in late 1885, when they filed their Timber and Stone Act claims for the Giant Forest area. Suspicions about the colonists being dummy "entrymen" led the Delta to request that the General Land Office (GLO) look closely at the situation. As a result GLO Inspector G. C. Wharton reviewed the status of claims in eighteen townships in the southern Sierra. In many of these he saw evidence of possible fraud, and he recommended that nine full townships, including all the Colony's claims, be withdrawn from the market until the situation could be clarified. GLO Commissioner W. A. J. Sparks, a self-appointed critic of the entire Timber and Stone procedure, suspended all eighteen townships. In 1887, Sparks was forced out of office, but his replacement, S. N. Stockslager, continued the Sierran withdrawals Sparks had initiated. [6]

When Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland in November 1888, a more traditional attitude returned to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The new Interior Secretary, John Noble, made it clear that he disagreed with the policies of his predecessors and that he would work to return as much withdrawn land as possible to the market. In response, Stewart and the Delta initiated a campaign for permanent withdrawal of the townships in question. Stewart's plan called for the federal government to retain title to these tracts, a policy he hoped would protect Tulare County's forests and the interest of valley farmers. The effort began in earnest in January 1889, when California, taking advantage of the school section statute, claimed a portion of the Grant Grove. Since the claim fell with the four withdrawn sections, the GLO rejected it. In April, sensing that the national political change might be to their advantage, several private parties also filed claims in the area. On April 25 Stewart editorialized that the land was already "regarded as a public park" and that it needed to be permanently designated as such. Stewart also organized a flurry of letters to the GLO reminding the agency of the importance of the four sections to local residents. The GLO responded that at best its actions were only temporary and that it was up to Congress to provide permanent protection for the area. [7]

map of Sen. Miller's park proposal
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

During the summer and fall of 1889, Stewart pursued his goal of protecting large portions of the local mountains. Using the Delta, he kept the issue before the public and worked to create a consensus. Several local farmer's organizations offered public support, and in October a meeting with interested individuals from adjacent Kern and Fresno counties went well. Park backers developed a petition and collected signatures. Over the winter, however, the petition disappeared. Supposedly it had been forwarded to Washington, D.C., but even the governor of California could not discover its whereabouts. By June, Stewart was a little discouraged. Speaking of the sequoias he so loved he wrote:

Nearly all have already passed into private ownership. Certain tracts, like the Giant Forest, that were once on the market and filed on by applicants in good faith, should be restored to the market. This would be nothing more than justice under the circumstances; but every acre of unsurveyed timber lands in the Sierra Nevada should be reserved immediately and for all time. [8]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap4a.htm — 12-Jul-2004