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


Three Formative Decades

Creation of the National Park Service marked the final step in federal assumption of control of the Sierra Nevada. When George Stewart and his allies first turned to the federal government for help in limiting local abuse of the Tulare County Sierra in 1890, they initiated a course that ultimately took control of the land away from Tulare County altogether. Sequoia and General Grant national parks and the Sierra Forest Reserve had all been created in response to regional demand for better protection of mountain resources. No one intended initially that the two types of federal reservations would go forward forever in different directions, but ultimately they did; and no one intended that the reservations would cease to respond to local needs, but ultimately they all did. Just as surely as creation of the Forest Service reduced the locals to permittees on the national forest, creation of the National Park Service would move control of the two parks from local residents, subject to Washington's direction but still in close touch with the community, to a new and professional bureaucracy. Initially created by the residents of Tulare County largely for their own ends, Sequoia and General Grant national parks and the Sequoia National Forest were, by the end of 1916, truly national reservations, supported and controlled by the federal government.

In the thirty years between 1886, when the Kaweah Colony began constructing the Colony Mill Road, and 1916, when the National Park Service, assumed legal responsibility for Sequoia and General Grant national parks, the land-based resources of the southern Sierra underwent significant changes, mostly for the better. In the 1890s, just as local populations technology, and transportation reached the critical mass necessary to truly devastate the natural resources of the region, an effort began to slow and limit that destruction. As a result, the same decade that witnessed the destruction of Converse Basin, the largest natural Big Tree grove, also saw creation of two national parks to preserve giant sequoias and the withdrawal of all remaining Sierran forest lands from sale.

Beginning in the two parks, and, after 1905 in the forest reserves, effective protection and land management ended the era of unlimited resource consumption. In Sequoia and General Grant national parks the primary goals of this effort were to prevent large-scale grazing and hunting, and to control fire. Unregulated grazing in the parks took a decade to stamp out, but it was gone, except from some small inholdings by the turn of the century. Nevertheless, residual scars marked the slopes and valleys. In the foothills heavy grazing had destroyed native grasses, which had been replaced by annuals of Eurasian origins. In the high country near timberline, much of the vegetation was gone, leaving behind a landscape far more barren and severe than had existed before the late nineteenth century. Localized grazing remained a problem, mostly in middle-altitude forest meadows that either remained in private hands or were adjacent to the growing tourist camps. Hunting had turned out to be relatively easy to control. Fires also were not a problem in those early years for, although it would not be understood for another fifty years, the unlimited burning of the late nineteenth century had so thinned the Sierra's forests that it would be several decades before the fire hazard rose again. Early national park management affected wildlife, too. Although the prohibition against hunting gave many animals protection not found outside the parks, management also felt free to "improve" wildlife situations. Predators were often shot on sight, and trout were introduced into many previously barren streams. Early in the century, a well-intentioned if misguided attempt at wildlife preservation had even witnessed introduction into Sequoia Park of some of the last tule elk from the San Joaquin Valley, an attempt that was defeated by the inability of the prairie animals to adapt to life in the mountains.

Because the goals of Sequoia and Sierra national forests diverged from those of Sequoia and General Grant national parks, different protection measures were undertaken in the forests. The Forest Service, for example, controlled, but by no means eliminated grazing. In 1917, in the Great Western Divide country, the Forest Service administered more than a dozen grazing allotments including several designed for sheep. [79] According to Forest Service policy, other consumptive activities, including logging, were appropriate forest uses, but in reality, resource demand was not yet sufficient to justify much activity in these areas. The Forest Service suppressed fires aggressively and with increasing efficiency, and hunting and fishing regulation began in cooperation with the state of California.

In 1916, despite their widely divergent management policies, the national parks and national forests of the southern Sierra had not yet diverged significantly. In most places the only real change along their shared physical boundaries was the transition from no grazing to regulated grazing or the shift from no hunting to low-intensity recreational hunting. In 1916 the parks were better protected than the surrounding national forest lands, but both types of lands were far better treated than they had been in the late nineteenth century. Rational management by outside federal agents had come to the Sierra.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap4n.htm — 12-Jul-2004