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

THE FOUNDING OF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE brought radical and immediate change to Sequoia and General Grant, as well as the rest of the fledgling system. For the first time this loose aggregate of land withdrawals had a unified and dedicated administration. For the first time, they escaped the shadow of the Department of Agriculture, its principal land management agency, the Forest Service, and their entrenched philosophy of multiple use. And for the first time, a group of men zealously committed to preservation for recreation would administer the parks; they were a very different breed from the conservationists of the Forest Service. However, the Park Service was weak and the system of lands it inherited were insignificant compared to the Forest Service and its vast tracts. In addition, the Park Service faced a complicated problem of blending two nearly incompatible purposes—recreational use and preservation.

These challenges demanded men who would be extraordinary in their skills and devotion, for upon their shoulders would fall the very future of the national park system. The decisions they made, the policies they adopted and the infrastructure they approved would become a permanent legacy for the future.

From 1916 to 1931, the Park Service would find four such men at the national level and in the two parks of the southern Sierra Nevada. They were Stephen Mather, first director of the Park Service who ran the agency from 1916 to 1929; Horace Albright, his trustworthy assistant, who became the second director during the years 1929 to 1933; Walter Fry, first civilian superintendent of the two parks; and Colonel John White, the second, longest-tenured, and most important superintendent. During the first decade and a half of the Park Service, these four men would define park goals, establish patterns of visitor use and development, and create two administrations, national and local, that would guide the parks through the remainder of their first century.

Among their tangible accomplishments at Sequoia and General Grant were elimination of nearly all private land holdings, especially in Giant Forest; the enormous expansion of Sequoia to near its present boundaries; establishment of a highly successful natural history program incorporating the familiar and popular campfire talks and ranger-led hikes; installation of a unified and financially stable concession monopoly with vastly improved and expanded infrastructure; and construction of nearly all the significant roads and trails found today in the two parks. Products of their time, these men favored development of parks for visitor use and their greatest accomplishments lie in that realm. Yet it was also these remarkable leaders who first questioned the wisdom of such practices and who took the first tentative steps away from relentless tourism development and toward control or even elimination of some recreational activities and the construction necessary to promote them. [1]

Stephen Mather combined the rare and fortunate qualities of a preservationist philosophy, extraordinary dedication and ambition, and a considerable personal fortune. Horace Albright, his young second-in-command, matched that dedication and intelligent ability and added uncommon persuasive skills, particularly in the arena of Washington, D.C. politics. Upon successful conclusion of the battle to create the Park Service, the two men returned to the business of putting the system's house in order. For decades the parks had suffered from a lack of purpose and a shallow, almost aimless philosophy of management. One of the earliest and most far-reaching accomplishments of Mather and Albright was firm establishment of a management philosophy for the park system. They performed this through the curious but politically typical technique of composing a letter for Interior Secretary Franklin Lane in which he would instruct them on the rules and practices of national park management.

Over the years historians have argued about who wrote this letter, Mather or Albright. However, Albright himself has maintained that he wrote the letter basing it primarily on the ideas of Mather, but also on those of William Colby, Francis Farquhar, and Joseph LeConte of the Sierra Club, Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic Society, J. H. McFarland and Harlean James of the American Civic Association, Robert Marshall of the United States Geological Survey, and Robert Sterling Yard of the National Parks Association. This cast of advisors gave the letter a considerable tilt toward preservation values, very much a minority opinion in those early Park Service days. Mather and Lane both approved the document which then reappeared on the director's desk dated May 13, 1918. It embodied ". . . an outline of the administrative policy to which the new Service will adhere . . ." and has subsequently been called the "creed for the National Park Service." [2]

Secretary Lane recommended three basic management "that the national principles to shape future park policy. First, parks were to be preserved unimpaired for future generations," a restatement of the earlier congressional act; second, "that the parks were to be used for the observation, health and pleasure of the people;" and third, "that the national interest must dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks." Because the statement of preservation preceded that of popular use in the letter, it has provided justification over ensuing decades for administrative changes toward preservation and away from recreational use.

The letter went on to give twenty-three specific directives on various issues ranging from grazing permits to concession activities. The general tenor of the letter reflected the limited knowledge of ecology at the time but made a strong statement toward object and scenery preservation both still novelties in this recent frontier country. Tree cutting, cattle grazing, and construction of roads and buildings were to be permitted, but only if these activities proved absolutely necessary and harmonized with the natural setting. Camping, concession operations, and automobile use were to be encouraged within the limits required for persistence of "natural conditions." Park rangers were to encourage educational use of the parks in every way while allowing "appropriate" recreation. In addition, the Lane letter addressed issues of expansion of the park system, maintenance of proper standards within each unit, acquisition of adjacent park-quality lands, and elimination of private in holdings within existing parks. [3]

At Sequoia and General Grant the directives of the Lane letter were greeted by Superintendent Walter Fry as welcome confirmation of most existing practices and affirmation of ambitious and worthy goals. Since taking over the superintendency in 1914, Fry had established a reputation based on his knowledge of the two parks and his total dedication to their protection. Now, he skillfully implemented the new Washington office policies and helped establish Sequoia and General Grant under the new Park Service in those first few critical years. However, Fry's real love lay not in administration but in the forests and among the wildlife of his park home. Over his years in the parks, he had become obsessed with nature study, an obsession that would soon pay rich dividends for the visitors. His opportunity came in 1920 when he was offered the position of U.S. magistrate at Sequoia and, two years later, leadership of an incipient natural history program. At age sixty-one, Fry accepted the new challenges and for the next two decades helped build the nature guide service at Sequoia, a program which became a model for other parks. [4]

Mather, meanwhile, had been searching for a younger generation of men with "the right stuff" to operate his parks and carry out his philosophy. He found such a man for Sequoia and General Grant in Colonel John White, late of the Philippine Constabulary and arguably the most important individual in the history of the two parks. John Roberts White was born in England and attended Oxford University before joining the American Army as a lowly private in 1899. Assigned to the U.S. garrison trying to pacify the Philippines, White soon found himself a colonel in the Philippine Constabulary, commanding a small army of Filipino soldiers with distinction during the guerrilla war in that turbulent place. However, in the process White contracted malaria and tuberculosis which forced his retirement. He rejoined the U.S. Army during the First World War and rose again to the rank of colonel while serving in Europe. In 1919, he retired again from the military, and looking for outdoors work which would maximize his administrative talent, as well as restore his health, White stumbled across Albright and Arno Cammerer, later directors of the Park Service. Although Albright had nothing available that he thought proper for a colonel, White persisted until Albright offered him a position as ranger at newly established Grand Canyon National Park. Within a year he assumed the superintendency of Sequoia, the second oldest of America's national parks. [5]

In White, Mather had a man committed to the principles of nature appreciation, preservation of park resources, and encouragement of visitor use and education, ideas the director himself espoused. With Mather and Albright directing policy from Washington, White tirelessly operating his benign dictatorship within the two parks, beloved Walter Fry building one of the nation's great natural history and public interpretation programs, and with a codified creed of policies and philosophical tenets, Sequoia and General Grant entered a new era of development and popularity and a new level of debate over the two purposes for which they and the youthful agency were founded—use versus preservation.

Moro Rock
© Photo by Lawrence Ormsby


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap5.htm — 12-Jul-2004