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


Use: Publicity and The Natural History Program

For nearly thirty years Sequoia and General Grant national parks had offered the chance to see the largest living things and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Yet a combination of insufficient publicity and the towering shadow of their famous neighbor, Yosemite, left the two in relative obscurity. Mather, Albright, and White shared the view that this was an unfortunate, even intolerable, state of affairs. One reason for their dismay certainly arose from Mather's realistic appraisal of his agency's future. Without a massive display of public sympathy for each park, as well as the system in general, the National Park Service and some of its parks might not survive. However, this survival instinct was not the only motive for the pro-tourism attitude of the director and his top assistants. Mather and Albright, both businessmen at heart, saw the parks as good and proper places for public recreation and for the establishment of a tourism infrastructure to foster and profit from that activity. Secretary Lane's policy letter was replete with instructions for concession operations and camping privileges. It ordered that "every opportunity should be afforded to the public, wherever possible, to enjoy the national parks in the manner that best satisfies individual tastes." [8] And Colonel White's early annual reports were filled with recommendations for tourism developments and pleas for the money to build them.

One of the best ways to protect the parks was by public use and the best way to encourage public use was by publicity. Mather encouraged articles in high profile magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic and he and Albright made the convention circuit rounds and filled the radio waves with enthusiastic invitations to visit the national parks. At Sequoia and General Grant, the Park Service in 1916 released a slick forty-seven-page information booklet which became a model for later guides to the two parks. Of greater significance, National Geographic published a lengthy and well-illustrated article on Sequoia bringing the "Big Trees" to the attention of millions. Meanwhile Colonel White visited state and local newspaper offices and attended various business and social affairs to publicize his two parks. The Automobile Club of Southern California helped by printing a series of popular maps, brochures, and advertisements, while railroads, San Joaquin Valley towns, and the state of California added their efforts to the publicity campaign. [9]

Once visitors began arriving in ever-increasing numbers, the question became one of controlling the amusements and pursuits they sought. To the minds of Mather and White, the proper technique was to offer visitor activities consistent with the high moral and intellectual opportunities available in the sublime setting. White, in particular, was loath to regulate or control visitors, an ironic position considering his later stance on such matters. He much preferred the carrot of education and spiritual enrichment in the parks to the stick of rules and enforced limitations. To educate the public, a program was necessary whereby trained park officials could demonstrate the fascinating natural processes and fragile complexities, nature offered. Museums, nature hikes, occasional lectures, an entire program to "interpret" the natural world was necessary. Mather initiated the scheme by encouraging Dr. C.M. Goethe to conduct nature walks and campfire talks in Yosemite during the summer of 1920. The reaction was so positive that before the year was over Mather had directed that each national park should have a trained naturalist on staff and a similar program in operation. [10]

In Sequoia, funding problems and many other needs delayed implementation of Mather's order another two years. But, in 1922, White turned to the man whose expertise and enthusiasm for investigating and explaining the natural world of Sequoia and General Grant was already almost legendary—Judge Walter Fry. In his new position as U.S. Magistrate, Fry found himself with a good deal of time on his hands. During the summer of 1922 he tried a total of twelve cases in his park court, most of which took only a few hours to conduct. Hence, he was free to initiate the Sequoia Nature Guide Service. On his first guided walk in late June, Fry took twenty-seven visitors on a wildflower walk and promptly identified sixty-seven different flowers.

In addition to developing direct visitor contact programs, Fry also began collecting assorted specimens of the parks' wildlife and vegetation. Initially the collection was housed in the new administrative center in Giant Forest. However, within a year Colonel White was forced to order construction of a two-room tent museum adjacent to the building for Fry's rapidly expanding collection. By 1925, more than 400 floral specimens had been mounted for public viewing and reference. The growth of the museum was so steady that by 1926 White reported the collection had taken over the entire Giant Forest administration building, which fortunately had been freed by completion of a new center at Ash Mountain. Mrs. White and her friends waged a constant fund-raising effort to support the museum and employ an attendant.

By 1926, Walter Fry's advancing age plus the ever-growing popularity of the nature guide program compelled the recruitment of three new naturalists with money from the volunteer museum fund. During that season more than 1,200 people attended nature walks and almost 18,000 heard the nightly campfire programs. Fry meanwhile continued to publish an extraordinarily popular series of pamphlets called "Nature Notes. The naturalist program had matured to the point where its benefits and popularity now exceeded even the predictions of White and Mather. In his 1926 annual report, Colonel White wrote:

The expansion of museum, nature walks and campfire lectures is the surest protection against degeneracy into jazzy amusements. If we do not lead the public into amusements and sports which harmonize with the purposes of the park, we must not be surprised if the public and the operators clamor for an atmosphere which may be eventually destructive of the policy of maintaining the parks in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations as well as those of our own time. [11]

Colonel White now realized that a more permanent naturalist program was needed in the parks. The importance of the program was fully proven, but volunteer efforts could not continue to meet increasing demand. During the summer of 1927, the concession company hired its own naturalist and specialist on Indians, Herbert Wilson, to supplement the Park Service effort. But even this addition proved insufficient. More than 3,500 visitors attended Wilson's walks alone. It was clearly time to expand the operation and bring it into the regular park budget.

White now put his considerable political skills to work. Claiming private funds were no longer adequate to operate the nature guide service, he allowed the effort to lapse in 1928. Only Wilson of the concession company continued to provide interpretation for visitors. White's motives for allowing the nature guide service to expire can only be surmised from the modern perspective. If, by allowing the program to die, he was trying to force the Washington office to begin regular support of a naturalist program in Sequoia, he succeeded. The 1929 budget provided funds for employment of a permanent park naturalist. The superintendent hired Frank Been for the new position before the summer season commenced.

Placing a permanent park employee into a full-time nature guide position brought new life to the naturalist program. Been's first summer in Sequoia was a busy one. Before the season had ended he had taken more than 5,000 visitors on guided walks and presented campfire lectures to 66,000. These results so gratified White that he transferred a seasonal ranger from the regular ranger force to Been for the summer. Meanwhile, he continued his lobbying efforts and in 1931 succeeded in bringing the entire naturalist program into the regular operating budget of the parks. During that year White hired two seasonal ranger-naturalists, Walter Powell and Walter Van Deest, to replace the borrowed ranger, and he besieged the director for another full-time position. With the opening of a new campfire circle at Lodgepole to supplement the one in Giant Forest, the naturalist program in Sequoia alone consisted in 1931 of two nature walks and two campfire programs every day of the season. The program for nature education of visitors had arrived and the most familiar and positive image that most visitors have of national parks, the friendly and informative ranger at the campfire and on guided walks, was firmly fixed in the public mind. [12]

It is, of course, difficult to gauge the effect of the nature guide program except by its popularity. This experiment in public relations, cautiously suggested by Mather, enthusiastically promoted in Sequoia by White, and begun by the sage and grandfatherly Walter Fry, met unhindered success and an almost feverish demand from visitors. As attendance swelled, most tourists came to regard the walks, talks, and museum displays as the most obvious and appropriate functions of national parks. Those visitors likewise cannot have failed to adapt to the messages contained in the rangers' words. In the nature guide program, which now exists as the Service-wide Division of Interpretation, the Park Service molded public attitude about what parks were, what they could and should become, and how their preservation was a sacred trust of the present generation for the future.

ranger-guided walk
The development of ranger-guided walks helped the National Park Service to solidify public support in the 1930s. (National Park Service photo)

Use: Building for the People

Many accomplishments characterized the first fifteen years of the National Park Service in Sequoia and General Grant, including an eightfold increase in visitation, establishment of resource management and interpretation programs, and the enormous popularization of the two parks among the general public. But of all the accomplishments of Mather, Albright, and White, perhaps the most significant and ostensible was the vast development of public infrastructure. From 1916 to 1931, park administrators extensively enlarged and altered both the road and trail systems, built a substantial complex of government facilities for public and employee use, and installed an aggressive and competent concession monopoly to cater to the burgeoning tourist market. In the process, they also developed virtually all the park areas and many of the facilities still in use today and firmly entrenched a set of procedures and activities as proper and traditional in the minds of both the public and the concessioner. So successful were they, that within a few years they began to have doubts about their own policies and the effects of those policies on the fragile parks environment.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap5b.htm — 12-Jul-2004