Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Six:
Colonel John White and Preservation in Sequoia National Park


Atmosphere Preservation: Holding the Line

As he wielded the powerful CCC development machine, Colonel White assumed an ever greater role in determining which projects could be adopted and which should be abandoned. At least part of the reason for his waxing personal control derived from a transition in administration within the National Park Service. Prior to 1933, the Park Service was a small, centralized organization with a tight chain of command in Washington. The director approved nearly every significant decision. During the CCC period, the Park Service evolved a system of regional officers and well-staffed divisions within those regions and within the Washington office. When this system became fully established with its various officers in well-defined roles, it distanced the Washington office from many decisions and diminished the power of each park superintendent. However, during this hectic transition period, and with the added impetus of local direction of each park's CCC program, superintendents gained great power to originate development and interpret policy. [11]

Colonel White's senior and honored status, his strong convictions and forceful personality, and the growing suspicion that he might be right in his increasingly preservationist ideals combined to lend him extra authority. White took advantage of the situation to imprint his views on Sequoia National Park to perhaps a greater extent than any other superintendent has done. And nowhere were Colonel White's views in the mid-1930s better expressed than in his landmark address to his fellow superintendents, entitled "Atmosphere in the National Parks." White proposed that there were four parties who had interests in a national park—future generations of Americans; the people who visited and supported the parks; the government, principally represented by the park superintendent; and the concessioner. While all four had rights in the parks according to their legally specified roles, there was no question in White's mind that the first group—future generations—a group with no power and no voice save that of the park staff, should have paramount rights. Hence, he endorsed a policy of erring on the side of preservation. [12]

After defining the situation and the interested parties, White went on to comment on specific practices and developments and their propriety for national parks. He supported campfire programs and nature hikes as well as educational films, natural winter sports areas, and widely dispersed camping and lodging facilities. He opposed radios, loudspeakers, stages and shows, dances and dance halls, tennis courts, golf courses, swimming pools, bands, electric lighting, movies for entertainment, convention business, sporting competitions, concession-operated sightseeing buses, tacky curio sales, and most of the kinds of entertainment typical resorts of the day provided. To promote the "proper" park uses and forestall "improper" ones, he believed that a superintendent needed to be an "obstructionist." He suggested that people using and supporting the park would, often in ignorance, desire these negative additions. Meanwhile the concessioner could be counted upon to press for such amusements at every turn to maximize business and profits. In White's mind only the superintendent—the lead obstructionist—stood between the park for future generations and the agitators clamoring for ever greater development. [13]

From 1931 through 1941, visitation to Sequoia National Park continued a meteoric annual increase, jumping from 143,573 to 300,012. [14] In addition, after 1935 most of the nearly equal numbers of entrants to General Grant National Park were able to journey into Sequoia on the completed Generals Highway. Virtually all these visitors poured into Giant Forest, creating massive traffic problems. The chaos and racket that attended a holiday weekend often obliterated the "atmosphere" that White sought to promote. Thus, while directing the vast development actions of the CCC, the superintendent also conducted his campaign of "obstructionism" concentrating on three courses of action—control and exclusion of improper uses of the park, dispersal of activities and infrastructure, and careful regulation of the concessioner.

Every year Colonel White received requests that forced reappraisal of park resources and the Park Service charter. Many of these he rejected outright while others called for consultation with his staff and superiors. In most cases his decisions reflected a will to the atmosphere by direct exclusion or tight control. Even before the end of Mather's directorship, White squared off against the concession company and most public opinion by rejecting funds to install electricity lines to Giant Forest. Despite incessant pressure and insistent pleading he rejected appropriations, turned back power company offers, and turned down Mauger and Hays over and over. [15] He allowed small, isolated generators, but only in a few concession areas and for limited purposes. During the 1930s, White turned down applications from the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company to build a commercial movie theater, a miniature golf course, tennis courts and a croquet field. Independent operators who proposed placing telescopes on Moro Rock and conducting pony rides in Giant Forest also met swift rejection. Other suggestions such as a system of sightseeing buses with loud speakers, a cable lift to Moro Rock, and hay rides never even reached full proposal status before the Colonel shot them down. He had mixed feelings on the notion of airplanes and landing fields in or near the park. While he disapproved of such interference, he felt that construction of a small field at the edge of the park and strict enforcement of a narrow flying corridor over the park offered a better chance of controlling airplane intrusion than outright exclusion which he felt would be ignored by pilots. In this rare instance, NPS Director Arno Cammerer overruled White and established the more stringent policy of exclusion with predictably mixed results. [16]

While fending off these obnoxious suggestions, Colonel White also tackled the problem of dispersing the activities and visitation which placed so much pressure on Giant Forest. One measure was to encourage visitors to come to Sequoia at times other than the busy peak season. Winter use in Giant Forest had begun in 1921 and become institutionalized when the concessioner took over winter accommodations in 1927. After the completion of the Generals Highway, most of the activity concentrated at Lodgepole and Wolverton, which dovetalled nicely with White's plan to shift use away from the sequoias to nearby valleys and meadows. It soon became apparent, however, that visitors did not come in winter instead of in summer, but in addition to. By 1936, White was forced to reject pleas from the concessioner for a ski lift and other artificial facilities. So many people crowded Wolverton Meadow and its gentle surrounding slopes that traffic again became a problem, exacerbated by snow and the much higher incidence of injury to visitors from various winter activities. At least it gave White the excuse to move the hospital and doctor out of Giant Forest to nearby Lodgepole. [17]

Of greater promise were White's plans to disperse various functions and facilities from Giant Forest to other sites in the park. He had already shifted camping from the center of the grove to its rim, but Hazelwood, Firwood, and other campgrounds had become serious problems. Part of the troubles arose from some campers five- or six-month stays. Many were victims of the Depression, while others simply intended to enjoy extended vacations and cheap accommodations at the government's expense. By 1933, Park Forester Lawrence Cook suggested that limits be placed on the duration of camping in the park. He believed that a rigorous one-night limit at Hazelwood and two or four week limits at the other campgrounds in Giant Forest would suffice. As a concession to demand and a ploy to shift visitors out of the grove, Lodgepole could remain limitless, and the Dorst Creek campground should be developed rapidly. [18] The following year White implemented a modified plan which placed a thirty-day limit on all Giant Forest areas, left Lodgepole open, and started development of Dorst Campground. Between 1936 and 1939 the Park Service completed Dorst and enlarged Lodgepole while closing Hazelwood to overnight use and greatly reducing the size of the other Giant Forest camps. With less infrastructure and lower cost of replacement, camping was an easy target for the reform-minded Park Service. [19]

Colonel White also decided to shift as many Park Service structures as possible out of Giant Forest. In 1931 and 1932, park officials removed corrals and barns and all maintenance facilities, returning several hundred acres to relatively natural conditions and public use. The maintenance facilities went to Lodgepole, near the burgeoning main campground while the corrals went to Wolverton. [20] During the late twenties and early thirties considerable discussion had revolved around a large museum and administrative center at Giant Forest Village. Although many supporters of Giant Forest evacuation urged White to make an exception in this case, the superintendent convinced his superiors to dispense with a museum and build a smaller summer headquarters at Lodgepole. At the same time, White gained approval to improve park employee housing in Lodgepole near the new administrative center. Although the government still maintained a number of facilities in the grove, including ranger cabins, visitor contact stations, the superintendent's house, and assorted support buildings, the trend and progress of removal advanced sharply during the CCC era. The availability of CCC labor allowed White to designate each cleared zone for cleanup, landscaping and replanting until a semblance of "natural atmosphere" and appearance returned to the forest. [21]

In controlling unwanted practices in the park and removing Park Service features from Giant Forest, Colonel White achieved considerable success and branded Sequoia with his philosophy and actions. However, when it came to the concession company, White's control was small. Throughout his career, the superintendent had problems with company executives Howard Hays and George Mauger. In the case of Hays, White met his intellectual and expository equal. Their often friction-filled correspondence bristled with neat turns of phrase and eloquent defenses of their respective positions. Fortunately for Sequoia and for White, Hays was a fairly restrained and responsible man who had a genuine interest in preserving Big Trees while operating his business among them. Still, his ideas of appropriate level and character of visitor use of the grove differed widely from those of White. For more than two decades, from its arrival in 1926 until Colonel White's departure in 1947, the company battled with the superintendent over seemingly every issue of building and expansion. At least part of the problem stemmed from Hays' continuing penchant for going over White's head. Often this worked, particularly during the years of Horace Albright's directorship. White would later write to William Colby of the Sierra Club, "during my 28 years in the national parks the concessioner problem was the only really difficult one, largely insoluble by a superintendent because the concessioner had such constant access to higher ups of the Department and the Service and could afford to disregard a superintendent." [22]

After White's plan to oust Giant Forest Lodge was rejected in 1931, several years of tense relations followed between White and Hays and between White and Albright. When White continued to complain about the lodge and block moves to upgrade and expand to the new pillow limit," Albright upbraided him for his "attitude" problem. In March 1932 Albright wrote to White:

We are extremely fortunate to have the facilities that are now available in the Giant Forest and in General Grant Park. The pity of it is that we had to lose the General Grant Lodge (destroyed by fire) which the company cannot well afford to rebuild. Your attitude toward the operator is of course known to the company officers and is very discouraging. It seems to me to reflect a feeling which I have felt that you have had for a long time, that there ought to be some other way of providing facilities in national parks besides through our present concession system. I hope I am mistaken in this impression, for there is no hope of Congress changing the present policy and as long as we have to operate under the present general policy we should do so wholeheartedly, giving our operators who are serving the public in just the same way as we are, full encouragement and support. [23]

To this challenge a deeply offended White briskly responded. Hays had convinced Albright that the company was barely squeaking by, but White showed that the concessioner had enjoyed steady profits of nearly 10 percent over the previous three years. To Hays' admonition that concession customers were the true park visitors because they stayed longer, White charged elitism and violently disagreed. Finally to the charge that he had an attitude problem, White reiterated the financial success of the concession company and added:

I submit that if the operator has obtained these results despite my covert or expressed hostility, he is either a financial genius or I am singularly unfortunate in my objectives. I cannot but believe, however, that my supervision of the operator's activities has been beneficial to all three of the interested parties: the Government, the people and the operators. . . . We are building as we go, and the Service is young. But I had hoped that I was contributing to the solution of operator problems, and regret that my protection of the park and the public should have been interpreted into hostility to the operator, which I do not in any way feel. I rather like him, or them; but I like the Big Trees even better. [24]

Amid this acrimonious atmosphere and the continued increase of visitors and their demands, the decade 1931 to 1941 unfolded as a recurring war of nerves and influence between White and the company. After establishment of the pillow limits, Hays and Mauger quickly assembled more cabins reaching the guest limit of 200 for Giant Forest Lodge by 1932, 500 for Camp Kaweah by 1936, and 300 at Pinewood, the last to be established, by 1938. [25] At the same time, the concessioner gained approval to enlarge the lodge office, the gas station and most of the buildings at Giant Forest Village. An example of one technique used by the company was provided by the Giant Forest lunch room, which later became the Giant Forest studio gift shop. Mauger requested permission to erect a temporary tent addition in May 1933 to handle the summer season overflow. After meeting some resistance from White he secured approval from Director Albright on the condition that the structure was "definitely temporary." [26] Later in that year, after a successful tourist season, Mauger requested that the structure remain in use during the winter. White responded by agreeing, with the understanding that he could demand its removal at any time. [27] Apparently Mauger was persuasive, for the "temporary addition" still stood fifty years later.

Use of Giant Forest Village facilities continued to grow, and in 1935 Mauger convinced the Park Service of the need to add onto the Village in some fashion. The solution was replacement of the dance area of the coffee shop with expanded restaurant facilities and addition of a separate assembly-dance hall across the road in Camp Kaweah. Time and again Hays and Mauger gained approval for little, "temporary additions" and jockeyed them into permanent features in the face of stiff opposition from the superintendent. [28]

The Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company did not always emerge victorious, however. White categorically refused to allow construction of a gift shop at the Sherman Tree, a decision which the Washington office upheld. [29] Upon receiving permission to build an assembly hall, Hays and Mauger submitted plans for both the recreation structure and an additional employee dormitory behind and slightly upslope from Giant Forest Village near Bear Hill. This would have placed structures amid sequoia trees in a previously undeveloped area and would have considerably increased traffic and parking problems in the Village. White launched a campaign to block this location and enlisted the aid of regional and Washington office landscape architects to support his position against an expected appeal to the director by Howard Hays. In the end, White succeeded in getting the assembly hall built in Camp Kaweah near Beetle Rock, in reducing employee housing capacity, and in shifting it likewise to Kaweah. In addition, when the assembly hall opened in August 1940, conspicuously absent from its name and designated purposes were dancing and conventions, although both activities persisted in limited form for some years. [30]

For a decade Colonel White lived with the reality of the concession's indefinite presence in Giant Forest and, at the same time, battled to control its expansion and remove whatever facilities he could. With evidence of harm to the Big Trees and widespread disruption of the national park atmosphere, Albright's rejection of White's attempted concession ouster from the grove had been a bitter pill for the superintendent to swallow. White never gave up on the idea, however, and by 1940, while assigned to the Service's San Francisco office as regional director, he succeeded in resurrecting the concept before the Washington office, at least in theory. Then in January 1941, as White entered his last six months in San Francisco, his replacement in Sequoia, Eivind Scoyen, wrote to inform him that a falling sequoia had crushed the superintendent's summer cabin. White had spent many a happy season there hosting dignitaries, meeting the public, and conducting the business of Sequoia National Park. He sympathized with Scoyen's desire to reconstruct the cabin and continue its pleasant occupation. However, he believed that the campaign against building in Giant Forest precluded rebuilding a government structure in the grove. Instead, he suggested that it be built at Lodgepole alongside the other offices and residences of the Park Service. [31]

Some months later in July 1941 White returned to Sequoia to resume his role as superintendent. Although his return meant relinquishing his promotion and any chance of further career advancement, White had never been happy away from his beloved park. His disaffection for both San Francisco and Washington led to health problems and depression. When he returned, one of the first duties he faced was solution of the superintendent's cabin question. To White the presence of the park's principal public officer within the grove was far more important than the cabins, stores and cafeterias of the concessioner. So he reversed his former stance and requested that his cabin be rebuilt at its old site, pending removal of the fallen tree, or at a similar site within 100 yards. After due consideration, the Washington office refused but in so doing was forced to hear again White's vigorous and righteous arguments on behalf of total evacuation from Giant Forest. If the Park Service's major officer could not be in the grove, he argued, then why should the concessioner? [32]

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

Thus, after ten years of relative quiescence, the big question for Sequoia National Park reared again. The catalyst of the superintendent's cabin, fueled by White's return and the return of his strident philosophical program, once again threatened to wrench Hays, Mauger, and their company out of the so-called "sacred area." Much of the reason for the resurgence was a more widespread acceptance of Colonel White's ideas of national park "atmosphere," particularly among landscape architects whose voices carried great power at all levels of the Service. Additionally, however, the tiny seed of science and ecology had begun to sprout. It was still weak and applied more to backcountry and wildlife management, but its paradigms were gaining power. The growth of scientific management during the 1930s would lay the foundation for a revolution in philosophy and purpose two decades later.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap6b.htm — 12-Jul-2004