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


Science and Resource Management: Reversing Bad Habits

As we have seen, the years prior to 1931 were bleak ones for ecology and scientific management in the national system of parks and in Sequoia. Nevertheless the roots of ecological preservation and the organizational wing of the Park Service set up to carry it out go back nearly three decades earlier. In 1905 and 1908, Dr. Charles C. Adams began his long association with wildlife and ecological management in national parks with a pair of classic studies of Isle Royale in Michigan. Two decades later he devoted a considerable portion of his lengthy article, "Ecological Conditions in the National Parks and National Forests," to Sequoia. Although he lauded efforts to protect individual Big Trees, Adams decried existing wildlife policies and the overdevelopment of Giant Forest. He also noted the usefulness of "light burning" of the forest floor but concluded that it would cost too much to carry out. [33] At the same time Adams was compiling his retrospective analysis for The Scientific Monthly and Emilio Meinecke was conducting his sequoia study in Giant Forest, two other men began laying the groundwork for change. Aldo Leopold developed a theory and philosophy of human-park interaction based on careful stewardship and specific ecological principles which he outlined in his pioneering 1933 book Game Management. Nearly thirty-five years later Park Biologist Lowell Sumner would conclude that Leopold's philosophy and recommendations still formed the backbone of Park Service resource management. [34] The other pioneer was Joseph Grinnell whose classic studies of Yosemite and Lassen national parks eloquently stated his concepts of ecological interdependence and the importance of non-interference with natural process. As important as Grinnell's research and writings were for the Park Service, however, his most important contribution came in training future Park Service biologists at the University of California. Students like Harold C. Bryant, Ben Thompson, and Joseph Dixon would found the Park Service's biology program. Two other Grinnell students deserve particular attention for their monumental impact on Sequoia—George M. Wright, who became the first chief of the system-wide wildlife division, and Lowell Sumner, whose name became synonymous with resource management at Sequoia for some three decades. [35]

Independently wealthy and deeply committed to inducing ecological responsibility in the Park Service, George Wright's first major action was to personally finance a classic evaluation of wildlife policy and status in the national parks. With the assistance of Joseph Dixon and Ben Thompson, he compiled from 1929 to 1931 a historic volume entitled Fauna of the National Parks of the United States. [36] In it he proposed twenty policy statements which became forerunners of the resource management program adopted thirty years later. Among his recommendations were establishment of an organized research program to include environmental impact studies, bans on artificial feeding, predator control and automatic destruction of problem animals, elimination of exotic species and reintroduction of extirpated ones, and extension of each park's boundaries to include the natural ranges of its wildlife. Although not all of his policy suggestions were immediately adopted, they led to creation of a wildlife division which he would head. Wright immediately began to imprint on the Park Service his ideas, along with those of Grinnell and Leopold. He wrote that protection of resources was not enough. It was necessary "to restore and perpetuate" by combating the harmful effects of human use. Wright was tragically killed in an automobile accident in February 1936 and his engaging personality and consummate scholarship were sorely missed. With him went much of the momentum of scientific advancement of Park Service policy, further devastated by World War II and drastic cuts in funds and manpower. But Wright had sown the seeds of an organization that would later spring to life to become the divisions of research and resource management and to revolutionize environmental management in the parks. [37]

In Sequoia itself, the Park Service benefited from the industry and dedication of Lowell Sumner. One of Wright's earliest colleagues, Sumner began conducting research at Sequoia in 1935 and continued there or at the Western Region Office for most of the next thirty-three years. Although Colonel White listened primarily to landscape architects, he gave increasing attention to the scientist's opinions. Sumner was instrumental in planting ecology in the management program at Sequoia in three specific programs—willife management, vegetation management including that of sequoias, and backcountry protection.

The program where Wright, Sumner, and other biologists had their greatest impact was that of wildlife management, logical in view of their initial appointments in a "wildlife division." One of the most troublesome and much-discussed issues was deer management. Rigorous protection of deer and wholesale slaughter of predators had allowed herds to multiply well beyond the forage capacity of the park. In 1934, CCC laborers replanted browse to bring back the natural appearance of Giant Forest and other grossly overbrowsed areas, but in the face of several thousand voracious deer it was a paltry effort. At the same time park officials constructed an enclosure to test the impact on vegetation of denying access to deer. Results were little short of spectacular and corroborated the opinion that drastic action must be taken. Still, old ideas die hard and although browse was estimated to be down by 75 percent in 1935, it was five more years before the Park Service experimented with capturing and moving some deer to less sensitive areas. From 1940 to 1943, rangers moved approximately eighty deer, but the impact was negligible when the park's deer population numbered in the thousands. From 1943 to 1947 park officials killed a few deer primarily for study. The results showed disease and stress presumably resulting in part from overpopulation. By the time of Colonel White's departure, the deer problem was far from solved, or even systematically attacked, but these tentative experiments in management were already a considerable advance over the anthropogenic practices of earlier years. [38]

bear feeding
During the 1930s the daily feeding of black bears at the Bear Hill dump in Giant Forest was one of Sequoia's most popular visitor attractions. (National Park Service photo)

Of equal concern to park biologists was the delicate issue of black bear management. The garbage pit and bear feeding station atop Bear Hill was one of the park's principal attractions. Yet it concentrated bears in the area of greatest human population and rendered them at least partially dependent on human food and wholly familiar with people and their practices. Occasional bears were not content with the organized feeding area and foraged through campgrounds and concession areas in almost nightly searches. In 1938, park officials began trapping and transporting bears, as well as continuing to kill them in larger numbers. That same year biologists convinced a favorably predisposed Colonel White to order the closure of the Bear Hill facility and to explore the options of tagging problem bears and bringing in bearproof garbage cans. Neither of the latter two measures was adopted, but after a two-decade show, Bear Hill was closed in 1940 by Superintendent Scoyen with the blessing of White and the Washington office. Thereafter, the park experienced a severe rise in bear problems as the destructive animals rambled through visitor accommodations seeking a replacement for their traditional garbage diet. Finally in 1947, evening garbage collection was instituted and human-bear contacts were reduced to an endurable level. [39]

Other wildlife management accomplishments included Joseph Dixon's study on bighorn sheep in which he suggested establishing a sanctuary east of Mt. Baxter, reducing aggressive rodent control measures, especially with poison, and beginning a series of wildlife status reports for the park in 1939. The war and the flagging influence of the wildlife division when deprived of Wright's leadership diminished these studies, but they continued at least as statistical reports. As such they form a link between early, exciting, and important years of Park Service ecology to the grand resurgence in the late 1950s which revolutionized management priorities. [40]

Vegetation management also received greater attention during the years 1931 to 1947, especially before World War II. The early 1930s saw a spate of studies on the bark beetle, blister rust control, and insect control techniques both for Sequoia and other western national parks. The Ash Mountain Nursery expanded tremendously with the addition of CCC labor, and most of the park's areas of visitor access were vigorously replanted with tree and browse species. Organized programs to implement the recommendations of earlier studies began with blister rust in 1938 and insect control in 1941. [41] Attention to sequoia management, the park's primary purpose, occupied a pivotal position in the questions of ecological investigation and policy. The policies of Wright, attested to and carried out by Sumner, Dixon, and others, unquestionably influenced the decision to reopen the question of removing buildings at Giant Forest. To address that question, the Park Service in 1944 brought back a then-aged and retired Emilio Meinecke to restudy human impact upon the giant sequoias. Meinecke's recommendations added fuel to the fires for concession ouster from Giant Forest already being stoked by Colonel White. [42] That same year NPS Director Newton Drury met with regional directors and questioned the right of the Park Service to tamper with natural succession and other environmental processes to improve visitor experiences. The specific question was forest growth in Yosemite Valley which threatened to block many popular vistas of waterfalls and cliffs. However, the issue had particular import to Sequoia and to Grant Grove where views of the largest sequoias could often only be obtained by removing surrounding trees. The very consideration of abandoning this time-honored policy of enhancement for visitors marked a minor revolution in Park Service resource management. [43]

One byproduct of the vegetation management work was increased interest in the huge, alpine, and largely roadless majority of the park known as the backcountry. With far less visitor pressure, the backcountry had received only sufficient attention to establish a trail network and protect it from grazing, the latter task having lapsed somewhat from 1918 to 1930. The addition of Lowell Sumner to the park staff along with evidence of rapidly increasing backcountry use led to research which later resulted in management of meadows and livestock. Shortly after his arrival in Sequoia, Sumner conducted extensive field investigations of the backcountry and submitted a summary of conditions arising from the recently suspended cattle use and continued tourist stock grazing. He found serious meadow erosion in many areas and suggested the closure of some areas to stock use. In 1940 the Park Service received the huge new park—Kings Canyon—which more than doubled the backcountry acreage of what would soon be a single administrative unit. This land had been in the hands of the Forest Service for nearly fifty years. Forest Service policy had allowed extensive grazing and consequently much of the damage incurred before 1893 had never healed. Park scientist John Armstrong conducted the first of what would become a series of in-depth studies of the Roaring River Grazing District during 1941 and 1942. That study and followups established a basis for meadow monitoring as a standard resource management procedure. After the hiatus of the war and postwar years, the backcountry was destined to become one of the principal targets of resurging scientific concern. [44]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap6c.htm — 12-Jul-2004