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


Into the Backcountry: The Threat of Roads

Although backcountry management usually ranked low on the list of priorities in Colonel White's park, there was one topic over which the Park Service and the public had widely varying and deeply held beliefs—the matter of road access. During the first four decades of Sequoia National Park many roads were discussed, but few could be afforded. Hence, the Generals Highway remained the Service's major commitment. However, by the late 1920s, several other projects had been proposed by enthusiastic businessmen in the San Joaquin and Owens valleys. The largest, most expensive, and potentially most threatening of those projects was known as the Sierra Nevada National Parks Highway, or "The Sierra Way." It would have been one of the great mountain highways of the world both from engineering and scenic standpoints. However, it ran into a Park Service and a superintendent, John White, who had come to believe that preservation of roadless areas was a moral responsibility.

Sequoia had just been enlarged to include Mt. Whitney and Kern Canyon when, in January 1927, an association of businessmen, city and county officials, engineers, and others from the San Joaquin Valley formed to promote a road from Lake Isabella in Kern County to Yosemite National Park. The Generals Highway portion from Sequoia to General Grant, still in the planning stages, would compose a portion of the highway. By 1931 the scheme had been expanded to include Lassen Volcanic National Park and Mt. Shasta. Later, Colonel White speculated that it was the Generals Highway connection between his two parks that had suggested the whole road. The highway would maintain an elevation of 6,000 feet or more nearly all the route and handle traffic at speeds averaging forty miles per hour. Most of the road would pass through federal lands, four national parks and a half dozen national forests, but seven counties also joined in the project. [45]

Initially Park Service response to the project was mixed. Although the road in general seemed a worthy idea, portions of it bothered Director Mather. Chief among those troublesome sections was the piece running from Giant Forest to the southern boundary of Sequoia. The earliest plans from the San Joaquin Valley suggested a route along Kern Canyon which Mather had envisioned for some time as a permanently roadless area. In response to his objections road planners shifted the route to one that brought the road through Hockett Meadow, over Tar Gap to Mineral King, then over Paradise Ridge to Redwood Meadow. From there the road was planned to veer westward and link with the Generals Highway near the Sherman Tree. Colonel White initially favored this route because it would provide a new destination and relieve Giant Forest. As an added benefit it would allow easy penetration of much of the park's backcountry for fire control. However, his attitude toward the entire Sierra Way project changed as his preservationist philosophy deepened. By 1932, White was one of the project's most powerful opponents, at least insofar as it affected his park.

From 1928 to 1931, the Sierra Nevada National Parks Highway Association continued to meet and plan. Existing roads were incorporated into the plan while engineers commenced construction of other portions. A few spots, particularly those associated with national parks, remained sources of contention, including the route out of the southeast corner of Lassen and the segment from Yosemite Valley to the north boundary of that park. However, by far the most acrimonious debate centered on the southern part of Sequoia. [46]

Colonel White had many friends among the backers of the project and their support was necessary to Sequoia and General Grant parks, as well as for ambitious designs like the creation of a huge new Kings Canyon park. Thus, the superintendent urged the Park Service to support the larger project in principle, but with a route that would cross into the park over Farewell Gap to Mineral King and then follow the Mineral King Road to Three Rivers and link with the Generals Highway at Ash Mountain. This route strayed widely from the alpine nature of the proposed project but still linked the parks in the overall project. In 1931 the Park Service financed a survey of the potential routes to answer mounting pressure and criticism from the Valley. Engineer W.P. Webber concluded that the so-called "high route" over Paradise Ridge was undesirable largely due to construction difficulty and cost. The combination of this negative report and the deepening Depression served to table the project for several years. [47]

In late 1934, with CCC labor and funds available and economic hope springing from the Roosevelt administration's sweeping reforms, the Sierra Way issue arose once again. Led by valuable park allies like Fresno lawyer Chester Warlow, the highway association convinced the Forest Service, the California legislature, and many local governments to push the project, including the "high route" in Sequoia. In the evolving attitude of the Park Service, however, the concept of roadless wilderness had been enjoying ever-increasing popularity. In part this arose from rapidly amassing evidence of scenic disruption by auto traffic in the accessible portions of parks like Sequoia. In part it arose from strong statements by groups like the Sierra Club and the Commonwealth Club in opposition to mountain roads. [48] And in part it arose from the success of trails like the High Sierra Trail and evidence of public need for wilderness areas. In sum, these attitudes erased nearly every vestige of support for the Redwood Meadow—Paradise Ridge route among Park Service planners. Even old road engineers like Frank Kittredge vehemently opposed the concept. [49]

Their antagonism focused on two results the road would bring. First, the "high route" would slash across the western slopes of the Great Western Divide creating a road scar visible from Moro Rock. This type of unacceptable scenic disruption had already led to abandonment of the Middle Fork Road. Park Service landscape architects bitterly opposed what they saw as vicious destruction of the park's principal vista. [50] In addition, park officials did not want the backcountry opened to a highway for fear of the secondary development that would accompany it. Although San Joaquin Valley businessmen passed resolutions promising that no roads would be built eastward and that this would serve as a "boundary" to development, park planners envisioned inevitable pressure to extend a small scenic road here, build a campground there, and so forth which would turn the highway into a full-blown development corridor. Not a small part of the justification for Park Service opposition came from park biologists who feared the intrusion would devastate wildlife and alpine vegetation. [51]

Finally, after continued argument, the federal Bureau of Public Roads, as a theoretically nonpartisan group, agreed to survey the various routes from Giant Forest to Lake Isabella. Its conclusion was not popular with anyone. The Bureau found the "high route" practical and promising of exhilarating scenery for any who drove it. But it also found the route terribly expensive, requiring an enormous amount of blasting and rock-clearing to hug the cliff faces and cross the difficult passes. To the Park Service, the Bureau's recommendations added official fuel to the threatening fire of the Sierra Way. But, to road proponents in the San Joaquin Valley it tagged the project with a backbreaking price. [52]

In answer to mounting criticism, the Park Service finally pledged some $15 million to Colonel White for sections of the road within Sequoia. However, he remained adamant in his opposition to the project. The exact sequence of political events at this stage remains clouded in partial secrecy and closed negotiations. But, several events transpired to finally defeat the Sierra Way. First the Commonwealth Club of California released a widely published and highly touted booklet entitled, "Should We Stop Building New Roads into California's High Mountains?" [53] The influential club decried several road projects including the Sierra Way. At the same time Colonel White flatly refused the money provided for construction of the high altitude road. Finally, Director Cammerer dismissed the entire Sierra Way scheme as something that "might be appropriate in 25 or 50 years." Cost was cited by White and Cammerer as the deciding factor, although neither lost an opportunity to mention the Commonwealth Club's booklet, similar releases by the Sierra Club, and their own beliefs about an inviolate backcountry [54]

By the end of 1936 the Sierra Way was dead. Northward, many portions of the road had been completed and today form a series of popular links in the still-incomplete chain. In the 1960s, the Sierra Way project surfaced again as a predominantly foothills route to connect State Highway 49 with Isabella via the Generals Highway, but it too failed to gain sufficient official backing and funding. The Sierra Way was by far the most serious potential threat to befall the Sequoia backcountry. Its defeat marked another turning point in the shift of Park Service policies from development and public use to restriction and preservation. [55]

While alpine highway enthusiasts pushed the Sierra Way, they also boosted several trans-Sierra road projects. Owens Valley communities, particularly Independence and Lone Pine, were the major proponents. Their support of a trans-Sierra road was understandable. Access to the San Joaquin Valley and through it to the San Francisco Bay area would dramatically improve their situation for goods, services, and tourists. In addition, they would benefit from another connection to southern California. Two distinct projects became popular, both of which were peripheral but threatening to Sequoia National Park. One route from the San Joaquin Valley to Independence was planned for Kearsarge Pass in the Kings Canyon area. This project called for extension of the highway which was being built into the canyon of the South Fork and would have provided access to spectacular scenery for nearly its entire distance. The other road would have affected the southern edge of Sequoia, as it joined Porterville to Lone Pine. A variety of exact routes were suggested, some entirely outside the park and some routed so as to open up the sequoia groves of Dennison Ridge and other portions of the park's southern townships. [56]

The Park Service opposed both concepts during the 1930s even if both roads remained outside the park. The Kings Canyon area was a long-sought addition to Sequoia and General Grant, specifically for its magnificent backcountry. Park proponents believed that a road such as the Kearsarge-Independence Highway would dramatically reduce the quality of the proposed addition and its primary justification. Meanwhile, the southern crossing threatened to supply auto tourists to Hockett Meadow and other delicate backcountry areas. According to park officials, even if the road itself remained outside these areas, its proximity would lead to inevitable trail development and public pressure. Ironically, the commitment by powerful San Joaquin Valley groups to the Sierra Way as an eastern boundary to auto traffic placed them in direct opposition to their Owens Valley counterparts. By the time the Sierra Way project died, public support for major road incursions into the southern Sierra Nevada had also waned. A few years later creation of Kings Canyon National Park as a "wilderness park" and improvement of a trans-Sierra road well south of Sequoia National Park removed the threat of these mountain highways. [57]

Defeat of these three road projects, the Sierra Way, the Porterville to Lone Pine Highway, and the Kearsarge-Independence Road allowed the Park Service to keep the backcountry as a zone of low use. The frontcountry problems of Giant Forest existed because development for roads and mass traffic had occurred before planning and before any semblance of resource preservation. In rescuing the backcountry from similar auto access, the Park Service assured itself of easier conversion to limits on use and to preservationist policies two decades later.

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


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap6d.htm — 12-Jul-2004