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


World War II

In late 1941, Colonel White returned from the regional office to superintend Sequoia National Park once again. Backcountry studies showed that vigorous protection and repair would be needed for mountain meadows. Whimpers of protest from the Owens Valley reminded him that trans-Sierra road proposals could again reappear. Resource management was building scientific expertise, and expensive programs of deer management, revegetation, and sequoia protection poised on the drawing board. Most exciting, the Washington office appeared willing to reconsider the question of removing buildings from Giant Forest. CCC labor, although much diminished from the halcyon days of 1933 and 1934, still gave White a workforce to perform desperately needed protection and maintenance. After fifty-one years as a national park, Sequoia appeared to be entering a dramatic and crucial time, a time of great accomplishment and profound execution of philosophy. The Colonel was determined to see his reforms brought about and the park further shaped to his ideals.

Then came World War II. The effects were immediate and they were profound. Within six months, the Park Service in Sequoia lost more than half its rangers, laborers, and administrators. The CCC operation came to an abrupt halt and its men disappeared into the ranks of the military or the civilian war machine. Funding for development, maintenance, and resource protection dried to a trickle. And in the first year of the war the number of park visitors fell from more than 300,000 to less than 167,000. Visitation to Sequoia would barely reach 54,000 in 1944. With that continued decrease came deepening paralysis of all the park's programs. Trails washed out under loads of snow, violent storms, and avalanches. Maintenance of roads and the spectacular improvements of the CCC subsided to the barest minimum for safe travel. All resource, research, and management programs halted as the much reduced staff struggled to provide protection and some interpretation for those visitors who did arrive. [58]

Traditional visitors to the parks, and the CCC and Park Service employees who worked to accommodate them, were replaced by two very different groups—visiting soldiers and conscientious objectors. Sequoia National Park itself became part of the war effort. One of its roles became that of a rest and recuperation site for soldiers and sailors. A trip to the wonders of the Sierran park served as a patriotic reminder of America's beauty as well as an uplifting and soothing interruption of the war. In addition, Wolverton and other former CCC camps became temporary sites for training exercises. The park also became a site for the storage of weapons and ammunition. On at least one occasion this had potentially tragi-comic results when a marauding bear tore the door off an ammunition storage shed in search of food. [59]

While troops replaced the average family as park visitors, conscientious objectors operating from several former CCC camps assumed many of the maintenance duties of the CCC and Park Service laborers. Colonel White initially found the prospect of employing such men a dubious one. As a former military man he questioned their ability to carry out any hard work. However, they ultimately became the only force available to maintain the Generals Highway and other roads, as well as the many park structures under annual winter stress. In some cases the objectors, chiefly Mennonites, continued CCC construction projects. Some of the attractive stone walls and parapets in the park date not from the CCC as is usually supposed, but from the conscientious objectors of World War II. The chief problems that White faced with these crews came from a few rebellions against this virtual forced labor and from public reaction to the objectors when they took recreation in nearby towns. Residents of Exeter and Porterville found their presence offensive, particularly when they paid attention to the local girls. Colonel White received a number of complaints which he answered by extolling the objectors' value to the park. In total, the conscientious objectors proved to be a valuable, albeit small, labor force which prevented the worst kinds of resource and infrastructure damage during their nearly four-year stint at the park. [60]

While Colonel White and his much diminished staff struggled to cope with labor and funding shortages, resource decay, and the park's new role as a military training area, a familiar hard-times threat reappeared. Almost before the last bomb fell on Pearl Harbor, western ranchers appealed to open the parks to cattle grazing. However, the Park Service was able to resist such intrusions, despite the greater severity and danger to America of this world war. New NPS Director Newton Drury undertook a widely publicized campaign of radio addresses and articles suggesting that the parks contained insufficient forage to make any difference, that the grazing damage to meadows was so severe that some areas had not recovered from the last war, much less the terrible depredations of the pre-park days, and that protection of park resources "unimpaired" was one of the fondest values for which America's military men were fighting and dying. Letters from soldiers and sailors recalling fondly the parks and their beauty were systematically published as evidence against potential grazing users. A much stronger Park Service, sure of itself and its popularity with the general public, waged the campaign as if from a lofty moral standard. Although cattlemen were never harshly criticized, they were portrayed as short-sighted, opportunistic, and more interested in setting a precedent than in providing some great advantage to the war effort. At Sequoia, Colonel White vigorously joined in this effort both through publicity and by rejecting whatever applications for grazing permits came his way. Preservation organizations, biologists, and even some tourism organizations joined in supporting the Park Service's position. These combined efforts were successful at Sequoia in preventing any cattle or sheep from grazing the park's delicate and overtaxed alpine country. It was another success which clearly demonstrated the altered attitudes of the Park Service toward its preservation duties and of the public toward its precious parks. [61]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap6e.htm — 12-Jul-2004