Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Seven:
Two Battles for Kings Canyon


The Early Battles

Although grazing and timber interests had deflected previous attempts to establish a park in the Kings watershed, the worth of pasture and timber resources was recognized as relatively low. However in 1902, the United States Geological Survey published an evaluation of the water storage capacity of the Kings River. [4] It suggested four major damsites with associated irrigation canals and power plants. Two sites were in the spectacular canyons of Tehipite Valley and Kings Canyon. More than half the financial support for this study had come from local irrigation associations. Although ground water and surface sources within the San Joaquin Valley had proven adequate to date, the future of the district's agriculture appeared to depend upon the rugged watershed of the Kings River. With this favorable report, local farmers and businessmen commenced long-range planning in an atmosphere of comfortable confidence.

Meanwhile, fresh from its water diversion victory in the Owens Valley and mindful of San Francisco's water and power triumph on the Tuolumne River, the city of Los Angeles cast an interested eye toward the Kings River. In 1919, the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light released a study showing the watershed's considerable potential for power generation. [5] Contemporary rumors suggested that Los Angeles had struck a deal with Southern California Edison to sell its surplus power to the utility company for a healthy revenue addition to the city's budget. [6]

In June 1920, the Federal Power Act touched off the real action by creating a commission to be headed by the secretaries of Agriculture, Interior, and War, which could license water and power projects on government lands, including national forest lands. Several months later Los Angeles seized the initiative by applying to the commission to construct an elaborate water control and power generation system on the Kings River. Principal dams were to be located at Cedar Grove and Tehipite Valley with other units on tributaries above the canyons and on the main channel below. The fledgling Federal Power Commission took the plan under study, and Los Angeles dug in to fight the expected opponents. [7]

They did not have long to wait. San Joaquin Valley residents were angered by what they perceived to be a territorial intrusion by money-hungry urban business interests. They also feared a repeat of the Owens Valley debacle which had all but destroyed a bustling agricultural industry in that distant valley. Before the Federal Power Commission was entirely sure of its duties and limits, the San Joaquin Light and Power Corporation filed a proposal to develop the same sites Los Angeles desired, but for local consumption.

While the power contestants froze the commission, both tourism and park proponents gained steam. Increasingly in the 1920s businessmen from Fresno and other nearby towns looked favorably on the potential tourism revenue of another Yosemite Valley. Although still overshadowed by reclamation proponents, talk of a major resort complex began to circulate at businessmen's socials and in the halls of local government. The Forest Service, which had administered the area since 1905, seemed favorable to recreation as part of its portfolio of activities for the Kings River watershed. [8]

Meanwhile, from 1881 through the 1920s, pressure for a national park encompassing the Kings River country continued to mount. A succession of Interior secretaries vocally supported park status. Conservation groups, led by the Sierra Club, kept up a continuous drumbeat through pamphlets, editorials and letters to congressmen. The legislators responded with a dozen bills between 1911 and 1926 aimed at creating a new park or enlarging nearby Sequoia National Park to protect the Kings River drainage. Establishment of Sequoia and General Grant national parks in 1890 and the vast expansion of Sequoia in 1926 both represented compromises in drives that had set out to save the Kings River country. Agitation by preservationists and other supporters consistently kept the Kings River watershed in the public eye. [9]

The result of all these conflicting proposals by water, power, tourism, and park proponents was an atmosphere of such confusion and desperate antagonism that those politicians and government officials not directly involved avoided the controversy. Politicians who were involved moved slowly and cautiously, weighing each decision for political as well as legal and economic consequences. Hence, the Federal Power Commission took nearly three years to reject the 1920 power application of Los Angeles. The city immediately refiled and the controversy continued. Congress simply found the Kings River issue too hot to handle. The campaign to enlarge Sequoia was extremely well organized, lasted seven long years, and succeeded in adding Kern Canyon and the Mt. Whitney country to the park in 1926. However, the original proposal to include the Kings River watershed brought such diverse, rapid, and boisterous opposition that the legislators opted to ignore the entire region. [10]

map of potential hydro sites on Kings River
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

By 1930 a harried Federal Power Commission, stinging from criticism of its apparent inactivity and indecisiveness, released its own report on Kings River water resources. Challenges by opponents to reclamation and power development had increasingly taken the form of disputing the very feasibility of damming the Kings River in the mountains. The commission's so-called Randell Report aimed to settle the matter of water storage and power generation capacities once and for all. Senior engineer Ralph Randell concluded that nineteen damsites were feasible. One, at Pine Flat in the lower foothills, would be a huge structure intercepting the main valley-bound flow of the combined Kings River. Included among the other sites were both Cedar Grove (Kings Canyon) and Tehipite Valley, as well as the rugged junction of the Middle and South forks. Eastward and upward smaller dams could flood more than a dozen alpine basins. San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles power enthusiasts gleefully noted Randell's healthy figures for potential electricity from the network of structures. [11]

The report momentarily stunned park and tourism proponents, as the potential benefits of such a reclamation project appeared insurmountable. Soon, however, controversy again reared to cloud the issue. Reclamation opponents discovered that Randell's "extensive field survey" actually consisted of an eight-day horseback circuit of part of the watershed and a one-day flyover of the larger area he could not reach. Based on this circumscribed field work, Randell not only recommended nineteen sites, but provided a construction cost estimate of $130 million. When pressed for an explanation of this figure, the engineer admitted that three small dams in the Mineral King Valley formed the basis of his cost figures on the nineteen proposed dams. Opponents quickly pointed out that the Mineral King dams lay three miles from a road while some proposed for the Kings River watershed were more than twenty-five miles from a road, and some were in remarkably rugged terrain. The expense of packing workers, supplies, and construction materials to such sites would far inflate the total project figure. Several months of debate and defense ensued as an embarrassed Federal Power Commission tried to salvage parts of the report. By the end of 1931, however, the Randell Report was virtually discredited and confusion again reigned in the battle for the Kings River country. [12]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap7a.htm — 12-Jul-2004