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


Harold Ickes and the Final Battle

In 1933, as George Gibbs released his grand development plan for Kings Canyon and as the Forest Service began the road into Kings Canyon, another event occurred with profound consequences for the future park. Newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt appointed as Secretary of the Interior a Chicago lawyer named Harold Ickes. In Ickes, Roosevelt had one of the most strong-willed, heartily disliked, and powerfully effective appointees in Interior history. [16] The secretary took particular interest in the National Park Service, actively promoting, some say interfering in, decisions on the creation, funding, and management of parks. Among his accomplishments during his dozen years at the helm were absorption of national battlefield sites from the Department of War and of national monuments from the Department of Agriculture. In 1934, Ickes came close to adding the entire Forest Service to Interior even as the secretary of Agriculture campaigned to take over the National Park Service. These political maneuvers created a healthy distrust and dislike of Ickes by many both in and out of government, but particularly within the Forest Service and the forestry and ranching communities.

Ickes also incurred the wrath of corporations for his anti-trust stance, all segregationist groups for his incipient pro-civil rights actions, and many politicians for his acerbic perhaps even brutal verbal and written assaults. He was dictatorial, suspicious, petty, and vindictive to employees and absolutely merciless with enemies. Forest Service Regional Forester S.B. Show later described Ickes as "overambitious, ignorant, egocentric, ruthless, unethical and highly effective." [17] The last adjective conveys part of the positive side of Harold Ickes. He was highly principled and even righteous, and he was as tenacious a fighter as Washington has ever seen.

Ickes had long cultivated strong ideas on conservation, initially those espoused by Gifford Pinchot and later those of Stephen Mather. [18] The secretary had become interested in the Hetch Hetchy conflict two decades earlier, and through his subsequent relationships with Mather and Albright had taken an interest in wilderness preservation. [19] Indeed, by the time of his appointment as secretary of Interior, Ickes had developed a preservationist philosophy that went well beyond that espoused by most Park Service personnel. In May 1933 he declared, "If I had my way about national parks, I would create one without a road in it. I would have it impenetrable forever to automobiles, a place where man would not try to improve upon God." [20]

In the Kings Canyon conflict Harold Ickes had a chance to put those words into action. In 1935, he persuaded California Senator Hiram Johnson to propose a bill to create a John Muir-Kings Canyon National Park and, further, to make it a wilderness preserve. As noted, this proposal came at the same time as the Forest Service plan for a "primitive area." In any case, the confusion and counterproposals of the previous fifty years had so long stalled development that the concept of a roadless wilderness remained a viable one. In the Johnson bill horse trails, footpaths, controlled use by commercial packers, and simple camping facilities were to be encouraged. Roads, hotels, and other large-scale developments would be banned—including within Kings Canyon itself. [21]

If nothing else could unify the development claimants, this bill and the presence of Harold Ickes in the conflict did. A storm of protest from power, reclamation, tourism, grazing, and timber interests drowned Johnson's bill in committee. Thereupon, with the immediate threat of park status averted, the various claimants retired to continue maneuvering for control of the watershed, its lands and water. Los Angeles, its power needs temporarily satisfied by the huge, new Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) on the Colorado River, dropped out, but the battle between irrigation and tourism factions continued unabated.

In this atmosphere Ickes, NPS Regional Director Frank Kittredge, and members of the Sierra Club decided on a plan of concerted action. After lengthy discussions with park proponents around the state and a careful survey of the opponents among the local residents and businessmen, two things became clear. First, the Park Service had a poor reputation. Despite the nearly universal respect for Colonel White and his staff, locals perceived the Park Service as an agency opposed to development, unconcerned about the economic fates of local farmers and communities, dictatorial and restrictive in the management of their lands and resources, largely under the control of wealthy urban pleasure-seekers and, finally, extraordinarily land hungry. Almost to a person, they preferred the Forest Service whose personnel espoused a freer use of lands and resources, who seemed ready and anxious to promote the economic welfare of San Joaquin Valley farmers, and who allowed much easier access to hunting, fishing, and travel within their mountain territories. Ickes and Kittredge discovered that much of this damaging sentiment was fostered by local and regional Forest Service officials. From Regional Forester Show on down, the Forest Service men lost no opportunity to reinforce these perceptions and, indeed, cultivate no small fear of the consequences of park expansion in the southern Sierra Nevada. [22]

The second thing that became clear was the confusion among park opponents as they bickered over different proposals for the watershed's future. Some wanted extensive reclamation, some wanted roads and tourism, some even wanted a wilderness preserve; all wanted it under Forest Service control. The one other view all locals shared, whether for or against a park, was a deep antagonism toward and fear of Los Angeles. Neither San Francisco nor Los Angeles had shown any compunction in recent history about stripping a watershed of its water and power resources regardless of the consequences for those who might depend for their very economic existence on those resources. Los Angeles had destroyed the Owens Valley, bled water from the Colorado River, and convinced the state of California to implement a vast plan aimed at shifting water southward from Sacramento Valley rivers toward the huge city. What chance did the Fresno Irrigation District have in blocking this imperialistic juggernaut?

Here was the opening and the opportunity park backers had needed. Ickes, Kittredge, and Sierra Club members like William Colby conceived a plan to improve the Park Service's reputation and garner some critical support for a Kings Canyon park by dividing their enemies and playing on this fear of Los Angeles. [23] The campaign began in earnest during the early months of 1938. Both Ickes and Kittredge commenced a series of radio addresses and speaking engagements aimed at newspaper publishers, outdoor recreation groups, influential women's and businessmen's groups, state and local legislators, and nearly anyone else who would listen. Most talks were in San Francisco or Los Angeles, although both men appeared in Fresno and other San Joaquin Valley towns during the next two years. Superintendent White also stumped about the state promoting the idea that Sequoia National Park was everyone's park and that they should support it and the Park Service.

The real job of diplomacy, however, fell to Assistant Regional Director B.F. Manbey. Through the spring and summer of 1938, Manbey met dozens of times with civic officials, sportsmen's groups, publishers, businessmen's clubs, farmers, irrigation associations, and even timber and grazing interests to sell both Kings Canyon National Park and the Park Service. His seventeen reports back to Frank Kittredge in fact went to Harold Ickes, from whom Manbey took direct orders. Those reports show a vigorous, tiring schedule, a veritable whirlwind of speeches and panel discussions, and as near a piece of diplomatic negotiation as the Valley had ever seen.

Manbey's orders from Ickes were strict and, given the source, surprising. He was not to challenge, insult, or in any way conflict with the Forest Service. Rather he was to strive for an image of calm, concerned reasonableness, exactly the opposite of how the Forest Service had portrayed the Park Service. Manbey told farmers and irrigation proponents that the Park Service understood and sympathized with their needs. Certainly the very fate of the nation depended on assuring the success of agriculture particularly in a breadbasket such as the San Joaquin Valley. He reassured the locals that Harold Ickes would see that their water needs were not ignored or usurped. And he was in a position to make good on that promise, for in addition to the National Park Service, Secretary Ickes had control of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Concerning the proposed new national park, Manbey promoted the health, educational, and spiritual benefits of saving the wilderness. More and more people, tired, dispirited, and aching from the chaos and pressures of urban life, would come to mend themselves along the paths, lakes, and canyons of the mountain park. The approaches to this fountain of salubrity would pass directly through Fresno and other Valley towns where recreational staging areas, auto and camping supply services, and other businesses would cater to increasing numbers of tourists. As for hunting and other activities, there still existed around the proposed park a huge forest area on all but the south side to accommodate sportsmen. [24]

Many, of course, remained unconvinced by the combined persuasive assaults of Ickes, Kittredge, White, and especially Manbey. Unconvinced, at least, to back the park proposal. However, the National Park Service as an organization fared rather better. Bitter enemies, including local Forest Service officials, were nonplussed. At the occasional meeting where both agencies were represented, Park Service officials invariably complimented their Forest Service counterparts graciously, even effusively. Thus the Forest Service's rancorous criticism blunted for a time, and stories of an arrogant, aloof, power-hungry Park Service faded. [25]

Slowly but surely through this media and personal campaign a compromise developed between Ickes and local civic officials, businessmen, and ultimately most farmer and irrigation groups. That compromise became the basis for the final successful push for park status, for the organization and operation of the future park, and for a series of promises the Park Service made which came back to haunt it later.

Three conditions were to be met by the Department of Interior. First, immediate water and power needs were to be met with construction of a large facility at Pine Flat. The Bureau of Reclamation under Harold Ickes was to undertake construction with the brunt of the cost being borne by the federal government and the bulk of the benefit going to local water users. In addition, reclamation projects on the North Fork of the Kings River, well outside any proposed park, were to be sanctioned by Interior.

Second, Tehipite Valley and Kings Canyon were to be excluded from the park proposal. Both sites had been the core of the 1902 Geological Survey Report, the 1920 Los Angeles proposal, and the Randell Report. Although local farmers saw no immediate need for construction of dams at these sites, they were loath to give them up for park inclusion. One thing still clear after all the negotiations was that once in the park, these canyons would be forever lost to reclamation. Hence, both had to be withheld until future demand determined their importance. Exclusion of these magnificent canyons, the very heart of the proposed park, was a bitter pill for the Park Service to swallow, but one absolutely necessary to placate local water users.

Finally, the third condition set by locals was that the Park Service would see that a major tourism development would be constructed in the canyon of the South Fork. The preferred sites were at Kanawyer's Camp adjacent to Copper Creek, near the entrance to the wilderness park, and at Cedar Grove where the Forest Service had begun development. This was a curious provision for both the Park Service and the Fresno community because if the canyon was excluded from the new park, the Forest Service, not the Park Service, would still control the land and its development. Nevertheless, a verbal agreement was concluded and the much-bolstered park lobby geared up again to tackle Congress with the Kings Canyon issue. [26]

Despite depleting the ranks of the opposition with diplomacy and promises, the road ahead for the Park Service remained a difficult one. When Representative Bertrand "Bud" Gearhart proposed a new bill to create a John Muir-Kings Canyon National Park opponents were still many, strong, and loud. Several irrigation associations had not been lured into the pro-park camp, chief among them the California Mutual Water Companies Association which represented forty-eight irrigation companies. Sportsmen's associations to a member opposed Park Service administration of any more territory. Several influential state newspapers, the California legislature, and the California Chamber of Commerce also went on record against the park. [27]

Among the most vocal anti-park groups was the U.S. Forest Service in California. This is noteworthy because Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, under strict orders from President Roosevelt, had already firmly stated his own and his department's support for the new park. Reasons for the local Forest Service revolt were many: widespread enmity toward Harold Ickes, his recent attempt to take over the Forest Service, the ardent belief among California members of the Forest Service in the superiority of their philosophy, and the deep-seated mistrust and dislike of their conservation competitor, the Park Service. That orders from Secretary Wallace had come to support the park proposal is clear. That Show, his assistants, and field men ignored them is equally clear. As the spring of 1939 rolled by and the bill came closer to House consideration, the verbal attacks on Ickes and the Park Service by Show and others became strident and frenzied. [28]

Meanwhile, a new issue entered the fray. For many years the largest and one of the most impressive giant sequoia groves at Redwood Mountain had remained in private hands. Park officials often worried about the future of this huge grove of magnificent trees. Fortunately, the owners had seemed ill-disposed to cut the trees and, hence, for decades the forest had remained intact. In 1939 the owners of the grove found themselves in a precarious situation. With no income from the land and with taxes mounting, they tried to sell the area to the government for inclusion in a national park. Typically, the government could not make up its mind how or even whether to buy the forest. As the taxes mounted and the owners prepared to default on their payment, it became clear that the land would have to be sold to someone soon, and logging of the Redwood Mountain Grove was a virtual certainty thereafter. The grove had been included in Representative Gearhart's bill, yet time was running out. [29]

With this impetus the campaign for Kings Canyon further intensified. In the process so did the antagonism between the two agencies involved. Subsequently, Park Service officials accused Forest Service representatives of poisoning local sentiment with distortion and slander. To be sure Show and his assistants were now working full time to marshal support for their position and to convince fence-sitters of the Forest Service's superior moral and economic position. In this he was ably assisted by Charles Dunwoody, a local member of the California Chamber of Commerce, and several other local officials whose interests would apparently be damaged by creation of the park. [30]

Meanwhile, the Forest Service reacted with even stronger charges. Among the actions of which the Park Service was accused were wire-tapping, which is likely given Ickes' predilection for that sort of thing, bullying of Forest Service personnel which seems unlikely since their own boss could not control them, and burglary of the Forest Service office in Porterville. The burglary charge was tricky because Park officials had obtained Department of Agriculture permission to enter the offices and seemed unconcerned when caught redhanded by Forest Service personnel. Thereafter, Show claimed he hid all his records so they could not be summoned by his boss, acting under orders from the president. What is perhaps the greatest wonder throughout this campaign is that Show and his assistants managed to keep their jobs. [31]

A curious rift had also developed in the preservationist camp. Several organizations, notably the National Parks Association and The Wilderness Society, opposed the Gearhart bill on the grounds that a park without the two canyons was unworthy. They insisted on holding out for a proposal that would include the canyons and perhaps some additional territory along the road from Grant Park to Cedar Grove. The Sierra Club and the Emergency Conservation Committee supported the bill, taking the pragmatic approach that a park without the canyons was better than no park at all. Besides, the threat to the canyons was not imminent and they might be added later.

As the campaign developed, the National Parks Association in particular became very active in opposition, publishing pamphlets and frequently going on public record against the park. Two years earlier, this same group had equally loudly opposed creation of Olympic National Park. Roosevelt aide Irving Brant subsequently suggested that a fairly dim William Whorton, who headed and formed the financial backbone of the National Parks Association, had been duped by his friend William Greeley, a lumberman and recognized advocate of resource development. The Wilderness Society finally agreed to support the bill freeing them from the insulting label "The Be-wildered Society," which had been applied by other preservationist organizations. [32]

The outcome of the park bill and this latest and most organized Kings Canyon campaign was by no means clear when an unexpected and startling event occurred to demoralize and destroy organized park opposition. A busy Congress, preoccupied with continuing economic recovery and ominous events overseas, looked to local representatives for guidance on domestic issues such as the John Muir-Kings Canyon National Park bill. The two local congressmen were Bud Gearhart, author of the bill, and Alfred Elliot of Visalia. Elliott was deeply and emotionally opposed to it. He was also well known and respected, and his frequent antagonistic pronouncements about the bill, the National Park Service, and Secretary Ickes had an effect. Despite the compromise, the combination of Elliott's opposition and that of the state legislature still made passage difficult.

Then, on March 4, 1939, an elderly Sierra Club member and park supporter, Mrs. Gertrude Achilles of Morgan Hill, California, wrote both congressmen urging passage of the park bill. In addition, she wrote a check to Gearhart for $100 and instructed him to apply it to the cause. However, she inadvertently enclosed the check to Gearhart in the envelope to Elliott.

Upon receiving his letter and the check to Gearhart, Elliott envisioned a bribery scandal and saw a way to defeat the pesky conservation bill. He notified the FBI, made a copy of the check, typed a new letter and envelope, and had an ally mail the check to Gearhart from San Jose, near Morgan Hill. Gearhart received the check, but returned it to the woman, thanked her for her endorsement, and suggested she send the money to the Sierra Club.

The trap had not worked, yet Elliott plunged ahead anyway showing the photostat of the check to prominent men in the San Joaquin Valley and to several other congressmen. Gearhart first learned of the plot when he received an anonymous phone call from a man who had been at one of the meetings where Elliott showed the check and implied corruption on the part of his Fresno colleague. in his tipoff, the speaker concluded, "He is out to frame you, Buddy, and I would not be a party to it. I had to tell you. Be on your guard." Over the next few days three congressmen approached Gearhart with the same news.

Gearhart, a former district attorney, then set about collecting the evidence to protect himself and show Elliott's misconduct. He had an affidavit prepared from Mrs. Achilles, and reassembled the pertinent steps in the plot with evidence of motive and actions taken.

During April 1939, Elliott compounded the problem by again suggesting to San Joaquin Valley men that Gearhart only wanted the park created because he would personally profit from it. The two men proceeded on a collision course.

Finally, on May 2 Representative Gearhart rose before the House on a question of personal privilege. He was, he stated, shocked and dismayed that a congressional colleague would stoop to flagrantly false character assassination to get a bill defeated. He reported the entire sequence to a packed House and gallery and then refused to demand Elliott's expulsion. In his concluding remarks Gearhart showed his oratorical skills stating:

I have searched the precedents of this body, searched them down through the last 150 years of the history of this body, and I fail to find one case referred to in those proceedings that even approaches that which I have been compelled to lay before you.

I ask no action. There was a time when I thought of expulsion. There was a time when I thought of disciplinary action. But all that is past now. The record is made. I am content.

To thunderous applause Gearhart sat down and the House turned an expectant eye toward Elliott. His futile defense consisted chiefly of an attack on the park bill and on Secretary Ickes. Frequently interrupted, peppered with questions on his actions and laughed at, Elliott finally blurted in frustration, "...some of you might think you are making a monkey out of me, but that cannot be done." Roars of derisive laughter followed and Elliott sat down shortly thereafter, an embarrassed and lonely figure. [33]

The representatives were aghast at the thought of this sort of character assassination being leveled at each of them and frustrated by Gearhart's unwillingness to demand ouster of Elliott. In August, as the vote on the bill approached, Gearhart read into the record a number of Valley newspaper accounts of the scandal to refresh the minds of his colleagues. [34] When the vote came up, opponents attempted one last sabotage by attaching a rider allowing unlimited reclamation in the new park. In the ensuing arguments the rider was excised but with it went the John Muir portion of the park name. Once this last shot failed, the bill passed easily. After a relatively easy passage in the Senate, on March 4, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill creating Kings Canyon National Park. [35]

Thus ended a sixty-year conservation struggle, one nearly unrivaled for rancorous debate, emotional character assassination, and political wheeling and dealing. Three factors were important in the creation of Kings Canyon National Park over the objections of numerous and vociferous groups. First, the opposition's inability to unite allowed park proponents to divide and conquer them. Second, this same disunity prevented development of other forms of land and resource use which would have doomed the prospects of a park in the region. Finally, an amazing and egregious political blunder eliminated the last stumbling block by infuriating both Congress and the public to righteous and convenient indignation.

map of Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap7c.htm — 12-Jul-2004