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


How Much Tourism and Where Will it Be?

While the National Park Service struggled to resolve these persistent questions of regulation and jurisdiction in Kings Canyon, a larger and more critical question arose. What form and extent would development along the South Fork take? In resolving this issue the Park Service faced unusually heavy pressure from outside interest groups that had participated in formation of the park and thus held somewhat proprietary feelings. There were many opinions on specific development decisions, but three basic groups evolved to represent distinctly different overall plans. On one hand, there was the Fresno Chamber of Commerce led by lawyer and former chamber president Chester Warlow. A tireless benefactor of the parks, he had been instrumental in hammering out the great compromise between Ickes and San Joaquin Valley citizens. The Fresno group favored extensive development and incessantly reminded the Park Service of its promises to do so. [41]

At the other end of the development spectrum was the Sierra Club. Its members, including highly respected figures like William Colby and Francis Farquhar, had feverishly campaigned on behalf of the park for more than a half century. Sierra Club members favored minimum construction, preferring to leave the bulk of the canyon floor for hiking and horseback exploration. [42]

Finally, in the middle was the Park Service itself. For the next quarter century, in every decision affecting Kings Canyon, park officials were pulled from either side and were themselves much divided on the issues. Colonel White, oddly enough, leaned heavily toward the opinion of the Fresno group. Although indefatigable in his campaign to control and reduce tourism in Giant Forest, he nonetheless favored fairly extensive operations in Kings Canyon. His reasons were first, because the area should be seen by as many people as possible; second, because it would draw people away from Giant Forest, giving it a chance to recover; and third and most important, because the Park Service had promised extensive development to the Fresno people. [43] Park Service naturalist-scientists such as Lowell Sumner and Joseph Dixon strongly favored minimum development citing ecological reasons such as meadow and marsh preservation and wildlife protection. Park landscape architects such as Ernest Davidson and Sanford Hill ranged somewhere in the middle. [44]

Three basic packages of development decisions formed the substance over which these groups disagreed. The first concerned how far and by what route a road should extend into the canyon. Initially the Park Service verbally agreed to build the road as far as the old Kanawyer's site east of Copper Creek. Yet by December 1938, well before the park's creation could be confidently assured, the Sierra Club and other preservationists began to press for a road terminus at Roaring River where the Forest Service had plotted its "wilderness" boundary. [45] Word of this pressure leaked to park backers in Fresno and an angry Chester Warlow challenged the Park Service to honor its agreement or suffer the abandonment of any local support for the park. [46]

On January 20, 1939, Associate Park Service Director Demaray responded in writing to Warlow that the park would definitely extend the road to Copper Creek. [47] Then in May 1940, a few weeks after the park bill passed, another angry letter from Warlow to Demaray complained that younger members of the Sierra Club were agitating for a shorter road:

The activities of the Sierra Club stopped the old 1908 canyon road at Lookout Point. They are attempting to do the same thing now at Cedar Grove. We were generous enough to allow 2-1/2 miles of the upper canyon for their altruistic wilderness theories, but we do insist that a portion of the beautiful portion of the canyon be available to the 'softies.' It seems a shame that a small group of individuals would want to lock this place up so that it will be used only by 100 or so people a year when it is entitled to be enjoyed by thousands. [48]

Warlow finished by warning that the betrayal of Fresno supporters and the dishonor of breaking their promises would destroy any chance the Park Service might have for credibility and for further cooperation from the citizens of the San Joaquin Valley.

The next few months saw hasty and placating negotiations which culminated in a decision to plan for a Copper Creek road terminus regardless of any designs or ideas to the contrary. To the dismay of the Sierra Club, rumors then began circulating about a new drive to push the road through the park, over Kearsarge Pass and on to the Owens Valley. Warlow and other Fresno people, however, assured Park Service officials that no support for road development across the Sierra would come from their community. Congress in 1946 further buried such rumors by passing an appropriations bill which outlawed any funding for road construction within Kings Canyon National Park except for the short distance from the park boundary near Zumwalt Meadow to Copper Creek. Thus by the end of 1946 the Copper Creek vicinity became the accepted area for road's end. Despite grumbling from some in the Sierra Club, most members contented themselves with trying to influence other development plans for the park. [49]

Having established Copper Creek as the general area of the road terminus, Park Service landscape architects discussed whether the road should end with a loop on the east or west side of the creek. Despite the need to build two bridges over Copper Creek, the architects and park engineers preferred a gradual road loop east of the creek. [50]

At the same time the Park Service struggled with the issue of where the road should terminate, the matter of its route through the canyon also begged solution. Fresno citizens and some Park Service officials favored a road along the south side of the river through the beautiful but ecologically delicate Zumwalt Meadow. The Sierra Club and other Park Service planners maintained that the road should proceed past the existing campgrounds on the south side as far as Roaring River, then cross back to the northern side hugging the talus slope along the north wall to Copper Creek. For a period of time in the late war years, a few planners and engineers promoted a dual road system—eastbound along the south side of the river through Zumwalt Meadow and then a westbound return on the north side. [51]

As the war wound down, the Park Service geared up for an expected infusion of development capital. As hot debate continued to swirl about the issues of the route and terminus, the Sierra Club played its trump card. Although it could not prevent the road from reaching the Copper Creek vicinity, it could influence these detail decisions. In 1924, the daughter of early Kings Canyon settler, Jesse Agnew, had deeded to the Sierra Club eighty acres of land extending across the canyon and including Zumwalt Meadow. As early as 1938, the Park Service requested that the club donate its easement land to the forthcoming park or, short of that, grant an easement for a Park Service road. Although sentiment favored turning the land over to the Park Service, Sierra Club representatives made it clear to the government that they were not prepared to do so until certain guarantees were made. Specifically they wanted assurances that the road would end very near Copper Creek and that it would follow a route against the base of the north wall of the canyon. Indeed, they would not even grant an easement for any other road route. [52]

The effect of these stipulations was substantial. Zumwalt Meadow formed the very heart of the scenic and ecological treasures of the upper canyon and many park officials were only too ready to push for its unspoiled, roadless preservation. Because an easement from the Sierra Club was politically necessary if a road were even to approach Copper Creek, by 1947 a north side route was a matter of policy. As for the exact spot of a road loop, the plans still called for crossing Copper Creek, but with a dramatically diminished road loop on the eastern side. [53]

A second major development issue in the canyon consisted of the proper location for visitor facilities. All parties agreed that some lodgings and other infrastructure should be built at Cedar Grove. Logic seemed to dictate some development near the existing ranger contact station and the four big campgrounds. Beyond that obvious point, however, opinion diverged drastically. Fresno representatives insisted that the Park Service had promised to build a hotel, cabins, and a large pack station at the old Kanawyer's site, east of Copper Creek. Colonel White again concurred and frequently reminded his superiors of their promises and commitments. The Sierra Club, conversely, wanted the developments concentrated at Cedar Grove with no more than a small outlying pack station, rather than the main base, at Copper Creek. Again a frustrated Chester Warlow blistered the Park Service with complaints, oral and written. [54]

Here again the Park Service found itself in the middle and again deeply divided internally. At various times from 1939 to 1947, park planners considered developing Cedar Grove, Lewis Creek, Hotel Creek, Roaring River, Copper Creek (both sides), and various combinations of all of these. By the end of the war, however, the only serious issue was the extent of facilities to be imposed at Copper Creek. Nearly all planners favored retaining visitor lodgings, food services, and a main visitor center at Cedar Grove. At Copper Creek the focus became the main pack station for the entire national park. This was to be a substantial complex covering at least six or seven acres. In addition to the corrals, storage barns, sheds, work yards, and feed lots, the packers would need housing for up to thirty employees, recreational facilities and possibly a store, a snack bar, and a few visitor amenities. [55]

Once again it was the Sierra Club that most strongly influenced the final decision. Preliminary plans for development in the canyon became available in the early months of 1946. The club then convinced one of its foremost members, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to review those plans, visit the sites, and make recommendations. Olmsted was a nationally reknowned landscape architect whose father had designed Central Park in New York City, contributed considerably to the foundation of the national park movement, and was considered the "father of landscape architecture in America." Both the Forest Service, whose planners had consulted Olmsted about Cedar Grove during the 1930s, and the Park Service deeply respected his abilities and opinion. He was, coincidentally, vice-president of the Sierra Club. [56]

Olmsted dove into the project with all his considerable skill and energy. In late September 1946 he released his report, which was subsequently published in the Sierra Club Bulletin in the spring of 1947. The landscape architect favored a north side road, a road terminus west of Copper Creek, and reduction of any pack station facilities there to the "least extensive and least conspicuous things that will permit reasonably good service to the public." The effect of this report by so eminent a commentator on park design and development was pronounced. Immediately, the Park Service concluded that construction of two small pack stations, one at Copper Creek, the other at Cedar Grove, followed by further study, would be a safer course of action. [57]

The third and final development issue in the canyon was the scope of visitor facilities to be constructed, wherever they might be located. Fresno and other San Joaquin Valley businessmen envisioned a major development on the scale the Forest Service had proposed. That meant cabins or hotel space for between 700 and 1,500 people, an elaborate cafeteria and retail complex, a large visitor center, and an expanded camping area. The Sierra Club favored a smaller infrastructure although it was not adamant, provided the facilities were kept at Cedar Grove. Here the Park Service fully intended to honor its promises, perhaps because there seemed to be little contention. In 1947 the "Kings Canyon Development Plan" called for the design of overnight facilities at Cedar Grove to include an expanded camping capacity of 400 sites for 1,500 people, a picnic area for up to forty groups, 200 housekeeping cabins (500 people), an inn with fifty overnight cabins (another 200 people), a store, post office, visitor center, cafeteria, and pack station. A second pack station was proposed for Copper Creek and employee housing for the Lewis Creek area. Further study of the issues of visitor facilities at Copper Creek, further campground expansion and a larger picnic capacity would commence immediately. [58]

Thus it seemed by the summer of 1947 the Park Service could look forward to development of major visitor facilities in the Kings River Canyon. The road would cross the river at Roaring River, proceed along the north wall and execute a tight loop just to the west of Copper Creek. A large tourism infrastructure would be established at Cedar Grove with a small pack station at Copper Creek. Finally, the park could attract thousands of scenery-hungry visitors and fulfill promises to San Joaquin Valley businessmen. Trail development would proceed for the greater enjoyment of Sierra Club members and other wilderness enthusiasts. New Regional Director O.A. Tomlinson confidently assured Warlow and others that the road to Copper Canyon would be completed by late 1948. [59] Major visitor facilities and concession lodgings would be available shortly to accept the anticipated boom of visitors to the nation's great new wilderness park.

The Park Service, however, had not predicted three final factors which were to delay construction in the canyon for another two and one-half decades. One was the fault of the government itself, which by its niggardly appropriations dragged out construction of the road to Copper Creek for another ten years. Another was the unwillingness of concessioners Howard Hays and George Mauger to spend any money or effort developing Cedar Grove. And the third was the stunning reapplication by Los Angeles to build dams on the Kings River watershed both outside and inside the young park.

map of Kings Canyon development plan
By 1947 it had been decided that overnight facilities in King Canyon would be constructed in the Cedar Grove Area and that the Kings Canyon Highway would end at Copper Creek. Still on the table, however, was exactly what form the Copper Creek day-use facility would take. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap7f.htm — 12-Jul-2004