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


Retrospect on Kings Canyon

The battles fought in the 1930s and 1940s over the creation and proper development of Kings Canyon National Park represented a full collision between two equally valid but completely incompatible concepts of federal land use, each with its own view of what constituted a valuable resource. In the nineteenth century, despite considerable searching, only a few shepherds had found resources of significant value in the rugged maze of canyons forming the Kings River watershed. By the turn of the century, another value had been established—wilderness recreation—but its practitioners remained small in number, if not always in visibility.

By the early 1920s, however, the resource value of the region had risen significantly. Two sets of perceived resources, only barely related, were clearly defined; two sets of resource users awaited the opportunity to implement their schemes, and two sets of potential managers sought either to maintain or obtain control of the region. The Forest Service, together with competing irrigation and hydroelectric interests, defined their resources through a utilitarian world view. Kings Canyon would best serve America by being tamed, by sharing its water and power with the country's economic mainstream. Opposed to this utilitarian vision were the descendents of its ultimate critic—John Muir. The Sierra Club, after several decades of organized and individual recreational use of the Kings River country, saw the region's resources not as potential contributors to industrial America but rather as an antidote. To the club and others who loved the wild Sierra, the valuable resources of the region were not water power, and grazing potential, but wild surging rivers and fields of alpine wildflowers. Sharing the view of the Sierra Club was the National Park Service.

To the true physical resources of Kings Canyon, the ecosystems and their natural inhabitants, the decisions of the Kings Canyon political wars were of paramount importance. Ultimately, the preservationists won most of their goals, despite the initial handicap of Forest Service management of the area. Passage of the Kings Canyon Park Act seems in hindsight as much a political accident as a carefully moderated political decision. Without Congressman Elliot's decisive blunder, Kings Canyon National Park might never have come to be. Had the park not been created, the alternative conservation vision would have altered the landscape and its inhabitants severely and permanently.

More than either Sequoia or Yosemite both of which were created before the twentieth-century resource values of the Sierra Nevada had become apparent, Kings Canyon National Park was a commitment of valuable resources. From that commitment came a half century of wilderness recreation, and, at the same time, a partial recovery from the impacts of early grazing and trapping use. Many individuals and organizations helped to create Kings Canyon National Park and to determine its destiny once it was established; but it was the membership of the Sierra Club, over nearly five decades of exploration, publicity, and lobbying, that played the single biggest role and deserves ultimate credit.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap7g.htm — 12-Jul-2004