Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Eight:
Controlling Development: How Much Is Too Much?


Renewal: Mission 66

By the middle of the 1950s, everyone in the Park Service and an increasing number of outside observers knew that the system was in trouble. Congress had chosen to neglect the nation's parklands; facilities and structures were seriously declining, yet visitors continued to pour in at alarming rates. Hamstrung by budget constraints, the administration of a single park, or for that matter of an entire region, was powerless to reverse the decay. Any recovery would have to come from Washington, D.C. [7]

New Park Service Director Conrad Wirth and his associates had been focusing on these problems. But anger and frustration continued to mount as senior officials repeatedly met with polite but aloof response from a Congress consumed with other issues. In 1955 in an article published in The Reader's Digest a worried Director Wirth complained:

It is not possible to provide essential services. Visitor concentration points can't be kept in sanitary condition. Comfort stations can't be kept clean and serviced. Water, sewer and electrical systems are taxed to the utmost. Protective services to safeguard the public and preserve park values are far short of requirements. Physical facilities are deteriorating or are inadequate to meet public needs. Some of the camps are approaching rural slums.

The article went on to warn prospective visitors that, "your trip is likely to be fraught with discomfort, disappointment, and even danger." [8]

The problem, as Wirth saw it, lay in the budgeting procedure. The Park Service had a series of discrete short-term projects in individual parks which could be, and often were, trimmed at budget time. Wirth hit upon an idea, based on the funding successes of agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation, of presenting Congress with a grand, multiyear project aimed at capturing more funds to halt the degeneration of facilities. The resulting plan—Mission 66—was a masterpiece of emotional appeal, hard sell, and clever maneuvering worthy of the Service's founding director Stephen Mather. [9]

A full year's preparation went into the proposal. To the annoyance of the Sierra Club and other preservationists, the Park Service publicized the process but kept details secret. At last, in the winter of 1956, the Park Service presented its overall plans to the president and Congress. Mission 66 contained a series of basic points which upheld traditional Park Service preservation goals. However, two specific statements embodied the project: (1) "Substantial and appropriate use of the National Park System is the best means by which its basic purpose is realized and is the best guarantee of perpetuating the system;" and (2) "Adequate and appropriate developments are required for public use and appreciation of an area, and for prevention of overuse." Mission 66 was to be first and foremost a program aimed at redressing the decline of Park Service structures used by visitors and employees. Although other points in the guidelines addressed issues such as wilderness areas and resource preservation, these were philosophical and cautionary advisements, not the guts of the proposed plan. Mission 66 would last ten years and carry a whopping price tag of nearly $800 million. It would conclude in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Park Service, and would reverse the physical and spiritual decline that had beset the parks for more than fifteen years. [10]

The Mission 66 plan had vision, scope, emotional appeal, grand design, and historical precedent. It combined the charisma and political charm that Stephen Mather's programs had so successfully displayed. After a hasty endorsement by President Eisenhower, Congress got its chance to study the proposal. Here the scope of the project had its real impact. With 168 units scattered across the country, there was something for everyone in Mission 66. Likewise the publicized planning process had already had a profound effect. As planning had proceeded, an intrigued Congress boosted funding for 1956 by 50 percent. When they finally received the proposal, lawmakers quickly approved it and attached another 39 percent appropriations hike to inaugurate the program. Ultimately Congress appropriated more than one billion dollars for Mission 66 projects and quadrupled the Park Service's annual budget to $128 million by 1966. [11]

The staff of Sequoia and Kings Canyon greeted the Mission 66 concept with enthusiasm and optimism. Superintendent Scoyen's men scrambled to assimilate data, inventory and field check facilities, and provide their ten-year plan for renewal of the parks' physical resources. The resulting proposal embodied the plans and ideas of the previous two decades of park management. Included were provisions for developing Cedar Grove, rerouting Generals Highway, acquiring inholdings and eliminating grazing permits, redesigning structures at all the parks' developed areas, and at least studying ways to remove the concessioner from Giant Forest. The proposals were broken into three priority lists and totaled nearly nineteen million dollars for the decade-long program. [12]

One benefit of a multiyear, established program soon became apparent at Sequoia and Kings Canyon. A few weeks before Mission 66 received congressional approval, Eivind Scoyen departed to become NPS associate director. The appointment of George A. Walker as acting superintendent commenced a sequence of relatively frequent top-level changes at the parks. Walker was followed by Thomas J. Allen, John M. Davis, and Frank F. Kowski as superintendents during the Mission 66 decade. Yet, despite the potential confusion such personnel changes could have brought, the project proceeded toward specified goals at a measured and largely successful pace.

The program designed by Scoyen's team and incorporated into Mission 66 legislation proposed an ambitious construction agenda. Major projects included four new visitor centers at Giant Forest, Lodgepole, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove; a new administration complex at Ash Mountain; replacement or erection of new water, sewage and trash facilities; electrification of Giant Forest and Cedar Grove; construction of additional employee housing; and partial relocation of Generals Highway, especially around Giant Forest. Lesser projects included expansion and redesign of some campgrounds; construction of additional comfort stations, amphitheaters, and entrance stations; and repair of assorted roads, fences, and overlooks. [13]

For a time though it appeared that Sequoia and Kings Canyon would be among the failures of Mission 66. Superintendent Allen wrote in his 1959 annual report that the vaunted program had gotten off to a slow start, accomplished little, and had not impressed the public. [14] However, the sixties brought a rapid acceleration culminating in the completion of nearly all of the parks' Mission 66 goals. Employee housing was added along with a big, new administration complex at Ash Mountain. Giant Forest and Cedar Grove received new water and sewage systems as well as new garbage incinerators. Electric power lines reached Giant Forest in 1956. New comfort stations, entrance stations, interpretive displays, trails, and parking areas served visitors. Perhaps most significant for the public, the Park Service completed new visitor centers at Ash Mountain in 1963, Grant Grove in 1965, and Lodgepole in 1966. George Mauger's concession company also contributed to the revamped visitor infrastructure with a large new coffee shop and store complex at Grant Grove, bringing that neglected area up to standard for the first time, along with construction of new cabins to replace some of the miserable, substandard shacks in both Giant Forest and Grant Grove. [15]

Despite all the gains of Mission 66 in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, three major Park Service goals were not fulfilled: development of Cedar Grove, construction of a visitor center at Giant Forest, and relocation of Generals Highway. In each case, lack of funds was not the problem. At Cedar Grove, the stubborn unwillingness of the concessioner to participate threatened to sabotage all development in the spectacular canyon. Meanwhile, the Giant Forest projects were among the earliest casualties in a dramatic, pervasive, and hitherto unchecked rise of ecological science and preservationist philosophy.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap8b.htm — 12-Jul-2004