Challenge of the Big Trees
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter Eight:
Controlling Development: How Much Is Too Much?


Reappraisal: Giant Forest

In the years from 1930 through 1947, assaults on the scenery and serenity of Sequoia and Kings Canyon had continued to mount and with them concern about the future of the parks. These fears for resource conservation and the park administration's ability to carry out its founding charter were fueled principally by landscape architects. Although scientists like Emilio Meinecke, George Wright and Lowell Sumner contributed important and respected research that further demonstrated ecological decline, theirs was a tiny voice in the management chorus. Quite simply, ecological science was too immature and undersupported in the parks to contribute strong factual data and thus shape management opinion. Landscape architects tackled visible problems with visible solutions aimed at creating visual pleasure. To a Park Service concerned with object preservation and visitor entertainment, the voice of landscape architecture remained the star player. [31]

During the 1950s, however, science began to assume a stronger role. Not only had botany, zoology, conservation, and ecology made tremendous strides in methodology and in the sophistication of their conclusions, but more science-trained people were joining the Park Service both in the Sierran parks and nationwide. The quarter century from 1947 to 1972 would see a revolution in management priorities in the national parks as the voice of science replaced that of landscape architecture in management decisions. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon, this role reversal both caused and resulted from a reappraisal of resource management in the two parks. In Giant Forest, in the alpine backcountry, and with animals and vegetation, the Park Service scrutinized past policies, gauged their results, and began a profound shift toward ecosystem preservation and an interpretation of the charter which tilted ever more toward preservation and away from visitor use.

Nowhere in the two parks had resource threats and concerns gone deeper than in Giant Forest. In 1947, when an embattled and embittered Colonel White retired, the struggle to control human use in the grove was already twenty years old. But the forced retirement of the powerful superintendent signaled a change in the tone of contract negotiations between the concessioner and those who would evict his company from the forest. Superintendent Scoyen, who replaced White for the second time, had long served with and respected his old boss, but he had his own ideas and agenda for the parks. Scoyen was younger, more flexible, and apparently less proprietary in his administration than the Colonel had been. In addition, he held somewhat different ideas about concession development and the proper balance between use and preservation. He announced his new administrative philosophy with small changes such as adding a second lane to the Generals Highway between the Four Guardsmen, four spectacular sequoias which Colonel White had long protected even though they were an obvious bottleneck. And within a couple months of assuming the superintendency, Scoyen went on record in favor of allowing all concession facilities except Giant Forest Village to remain in the grove. Although the Washington office was actually responsible for concession contract negotiations, they listened carefully to the opinion of the superintendent on site. Following Scoyen's advice and recalling Howard Hays' similar plan of a few years earlier, the Park Service approached the concessioner with such a plan. All too quickly the stringent efforts of Colonel White fell to a new philosophy and an expedient solution. [32]

At the same time, however, Hays and Mauger had also reconsidered their position. They replied that they would be happier if the Park Service would simply forget about any notion of evacuating Giant Forest. More than 75 percent of the revenue from their operations through the two parks derived from Giant Forest. Neither believed that Lodgepole, or any other site, could replace the experience of being beneath the Big Trees or that many people would pay for a substitute. Bolstered by an apparent governmental willingness to indefinitely grant short extensions of the old contract, the two men commenced a series of objections and stall tactics. First they balked at a provision which would allow complete evacuation to be reconsidered after a ten-year hiatus. Then there was the matter of how much the government should reimburse them for moving the Village structures. The Korean conflict provided another excuse, as everyone tried to measure the seriousness of the conflict and whether it heralded another period of austerity and low visitation. Finally, for nearly a year the company negotiated to sell the business to a nonprofit organization formed by former Park Service employees. With each new problem and each nine- or twelve-month contract extension, Mauger and Hays backed further away from the notion of leaving Giant Forest. [33]

Finally in 1952 the issue came to a head. Negotiations with the potential buyer broke down and the concession owners suggested that a new contract was now long overdue. They would not budge from their stand to remain in the grove, with one exception. That was a concession from Hays allowing reconsideration of removal of Giant Forest Village in ten years. Interim Park Service Director Arthur Demaray signaled the weariness and frustration of the government by summarily ordering that the concessioner be allowed to remain in the grove and that contract negotiations should conclude as soon as possible. In August 1952, both parties inked a new contract specifying the conditions Hays had recently suggested and consigning to the scrap heap twenty years of effort by Colonel White and his allies. The former superintendent's prediction of concessioner tactics and their eventual results proved to be exactly accurate. [34]

The conclusion of contract negotiations between the Park Service and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Company seemed to settle the issue of evacuation from the grove once and for all. With a twenty-year contract in hand and further written approval from the director, Mauger and Hays resumed normal operations. The Park Service too turned its attention to managing Giant Forest under existing conditions and doing the best job possible to provide quality visitor experiences while preserving the delicate sequoias. True, conditions were distressing, but the battle was lost and there was no alternative but to forge ahead. [35]

However, as the years passed and visitation nearly doubled prewar annual totals, conditions in Giant Forest continued to deteriorate. The concessioner had more than 400 structures in the area including 303 cabins for guests, 47 cabins for employees, assorted bathing and rest facilities, entertainment and office buildings, stores, dining facilities, and storage sheds. A number of those buildings cramped giant sequoias in the lodge area at the heart of the grove. [36] The Park Service itself owned several dozen or so structures as well as four large and rapidly deteriorating campgrounds, a picnic area at Hazelwood, and associated features like sewage plants, cisterns and an amphitheater. Traffic along the Generals Highway competed with cars leaving Camp Kaweah, Giant Forest Lodge, Giant Forest Village, Moro Rock Road, four campgrounds, a picnic area, and a variety of scenic turnouts. [37] In addition, on crowded weekends and holidays, long lines of cars waiting at Sequoia's only gas station in the Village spilled onto the road. Driving to the peaceful and edifying serenity of Giant Forest often became a chaotic and frustrating experience. Within the Village, pedestrian traffic at the post office, village market, and gift shops became equally disturbing. To any park administrator these alarming conditions begged for solution. To park resource managers and visiting scientists, such conditions boded poorly for the future of the grove itself. [38]

parking lot filled with cars
By the 1950s visitor congestion had become chronic in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National park. (National Park Service photo)

George Mauger offered a simple solution—enlarge and expand operations in Giant Forest. Throughout the remainder of his tenure in the parks, Mauger pressed for a higher pillow limit, newer and larger guest cabins, expansion of the gas station, coffee shop, and gift shops, and oiling of footpaths in the concession areas to control the dust generated by thousands of tourist feet. [39] In a few cases, Mauger succeeded. The Park Service oiled several miles of footpaths despite worries about the effect on sequoia root systems. He also received permission to replace many of the ramshackle rent-top cabins with more permanent and comfortable units. Although park officials rejected most of his other requests, Mauger remained, until the day he retired, unceasing in his efforts to enlarge the Giant Forest operation. [40]

Even before the frustrating contract negotiations ended and as summer traffic became increasingly congested, a disquieting incident further focused attention on human activity amid the sequoias. In the spring of 1950, park rangers observed a sequoia near Giant Forest Lodge that appeared to be leaning toward a number of concession cabins. The big tree, 18 feet in diameter and more than 240 feet high, had always exhibited a lean. However, subsequent measurements showed that lean to have increased slightly in the previous year to a point where the top was 28 feet out of plumb. For sixty years the preservation of giant sequoias had been the one incontrovertible policy of park management, the one thing that all agreed upon. Here, however, a tree leaned dangerously toward more than a dozen concession cabins. The thought of the giant crashing to earth onto hapless visitors in the cabins gave both Park Service officials and George Mauger many worried nights. [41]

Through the summer, park officers, and various forestry experts consulted over the fate of the big tree. Among the scientists to study the tree on site were Emilio Meinecke, recently retired, and Professor Emanuel Fritz of the University of California. Forest Service officials, park foresters from other units, and Director Drury himself traveled to Giant Forest to view the problem tree. Throughout the process an anxious George Mauger pressed to have the tree cut down. To suggestions that he move the dozen or so cabins in danger, Mauger said he could not afford that. Yet Park officials found it distressing to consider the destruction of one of the "objects" which they had promised to protect, particularly since some sequoias had persisted at a tilt for longer than anyone could remember. [42]

At last, the Park Service agreed to have the tree felled. The concessioner could move his cabins, but at what cost and to what new area? Superintendent Scoyen favored felling the tree because if it later fell and killed or injured someone he would be, "on a very lofty and exposed pinnacle of personal responsibility." A subsequent flurry of correspondence between the Washington office and Sequoia National Park confirmed the fate of the first giant sequoia to be deliberately cut in the sixty-year history of the park.

The actual job of bringing down the giant went to two brothers, Marshall and Leonard Brown. On November 8, they made a deep, horizontal cut on the side facing a prearranged direction where the tree could fall and do no appreciable damage. Through the day with axes and a twelve-foot power saw, the brothers worked as a crowd of more than 100 employees and their families gathered. Telegrams from Scoyen to Regional Director Tomlinson reported the progress every few hours. Finally, at 4:15 P.M., the huge tree toppled with a tremendous crash to earth, spraying cabins up to 350 feet away with mud and clots of dirt. With the aid of modern tools, including a block-and-tackle connected to a jeep via another sequoia, the Brown brothers successfully laid the tree exactly on target between permanent structures of Giant Forest Lodge. Subsequent investigation showed the tree to be an estimated 2,222 years of age. It lays today where it fell in the lodge area minus only a few sections of the trunk which were taken as museum displays. [43]

The cabins were safe, no visitors had even been inconvenienced, and the cutting had been an impressive feat; nevertheless the entire episode badly disturbed park officials. Even George Mauger reported the deep sense of sadness that swept the crowd of onlookers when the task was done. It had been a blow to the deepest loyalties of the park administrators, an action none had ever envisioned taking. Even before the tree came down, Mauger pointed out another leaning tree near Beetle Rock, which threatened cabins at Camp Kaweah. However, Scoyen brusquely refused his request that it be cut at the same time on the grounds that no shift in its lean had been observed. [44]

Failure to remove the concession company from Giant Forest, renewed pressure from Mauger and Hays to expand operations in the grove, the deeply disturbing incident with the leaning sequoia, and distressingly crowded conditions motivated the Park Service to search frantically for options to ameliorate the situation. In the minds of Scoyen and his aides, neither of the parks' purposes were being fulfilled. Visitors were so crowded, jostled, and stressed that they could find little enjoyment or inspiration on busy days. And the scenery and serenity of the grand trees was being despoiled by sheer numbers of tourists.

Mission 66 gave park officials an opportunity to address the situation. The landscape architects who designed the program chose two options aimed at relieving traffic congestion and compressing Park Service operations in the grove. First, they would reroute Generals Highway around Giant Forest as Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. had suggested more than a decade earlier. Among several routes, Olmsted favored looping the road below and to the west of the plateau, tunneling below Sunset Rock, and rejoining the old highway somewhere near Lodgepole or the Sherman Tree. Engineers with the Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads supported the project for traffic considerations, although most considered the notion of a tunnel under Sunset Rock to be dubious at best. Most park officials strongly supported the plan as a desperate measure to control crowding. Under the scheme Giant Forest and all its camping and lodging facilities would remain on a spur road leading ultimately to Crescent Meadow. [45]

The second option incorporated into Mission 66 was construction of a large new visitor center in Giant Forest Village within which the functions of a half-dozen existing structures could be concentrated. Not only would this plan replace a scattering of buildings with one unit, but it would take some of those functions away from one of the densest areas of Big Trees and put them in Giant Forest Village where only a few trees could be affected. Suggestion of this plan marked one of the first times that landscape architects recommended a single large structure in place of several, smaller, rustically "appropriate" ones. [46]

However, while businessmen, landscape architects, and rangers versed in people management debated how to improve conditions in Giant Forest, alarming scientific evidence continued to accumulate. That evidence suggested that all ideas proposed to date, with one exception, would fall short of preserving the Giant Forest ecosystem. That exception was Colonel White's old notion of completely removing visitor facilities, both those of the concession and of the Park Service, from the grove.

One of the earliest research studies to influence management of giant sequoias ironically came from Yosemite National Park. In January 1954 a committee appointed by the superintendent there released its "Report on the Effects of Human Impact Upon the Giant Sequoias of the Mariposa and Tuolumne Groves—Yosemite National Park." The chief conclusion of the "Yosemite Report" was that roads, buildings, sewage and power lines, and human compaction of soil all harmed the delicate root systems of the big trees. The committee could offer no solution to preserve the trees except to remove the offending structures and paths. Although the report was widely read and respected in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, it alone did not sway management opinion. It did however lay the foundation by bringing ecological concerns to the forefront and by calling for a large-scale, continuing program of sequoia research. [47]

The name most associated with sequoia research, in Sequoia and Kings Canyon and elsewhere in the species' range, was Richard Hartesveldt. A doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan when he began his studies, the Grand Rapids native continued his work through the next two decades, later as a member of the faculty at San Jose State University. Much of Hartesveldt's early research took place in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park. There he found evidence that not only corroborated the conclusions in the "Yosemite Report" and those of Emilio Meinecke back in 1944, [48] but suggested that the peril of the Big Trees was much more serious. Steps would have to be taken if the species were to continue in the grove and if the existing old giants were to survive. [49]

Hartesveldt's evidence, when added to that of the "Yosemite Report" and Meinecke's research, presented the Park Service with stark choices. The gravity of the problem appeared irrefutable. Partial solutions and half-hearted attempts would doom the giant sequoias. In response, in 1960 Superintendent John M. Davis called for a high-level conference of park officials to consider the evidence, review the options, and decide on the management future for Giant Forest. In attendance at the "summit meeting" were Park Service Chief Ranger Lawrence Cook, Chief Landscape Architect Merel Sager, and Chief Naturalist Howard Stagner from the Washington office, their western region counterparts, all the senior officials from Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Regional Research Biologist Lowell Sumner, and several landscape architects from the Washington Office Development Center. The ostensible purpose of the meeting from May 31 to June 2 was to choose the exact site for a visitor center in Giant Forest, but in reality it was to decide the fate of developments, both existing and future, in the sequoia grove. [50]

The committee released its report and recommendations a few weeks later. The ominous evidence presented by Meinecke, the Yosemite Committee, and Hartesveldt was cited to underline the urgency and seriousness of the problem. In answer to the specific question of locating a visitor center, the committee recommended that it be located in or near Giant Forest Village if the Generals Highway remained where it was. If, on the other hand, the road were to be rerouted around Giant Forest, then the visitor center should be built at Lodgepole. Having settled the nominal topic of the conference, the committee then addressed the weightier issue of the grove's future development and made several recommendations, specifically: (1) all commercial activities (retail and food services) should ultimately be moved to Lodgepole or some other nearby site (2) Giant Forest should be allowed to recover its "natural aspects" (3) the gas station, ice house, and grocery store in the Village should be given first and immediate priority in the move to Lodgepole (4) a continuous program of research and observation of human impact on giant sequoias should be established (5) walk ways, parking areas and other blacktop features should be moved or eliminated near sequoias and (6) "the questions of the relocation of all overnight accommodations and campgrounds from Giant Forest to Lodgepole or elsewhere, as a long-term objective, should be reopened." [51]

The final, albeit understated, recommendation threw before park planners, after a decade of relative quiet, the most complex and divisive issue in the history of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. However, from such a blue ribbon panel, relying on hard scientific data from a variety of sources, and with such stakes at risk, Colonel White's old proposal packed a lot more potential punch this time around. Superintendent Davis supported all the recommendations with virtually no alterations. However, Director Wirth still remained unconvinced on the matter of removing all facilities from Giant Forest. Instead, he suggested restudying a bypass road, an option which had gotten bogged down in the early days of Mission 66. [52]

Although the Bureau of Public Roads had conducted a bypass study in 1957, Wirth now wanted a more in-depth analysis by the same agency. In late October and early November of 1961, road engineers conducted field reconnaissance and a few months later released a second report. The bureau offered two routes around Giant Forest, both of which veered from the existing road south and west of Beetle Rock, wound below the plateau to a point near Sunset Rock, and then curved northeastward to rejoin the highway near Lodgepole. There was no mention of a tunnel. In subsequent studies, Park Service engineers modified the routes to form a third option which combined elements of the first two. In all three cases the price tag hovered at between five and five and one-half million dollars, and in all three cases Giant Forest remained on a spur road. [53]

Almost immediately problems with the routes and, indeed, the very concept of a bypass road began to surface. The routes proposed by the Bureau of Public Roads required removal of a few sequoia trees. Superintendent Davis called this suggestion "a dead duck from the beginning." Thereafter questions arose about the level of traffic decrease that could be expected from such a move and how much protection the giant sequoias would receive if the spur road remained. Eventually, in 1969, the Park Service commissioned a traffic study for the parks as part of a new master plan. In the resulting report, engineer D. Jackson Faustman suggested that construction of a bypass for traffic reasons alone was not justified. If facilities remained in Giant Forest, especially at the Village, they would continue to create "congestion and hazard," he wrote. Thus it seemed from both traffic and ecological standpoints, a bypass road would be ineffectual. [54]

Even before these doubts torpedoed the bypass road project, the Park Service turned its attention once again to the more controversial measure—evacuation of infrastructure from Giant Forest. If the Park Service were to implement this "final solution" it faced the same issues as before: the concessioner who owned some 400 buildings, and the government's own structures, four sizeable campgrounds, and picnic area at Hazelwood. The public enjoyed all these services despite the overcrowding, while the concessioner remained adamant about staying in the forest.

Taking the easiest job first, the government indefinitely deferred action on building a new visitor center in Giant Forest, and accelerated construction of the one at Lodgepole. In addition, in 1962 it closed the smallest of the four campgrounds, Firwood. Park officers wanted to close the remaining three campgrounds, Paradise, Sunset Rock, and Sugar Pine which totaled 152 sites, but felt obliged first to replace the sites elsewhere. This they eventually accomplished by doubling the size of Dorst Campground some twelve miles north of Giant Forest. Finally, in 1971 over protestations from some visitors who decried park policy as favoring the concession-housed "rich," the Park Service closed the remaining campgrounds in Giant Forest. It was not lost on campers that the concessioner needed space for a new sewage treatment facility and that Sugar Pine provided a remarkably perfect site for such an installation. [55]

At the Hazelwood Picnic Area, the Park Service also faced an uneasy prospect in eliminating a popular feature. However, in this case a tragic occurrence provided the excuse it needed. On August 9, 1969, a 240-foot sequoia tree, partially damaged by fire and by carpenter ants, fell against another sequoia, toppling the upper 130 feet of the second tree onto a picnic table. An elderly woman was killed instantly. In the days that followed, Superintendent John McLaughlin proposed that the picnic area be closed for safety reasons. The regional director approved and park workers hastily removed all the sites, leaving only a hiking trail behind in what had once been a popular campground and later a favorite lunchtime stop. [56]

Thus by 1971, public government presence in Giant Forest consisted of only one cabin, a tiny information station in Giant Forest Village and restrooms. But the other side of the Park Services plan, removal of concession facilities, continued to be an entirely different matter. Park Service planners themselves remained divided on the issue despite the growing scientific evidence and an increased acceptance by the public. Some officials favored complete evacuation, some only the removal of Giant Forest Village, and a few still accepted George Mauger's contentions that damage from his structures was minimal, and that there were plenty of other sequoia groves for those aesthetes who insisted on freedom from humans in their nature experience. However, each passing year tipped the balance of administrative opinion further toward complete removal. By 1970, the two features all park planners had agreed to oust, the gas station and post office, were moved to Lodgepole. They were the first significant non-Park Service facilities ever to be removed to another site. [57] At the same time, ironically, the concessioner gained permission to replace a dozen tent cabins at Giant Forest Lodge with modern units, to rebuild and enlarge the lodge dining room, and even to erect a new gift shop on the site of the just-removed post office.

Discussion aimed at evicting the rest of Giant Forest Village proceeded until 1968 when a complication arose. New Director George Hartzog, at the urging of Park Service archaeologists, ordered that no building older than fifty years be razed or even modified. Most of the buildings in Giant Forest Village would soon meet that criterion easily. Later official designation under the historic structures act further complicated any ideas about simply tearing down Giant Forest Village. [58]

While debate continued about the Village and its retail and food structures, the matter of concession housing continued to be the major source of contention and negotiations between the government and the company. In a startling and unheralded move the Park Service raised the pillow limit in 1964 from 1,000 to 1,240. There is no record of what debate or agreement led to this action nor of how, after forty-three years, George Mauger convinced the government to accede to his long-held wishes. [59] It may have been done to facilitate Mauger's negotiations for sale of the concession company. Less than a year later Mauger sold to the Fred Harvey Company who immediately took up the cudgels for further expansion of facilities in the grove. In 1967, the leaning tree at Beetle Rock exhibited new cracks at its base and threatened concession housing at Camp Kaweah. Park foresters felled their second giant sequoia in the history of the park on January 13, 1967. This series of events—raising the pillow limit, continued aggravating pressure for more development, and destruction of a second sequoia tree—strengthened the resolve of those park employees committed to evacuation from the grove and intensified negotiations toward that end. [60]

As noted, however, the period 1965 to 1972 was one of confusion and inaction due to repeated corporate changes. In addition, the approaching termination of the twenty-year concession contract exacerbated the situation. Hence both sides were tentative in their efforts to change the status quo. In January 1972, GSI assumed operations and accelerated negotiations for a new long-term contract. Owing to the confusion of the preceding decade, the Park Service made no drastic demands, but satisfied itself with a contract stipulation that the concessioner would build a large market, gift shop, and snack bar facility at Lodgepole. Although this left both concession housing and the Giant Forest Village in place, park officials fervently hoped that the concessioner could later be convinced to move, once superior visitor services were in place at Lodgepole. [61]

Thus, in 1971, as the government removed the last campgrounds, hailed the new gas station at Lodgepole, and negotiated for a new contract with a concessioner, it backed down again from a commitment to remove concession structures from Giant Forest. The park's 1971 master plan allowed that concession housing in the grove was appropriate, and merely called for further investigation of alternative sites by the Park Service. [62] On August 22, 1972, the National Park Service signed a twenty-year contract with the new concessioner. The new contract required no additional removals from Giant Forest. In the closing decades of the park's first century, the subject would continue to be the biggest in a portfolio of ecological problems put under the spotlight by resurging ecological research.

map of Giant Forest development area
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap8d.htm — 12-Jul-2004