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


Reappraisal: The Leopold Report

The shift toward extreme measures for ecological reasons was part of a much larger shift both in the Sierran parks and throughout the park system. The death of George Wright and onset of World War II had all but eliminated biological research in the parks nationwide, and postwar funding left the program in shambles. Occasional efforts like the "Yosemite Report" were noteworthy exceptions to a pattern of general disinterest in science.

The late 1950s, however, saw the beginning of a recovery in resource management and research programs, spurred by critical appraisals from outside. The Sierra Club and National Parks Association both decried the lack of research, and of the funding and organization to begin it. In 1959, Dr. Stanley Cain of the University of Michigan (and one of Richard Hartesveldt's mentors) reported to the Sixth Biennial Wilderness Conference that, the National Park Service does not have a program of basic ecological research. . . . (what is being done) fails to approach at all closely to the fundamental need of the Service itself . . . (and) the service is missing a bet by not having an adequate natural history (ecological) research program." [63]

As a result of this prodding by Cain, as well as by other ecologists and by the always powerful preservationist groups, both the National Park Service and its parent Department of Interior again began to look seriously at the needs for ecological research and for more scientific and ecologically sensitive park management. Several important studies and analyses of park resources appeared in the next few years, including one funded by The Conservation Foundation which employed internationally renowned scholars, E. Fraser Darling and Noel Eichhorn, to survey the status of ecological management park by park. [64] However, the study to have perhaps the most profound effect since Secretary Lane's letter of 1918, was the so-called Leopold Report. [65]

Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall was especially sensitive to the criticism of Cain and other observers. Both Secretary Udall and President Kennedy cared about matters of conservation, and the news from the parks troubled Udall. In response to the need for a general appraisal of park ecosystem management, and in particular, to desperate problems of overgrazing by elk in Yellowstone, Udall appointed a blue-ribbon advisory board. The members, a veritable who's who of fish and wildlife management, included Stanley Cain; Dr. Clarence Cottam, director of the Welder Wildlife Foundation and former assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Dr. Ira Gabrielson, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service; Thomas Kimball, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation and former director of the Colorado Game and Fish Department; and Dr. A. Starker Leopold, professor of zoology and assistant to the chancellor at University of California, Berkeley, and a former president of The Wildlife Society. [66] Dr. Leopold, who chaired the Advisory Board on Wildlife Management in National Parks, came from what might be called America's first family of conservation. His father, Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac, was the man who so deeply influenced George Wright and the early ecologists of the Park Service. Two brothers and a sister also achieved fame for their research and writings in ecology and conservation in North America. [67] The composition of the board was widely lauded by the Sierra Club and other preservation organizations and few critics could challenge the members' impressive credentials.

On March 4, 1963, the advisory board transmitted its report to Udall and subsequently the Sierra Club and several other groups published it in full in their respective journals. Board members characterized the report as conceptual rather than statistical, and intended it to "enhance the aesthetic, historical, and scientific values of the parks to the American public, vis-a-vis the mass recreational values." [68] Thus Leopold and other members went well beyond the tasks prescribed by Udall and launched an attempt to alter the basic management philosophy of the National Park Service toward biological preservation, even at the cost of the objects of the scenery upon which preservation values of the past had been placed. In a now familiar statement, the board suggested that the primary goal of the parks was maintenance of the biotic associations within each unit, or restoration of them, to the "condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man." [69] (This would later call into question the impact of Native Americans, particularly in an area like Sequoia and Kings Canyon, where aboriginal burning was widely reported.) However, in 1963 the report essentially called for maintaining, or restoring, natural park environments to the greatest extent possible.

Board members offered specific recommendations about specific problems in various parks in order to demonstrate their principal point—the necessity of a return to "naturalness." In the matter of habitat protection, they recommended a research-based policy which would protect climax communities but allow successional ones to change naturally. In terms of faunal management, the board recommended elimination of introduced species (exotics), reintroduction of locally extinct native species, and maintenance of natural ecological relationships including protection of native insects, despite their damage to some attractive species, and of predators such as coyote, wolf, and mountain lion. It recommended prescribed burning to return forests overgrown by understory vegetation to the open character displayed when first viewed by whites. In this instance they referred specifically to the sequoia groves of Sequoia and Kings Canyon where Cain's former student Hartesveldt busily continued his research. In addition, the advisory board recommended sweeping changes in the research and resource management situations throughout the Park Service. Specifically it called for (1) a large, full-time, permanent staff of ecologists to conduct a broad spectrum of research (2) establishment of research reserves within various park environments from which visitors might be excluded and (3) flexible management of the parks responsive to the findings of these scientists. Finally, in a strong statement applauded by those who would see the parks turned from recreation grounds to biological reserves, Leopold and his committee wrote, "If too many tourists crowd the roadways then we should ration the tourists rather than expand the roadways." [70]

The impact of the "Leopold Report" was immediate and profound. Preservation organizations heralded it as a new dawn of intelligent and responsible parks management. Secretary Udall accepted the report and issued an order that its recommendations be followed. The slow recovery of biological research in the parks received a huge boost as each unit scrambled to review its ecological situation, establish research programs, and in many cases hire new scientists to implement them. The report has subsequently been called the "bible" of modern parks management. The board's recommendations institutionalized a philosophy in the Park Service and provided a framework for the organized expansion of science as a management tool. Before the Leopold Report, ecological data formed a relatively minor part of decision information. After acceptance of the Leopold Report, the goal of park management shifted from strict protection of objects found desirable by the public to an aggressive attempt to reestablish past ecosystems and unhindered natural processes. Gone was the philosophy of environmental manipulation toward human ideals of beauty, comfort, or anthropocentric value. In place came a structured attempt to recreate past scenes and situations regardless of implications for visitor appreciation. Although this did not happen overnight, the speed with which the Park Service shifted shocked many visitors, older park employees, and not a few superintendents. [71]

In Sequoia and Kings Canyon a resurgence of research and ecology-oriented management was already underway, albeit grudgingly. The reports and studies of human impact on Giant Forest and other sequoia groves, such as those of Hartesveldt and the Yosemite Committee, were only part of a gradual reawakening of interest in scientific data for parks administration. In 1954, Lowell Sumner had returned to assume a recreated position as park biologist. Once in place, he instituted several programs such as reduction of the population of mule deer, increased research on beavers and other exotics, investigations of bighorn sheep and other species with ranges that were threatened, and review of the always controversial issue of bear management. Just two months before release of the Leopold Report, Superintendent John Davis received permission and funding for a wildlife ranger position to assist the park biologist. [72]

The Leopold Report gave both real and psychological support to this growing agenda by providing funds and organizational backing as well as spotlighting the role of scientific research in park resource management. New positions were created and academically trained scientists quickly filled them, bringing a newer and louder voice of idealism based on ecological tenets. By the time of the 1971 master plan, Sequoia and Kings Canyon had a chief scientist, a research botanist, several wildlife ranger positions, plus assorted permanent and temporary research positions within a division of natural sciences. In addition, the parks had an ambitious research plan extending to all its resources and life zones, cooperative interagency projects with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and various state groups, and liaisons with university researchers for exchange of information. The parks had truly become part of the rapidly expanding research frontiers of the natural sciences. [73]

The direct impact of the Leopold Report on resource management practice within Sequoia and Kings Canyon varied depending on the program. Dr. Leopold and his colleagues confirmed many existing policies, while recommending that others be initiated. And in some cases, their recommendations overturned more than a century of resource management practice dating to prepark days in the American West. With amazing alacrity, however, it charted the very basis of park resource management to the singular goals of reestablishing the ecological scene that existed when, "the the forty-niners poured over the Sierra Nevada into California...," complete with original flora, fauna, and ecological dynamism. [74]

One example of a program in place in Sequoia and Kings Canyon which coordinated well with the advisory board's recommendations was the deer management program. The problem of overgrazing by deer, first addressed during the 1930s, had been exacerbated during ensuing decades by visitors who encouraged unnaturally high populations by constantly feeding the nearly tame deer that entered the campgrounds. During the low visitation seasons thereafter, those hungry deer obliterated the native vegetation, in some cases eliminating brush entirely from large sections of the two parks. [75] In 1943 Field Naturalist Joseph Dixon found the Giant Forest browse badly overused and implemented a plan to trap and remove deer to other ranges. However, that plan was ineffectual, taking only an average of 25 to 30 deer a year from a herd that probably exceeded 6,000 for the parks with possibly 1,000 in the Giant Forest area. Between 1947 and 1952, some 52 deer were killed by park officials upon orders of Acting Director Hilary Tolson, but even this drastic step was far too circumscribed to have any effect. [76]

Park Biologist Sumner took up the challenge upon his return to Sequoia and Kings Canyon, implementing a much more ambitious program of "direct reduction." Over the decade from 1955 to 1965 park rangers shot almost 900 deer, primarily pregnant does. [77] As expected, the program received some criticism from the public for two reasons. First, hunters in the surrounding communities were annoyed that the parks' administration often discarded the venison. The other criticism came from park visitors who on rare occasions stumbled across a park ranger in the act of killing a deer. The emotional letters that resulted from these incidents served to remind the Park Service of the resistance of the public to programs which ignored their fervently held and well-entrenched beliefs in park management for human ideals. [78]

With the release of the Leopold Report, Sumner and Dr. Bruce Kilgore, the parks' "research scientist," had been handed independent and prominent support for this aggressive program. This was precisely the management technique suggested by the advisory board for the Yellowstone elk and for other cases of ungulate overpopulation. Ironically, as money and personnel became more easily available, the program waned due to a combination of its own success and conditions outside the parks. From 1965 to 1970, the Park Service decreased annual deer kills by 80 percent to an average of fifteen animals a year. The program was discontinued thereafter, owing to a marked drop in the statewide population of mule deer. The deer management program, brutal though it may have seemed, accomplished its purpose. It reduced the herd to a level which allowed substantial recovery of the browse vegetation in the two parks. However, it relied on excessive and unpopular manipulation. The advisory board had planned on this as an acceptable technique, but park officials nevertheless continued to search for a way to emphasize natural controls rather than human ones. To that end, consistent as it was with the ultimate goal of management according to the Leopold Report, the Park Service beefed up programs of research and resource management aimed at fostering populations of mountain lion and other predators. The deer reduction program had been a scientifically established administrative plan which predated and fully implemented the Leopold proposals. Despite that, the zeal of park resource managers led them to look for better and more natural ways to approach that pioneer ecosystem. [79]

Lowell Sumner
For thirty years NPS biologist Lowell Sumner sought ways to minimize human impacts on the natural resources of the two parks. (National Park Service photo)

Numerous other research programs for wildlife management began as a result of the increased attention and funding brought about by the Leopold Report. Although most of the problems had been recognized and given cursory research attention in the past, they could now be tackled in a serious and systematic way. For example, the diminishing population of bighorn sheep had been recognized and charted since 1948. A large part of the problem arose from the fact that the native ungulate only spent summers in park territory, wintering on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. Increased research and a vigorous effort to promote cooperative interagency management led to agreements by 1970 to conduct research and by 1973 to manage the habitat for protection of the species regardless of agency jurisdiction. [80]

In the case of bear management, the Park Service continued to face its most complicated animal management problem. After the closing of the bear pit, bears deprived of their easy nightly handouts had foraged through campgrounds and concession areas in often fruitful nocturnal forays. In 1947, the Park Service had initiated evening garbage pickup which seemed to suppress the scavenging for a while. However, the problem continued to result in human contact with bears leading to property damage and an occasional injury. Through the 1950s, park rangers experimented with bearproof garbage facilities, education of the public, and destruction of offensive bears. The last measure became so institutionalized and simple a solution that during a three-year period from 1959 to 1961, sixty-one bears were killed. A drought occurred during those same years and contributed to a sudden and sharp decrease in the bear population.

After the Leopold Report, park biologists prepared a bear management plan. It authorized destruction of up to ten bears a year, thus placing a limit on the zeal of rangers to protect visitor property at the expense of wildlife. In addition, the plan proposed use of bearproof garbage cans and an expanded program to educate park visitors, and it mandated systematic and ongoing bear research. Although bear problems persist, the Park Service continues, with few modifications, to follow those management techniques. [81]

Yet another wildlife management program in the years after the Leopold Report focused on elimination of exotic species, many of which had been introduced deliberately by the Park Service during the early years. However, park scientists found these tasks easier to plan than to implement. Efforts to halt fish stocking, particularly of nonnative varieties of rainbow trout, were met with loud and immediate choruses of anger from sport fishermen and the efforts were abandoned temporarily. Studies of ways to remove alien bird species such as the brown-headed cowbird indicated that the task was probably beyond anyone's control by that time. In the case of the beaver, a major attempt to eradicate the species was attempted. Beaver had been introduced to the lower Kern River from 1949 to 1952, and subsequently had spread northward into the parks. A 1966 study estimated the population in the Kern drainage to be between 100 and 200 animals. Park biologists and rangers attempted to eradicate the beaver in 1969 and 1970, trapping some fifty of the rodents. However, the effort was not sustained and the population quickly reestablished itself. Although none of these efforts in wildlife management was particularly successful, they further demonstrated the commitment of the Park Service to the philosophy and policies of the Leopold Report. [82]

Of all the programs in resource management fostered by the advisory board's recommendations, none represented a more dramatic policy reversal or a more fundamental commitment to ecological dynamism than that of Park Service fire management. In deriving his conclusions on the harmful effects of humans and their structures on sequoia root systems, Richard Hartesveldt also found sequoia groves to be choked with dead and decaying fuel, the product of generations of vegetation rigorously preserved from natural fire. White fir and other understory trees crowded the sequoias and strangled their offspring. Past solutions to the mysterious lack of sequoia regeneration, such as the Ash Mountain Nursery and its associated planting program, would never overcome the problem. What Hartesveldt found, and communicated to the advisory board, was that fire suppression had flatly halted sequoia regrowth. In this case, supposed protection of the parks' primary resource, in a classic case of object preservation, actually had hindered protection of the species. [83]

The advisory board spent no small percentage of its short report commenting on the sequoia situation and, in fact, used it as a prime example of how overprotection of individuals had created a grossly unnatural scene, one that carried its own seeds of destruction. By the time of the Leopold Report, Hartesveldt had continued and expanded his research, compiling mounting evidence of the relationship between fire suppression and a lack of regeneration. As a byproduct, he showed the catastrophic results that would eventually occur because of the huge, unnatural fuel level below the Big Trees. By the end of 1963, his research had led to a plan to set fire deliberately to a small patch of sequoia-mixed conifer forest to test his hypotheses. [84]

The area chosen by Hartesveldt and his colleague Thomas Harvey was the Redwood Mountain Grove, part of the area brought into the park system in 1940. After carefully measuring the existing vegetation by biomass, species populations, fuel load, and other criteria, and carefully preparing to control the fire's extent, the team set the first fire in a sequoia grove in nearly seventy-five years. The results were startling. The fire reduced fuel concentrations by more than 50 percent, and months later dazzled the scientists with a veritable thicket of new, tiny sequoia seedlings. Most, of course, soon fell to various rigors of the environment, but the relatively hot fire established beyond doubt its role in sequoia regeneration and in keeping the sequoia forest open and "natural". [85]

With this success to bolster their research conclusions, park scientists recommended an ambitious program of returning fire to the parks, natural if possible, prescribed if necessary. Beginning in 1968, park rangers allowed fires in the high-altitude lodgepole pine and subalpine forest communities, generally above 8,000 feet, to burn themselves out naturally under close supervision. Because individual trees in these communities are widely spaced, uncontrollable and destructive conflagrations were highly unlikely. Also in 1968, rangers successfully experimented with an 800-acre prescribed burn in a red fir community. Once again they achieved spectacular results in reduction of fuel and invigoration of the community. A year later, officials fired more than 6,300 acres of fuel breaks in oak woodland, chaparral, ponderosa pine, and mixed conifer forests. In each case regeneration and reduced danger from subsequent larger fires were equally positive. In 1970, rangers brought fire to Cedar Grove to reduce downed limbs and duff in campgrounds and other developed areas. Finally, in 1972, they set up the first fully scheduled, long-term prescribed burn program in Redwood Mountain, still an experiment, but now in full-scale management proportions. Thus in a single decade, that most ardently held and rigorously enforced of all government forest-management beliefs was reversed on the basis of scientific data and the overwhelming impact of a single panel report. [86]


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