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


Reappraisal: The Wilderness Backcountry

Of all the portions of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks subject to a reappraisal of resource management, perhaps the most profound changes occurred in the backcountry. This enormous area, almost 98 percent of the parks' total acreage, had suffered from an unfortunate combination of its own ecological fragility and severe abuse by prepark settlers and agriculturalists from adjacent lowlands. Early graphic descriptions of destruction and virtual defoliation were followed by studies during the 1930s and 1940s by Sumner, Armstrong, and others. They drew a bleak picture of meadow loss, alpine lake pollution, and erosion along trails. Yet, in spite of some continued grazing by cattle and pack stock, and a dramatic postwar rise in backcountry use, the decades of inaccessibility to the teeming masses of autobound public had allowed the backcountry to survive, gravely injured in spots but not mortally. A follow-up study of the Roaring River Grazing District in Kings Canyon during 1947 showed that the meadows and woodlands could recover if managed carefully with as little human and animal traffic as possible. [87]\

Over the next twenty-five years, the rise of science and shift in management goals and policies would come earliest to the backcountry and go furthest there toward the ideals expressed in the Leopold Report. There were four types of issues that faced backcountry rangers and park biologists—controlling the numbers and impact of people in the backcountry; reconciling structures, campsites and other paraphernalia in an area of officially avowed "wilderness;" managing the effects of stock use and some cattle grazing on the delicate and still damaged meadows; and achieving official designation of the backcountry as a legal wilderness area. Management began with tentative research and a search for ways to control human and stock use. By 1960 it had evolved to active management controls which nevertheless still allowed unlimited visitor access, and thereafter responded to a flood of new backcountry enthusiasts by turning rapidly to strict controls including visitor rationing.

Despite the meager funds available, several important studies of backcountry status were conducted between 1947 and 1952. Their importance in turning Park Service attention to backcountry problems far outweighed the actual value of their scientific conclusions. First, in 1948 biologist Lowell Sumner, then working from the regional office, conducted a review of tourist damage to mountain meadows since his earlier 1936 report. [88] Sumner found conditions largely unimproved and recommended immediate action lest the deterioration of some meadows reach an irreversible stage. Four years later, Ranger Bruce Black submitted a second follow-up study of the Roaring River Grazing District. [89] In comparing the region over a decade, Black found that while some meadows had remained static and a few had even improved, in most instances serious and easily observable decline had continued. Although Black's immediate supervisor took issue with the degree of pessimism in his report, its conclusions were widely read and discussed among park administrators. [90]

Hard on the heels of the Roaring River study came a much more extensive Back Country Use Report compiled by Black, Assistant Chief Ranger John Rutter and others. [91] The report had required three years of field study in Sequoia and Kings Canyon and addressed grazing, camping, trail maintenance, stock use, and many other concerns. In total, the report was not excessively negative. The authors called sanitation and camping issues irritations rather than serious problems. In both parks meadow damage was not yet severe, although invasion by weeds and trees was widespread, thought to be the result of overgrazing. To control camping, Black and his colleagues suggested constructing campgrounds at six backcountry sites and removing the dozens of visitor-built sites scattered through the parks. They also proposed a detailed annual program for maintenance of trails; construction of six new high-country trails, ranging in length from three to more than twenty miles, to absorb increased visitor usage; and establishment of nine new ranger stations to house a larger backcountry staff who could better patrol the region.

Although the tone of the Back Country Use Report was generally optimistic, the authors were explicit in their proposals and cautionary in their conclusion:

There is no reason to believe that we cannot stop all damaging practices; that meadows cannot be restored; that camps cannot be clean and appropriate; that fisheries cannot be maintained; and that the Wilderness Atmosphere cannot be preserved. A start has been made and if aggressively pursued, the end product will be gratifying to everyone concerned. [92]

Understated and between the lines of this conclusion were the increasingly obvious facts that damaging practices were occurring, meadows needed restoration, camps were not clean or appropriate, and that the wilderness atmosphere was in jeopardy. Park Biologist Lowell Sumner urged caution and deliberation in constructing camps and ranger stations, but enthusiastically supported the rest of the report. [93]

Even before Black's two reports joined those of Sumner and Armstrong, park officials had begun to look for ways to ameliorate damage and crowding in the backcountry. One way park rangers could control stock use was by limiting the number of concession packers and their horses in the backcountry. Because they were concession operators, making a profit on park resources, they could be controlled where individual stock users could not. Park officials exercised this power on an organization known as the Three Corners Round Outfit. This group, founded by employees of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, brought teenage boys into the mountains each summer to teach them skills in stock riding and care, camping and wilderness practices, trail building, shooting, and, incidentally, natural history, all at a cost of about $400 per boy. In 1951 Superintendent Scoyen received a number of complaints that this group, consisting of fourteen boys and two men, had more than forty burros which had virtually eliminated the forage in the Sixty-Lakes area. This was not the first time complaints had been received about this group and after consultation with the regional office, local packers, and the Sierra Club, Scoyen declared the group to be a concession and slapped a limit on their operation. Two years later, the Three Corners Round Outfit would again fall foul of park rangers for refusing to stop building their own trails in the Kings Canyon high country, for stocking fish in park lakes, for shooting firearms in the parks, and for indiscriminate collection of animals and plants. Three Corners Round owners had been operating in this fashion for more than twenty years and were deeply aggrieved, but nonetheless they complied when ordered to desist. [94]

pack mules
Until the advent of helicopters, backcountry operations in Sequoia and Kings Canyon depended entirely upon strings of pack mules. Here mules ascend the north side of Forester Pass on the Kings-Kern Divide. (National Park Service photo)

At the same time that the Three Corners Round Outfit was confronted, the Park Service began to look for ways to improve or close one of the more degenerate backcountry camps. Located just inside the park's southeast boundary on the Kern River, Camp Lewis (or Coterno) consisted of six tent cabins, a tent-top dining room, and a log structure housing a store and a kitchen. Its condition was variously reported as "flimsy," "unsightly," and "beyond repair." Park officials insisted that the owner, as a concessioner, clean and repair his camp whereupon, in 1952, he cheerfully gave up any claim to the camp. Park officials razed and removed most of the facilities the following spring. [95]

Controlling the Three Corners Round Outfit and eliminating Camp Lewis were steps in the right direction, but small steps in what rangers recognized as a long journey. By 1950, intense discussions among park officials centered on the concept of placing restrictions on the backcountry which would go well beyond those already in place in the frontcountry. Although use of the parks by pack stock had fallen by 40 percent between 1947 and 1952 the reports by Black served further notice on meadow damage as well as other problems related to people and horses. In 1952, Park Naturalist Howard Stagner proposed regulation of the number of stock per visitor, the size of an individual party and length of stay, plus stipulations against trail building, fish planting, and dirty camps. He also proposed indefinite closing of certain meadows to stock use. Some of these proposals were new, many were not. They mirrored the concerns and ideas of most rangers who worked and studied the backcountry. [96]

The problem with implementing these recommendations arose from two sources. First, stock-user associations resented and feared any control on their activity. The backcountry had persisted as an area of free activity, a virtual frontier, well beyond the settled low country and road-accessible portions of the mountains. Any type of restriction on use of the backcountry was viewed as another attempt to box in and regulate to death the last vestiges of pioneer America. The East Side and West Side Packers associations numbered in their membership important and often powerful individuals including several congressmen, assorted state and local legislators, and many wealthy businessmen and landowners. The Park Service could ill afford to anger these vocal and powerful groups. [97]

At the same time, and of even greater concern, there was a general lack of funds in this pre-Mission 66 administration to enforce any regulations. For years, while visitors and park employees bemoaned the decay of frontcountry structures, roads, and visitor contact facilities, rangers likewise worried about backcountry trail maintenance and law enforcement. Chief Ranger Irwin Kerr sent a stream of memoranda and letters through channels seconding the need for regulation but wondering who would patrol these new campgrounds, restricted lakes and meadows, and miles of new trails. After release of the Back Country Use Report, Superintendent Scoyen sent it on to the director in hopes that increases in funding and labor allotments might be forthcoming. However, in November 1953, Assistant Director Thomas Allen responded with an all too familiar recommendation:

It will probably not be feasible to carry out...all of the recommendations that we may agree are necessary.... Some of the proposals, however, can be put into execution without additional funds or personnel by giving them greater emphasis in the overall Park program. [98]

In the face of deterioration of the parks' natural resources as well as its visitor and government facilities, the Park Service could do no more than encourage stretching overtaxed labor and insufficient funds even further.

After 1953 a hiatus set in, although park rangers continued to compile status reports on backcountry resources and problems. Park officials did close a few severely damaged meadows, yet at the same time a steady rise of visitors increased pressure on the remainder. By 1955, Kerr estimated that backcountry visitors had more than doubled in the previous decade, due in part to a new high-speed highway connecting Los Angeles with Owens Valley and its eastern and shortest approaches to the high country. He further estimated that nearly all that increase came in the form of backpackers. Questions about policy, about purpose, and about the quality of the wilderness experience repeatedly arose from visitors and organizations, particularly the Sierra Club. [99]

The year 1958 marked a shift into higher gear for resolution of the parks' backcountry problems. Former concession packer Hugh Traweek applied for a permit to reestablish his business in Kings Canyon. He had sold his former operation and the new owner was happily making a profit. Traweek was a popular and able packer, well-liked by other stock users, by the public, and by park officials. Yet their appraisal of resource quality and carrying capacity caused those officials to reject his application. For the next three years Traweek engaged in a test of wills by calling in every ally and potential friend he could find to force the Park Service to capitulate. Senators, congressmen, a governor, assorted wealthy nabobs, and a host of former customers besieged the park with letters of support for Traweek. Through it all, with the backing of the regional office, local Park Service officers stood fast in rejecting his application. They had no beef with Traweek, but could not morally justify stripping another packer of his concession and would not sanction an increase of pack stock business in the most delicate and damaged portion of the backcountry. [100]

Also during 1958, the Sierra Club conducted a highly touted and publicized drive to remove trash from two popular lakes in the Kings Canyon backcountry. In a few days they collected more than three tons of trash from the two lakeshores. Through the 1950s the Sierra Club had taken an ever greater interest in backcountry management and ecology. They instituted a series of discussions and studies aimed at determining whether their own large pack trips were excessively harmful. Although initial results indicated that the effect per person was lower in a large party, they continued to sponsor these studies over the next fifteen years. In the case of this trash collection, the club performed a valuable and symbolic gesture. Within weeks the Park Service began to study ways to collect the trash accumulated over the entire 840,000 plus-acre backcountry and initiated a campaign to have visitors carry out their own bottles and cans. For decades the policy had been to burn and bury trash, flattening the cans and breaking bottles if possible. In many cases, this trash resurfaced at popular camping areas a few months or years later. [101]

Supt. Scoyen and Dir. Wirth
Superintendent Scoyen and Director Wirth ponder the rugged heart of Kings Canyon National Park. (National Park Service photo)

Finally, also in 1958, the Park Service commissioned biologist Dr. Carl W Sharsmith to conduct a major study of the status of backcountry meadows. Once again the Park Service appealed to a trained scientist to help determine management policy. In his study, released the following year, Sharsmith reported that meadows were undergoing serious decline or change throughout the parks but particularly in the area known as the Rae Lakes Loop which encompasses the Paradise and Bubbs Creek trails from Kearsarge Pass to Kings Canyon. [102] Bullfrog Lake, one of the nearest to the easily accessible pass, was a virtual catastrophe. Almost every meadow from 6,000 to 8,500 feet was being invaded by weeds, lodgepole pine, or both. Sharsmith recommended revolutionary steps, including complete exclusion of camping and other activities at Bullfrog Lake, restrictions on the size of stock parties, construction of camp and latrine facilities to concentrate human impact, prohibition of "base camps," encouragement of the practice of packing out one's trash, and finally loose herding of stock. Loose herding meant allowing horses or mules to wander in a general direction over a broad area rather than confining them in single or double file along a narrow trail where they would damage trails and overgraze forage. [103]

Sharsmith's report convinced the Park Service to take more assertive steps to redress backcountry problems. The following season, 1960, marked the first time park officials restricted campers from an area. Not only were tourists to avoid Bullfrog Lake but the nearby Kearsarge Lakes as well. Backcountry rangers estimated that in the previous seven seasons, annual visitor use of these areas had averaged 26,000 camper days and 2,100 stock-use days, all on about thirty acres. [104] As reports of a major Inyo County program to repave and extend mountain access roads reached the parks' administration, it restricted stock use in six meadows in Kings Canyon National Park, commenced an annual backcountry trash cleanup drive, and initiated a study to devise a comprehensive backcountry management plan. The study would not only direct Sequoia and Kings Canyon, but also serve as a model for all the nation's parks with extensive wilderness areas. [105]

The Backcountry Management Plan for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks was released a year later. [106] Park Service scientists Maurice Thede, Lowell Sumner, and ranger William Briggle completed an exhaustive literature review and three lengthy field trips in composing what became a major philosophical as well as practical guide to backcountry management. The scientists began with the basics. They defined wilderness, conservation, and carrying capacity, and discussed such concepts as the ultimate goal of conservation, what type of people used the wilderness, and wilderness protection versus personal freedom. Thereafter, they launched into specific recommendations, many of which echoed Sharsmith's proposals. Additionally, however, they suggested an increased ranger force, a vigorous program of meadow and camping area exclusions, an interagency approach to backcountry tourist management, and construction of seven relatively large and permanent "rustic camps" each with fireplace, tables, hitching rack and pit toilet. They also suggested that the Park Service use helicopters rather than pack stock as the least disruptive management tools. The Backcountry Management Plan became the blueprint for Sequoia and Kings Canyon over the next decade. Park rangers restricted the meadows Thede and company had proposed for exclusion, and instituted a program of regular meadow monitoring for future management decisions. Two new ranger positions created in 1961 allowed the parks to undertake a systematic backcountry cleanup. Employees and volunteers removed fourteen tons of tin cans and buried six tons of other trash in the first year alone. The cleanup program continued until 1967, when it was deemed a success. Annual backcountry reports apprised the park administration of problem areas, trail maintenance requirements, and ecological recovery or degeneration. Until 1965, park foresters removed lodgepole pines that encroached on damaged meadows. However, park biologists, responding to the Leopold Report, halted this action to conduct studies of succession and find out if this was a natural process. [107] In 1969, the Park Service dropped plans for backcountry shelters and the following year removed most of the remaining backcountry telephone lines. Although the number of maintained trail miles fluctuated periodically with budget constraints, it was allowed to fall from 952 to 755 during the decade. Piece by piece, area by area, the Park Service edged toward a truer but more regulated "wilderness" backcountry. [108]

The environmental consciousness-raising of the sixties paid off for Sequoia and Kings Canyon with a concerted steady shift of management attitude toward regulation, exclusion, and whatever other policies were necessary to foster ecological viability of backcountry resources. The Backcountry Management Plan, Leopold Report, and passage of the federal Wilderness Act assisted that philosophical evolution. That same environmental movement, however, propelled thousands of new backpackers, hungry for wilderness experience, into the fragile alpine reaches of the two parks. From 1962 to 1971, the number of people who officially entered the backcountry jumped from slightly over 8,000 to more than 44,000 while visitor days increased from 57,000 to well over 200,000. [109] By 1970 it was clear that even the recommendations of the 1961 management plan were out of date. Research for a new backcountry management plan commenced amidst discussion of a variety of relatively extreme measures.

The next year of decision came in 1972. Research for the new plan was well underway. In addition, an in-depth study by Richard Hartesveldt, Thomas Harvey, and J.T. Stanley on behalf of the Sierra Club recommended stronger action including regulations for use of kerosene cookery instead of wood stoves, for carrying out all trash including organic matter, and for designating outing itineraries to avoid overuse of popular areas. [110] A few months later, Regional Director Howard Chapman suggested that the parks study a newly published NPS report on regulating for carrying capacity in wilderness areas. [111] But the local parks administration had already taken some of these steps by the time the corroborating correspondence and interim research reports had reached them. In July 1972, at the start of the main backcountry season, the Park Service and Forest Service began issuing interagency wilderness permits in place of the old campfire permits—an effort to control all access to the parks' backcountry from both east and west sides. The heavily traveled Rae Lakes Loop was declared a control zone and limits were placed on the number of permits issued to that popular area. This was a test of procedure and public reaction to be followed by more extensive permit regulations if successful. To the pleasure of park officials, the new plan was accepted with few complaints. The public by and large seemed to understand the need for controls in the interest of protecting the resource. [112]

As the Park Service edged toward total visitor control in its wilderness backcountry, a related issue unfolded during the 1960s. In 1964, after years of urging by preservationist groups and some sportsmen's societies, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. [113] By this act legislators could designate portions of federal lands which exhibited "wilderness" character as so-named areas. Wilderness was defined in the act as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,...of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence..." Within these "wilderness areas," the act banned any form of development such as timber cutting, mining and quarrying, and all roads. [114] But to qualify for wilderness status, the proposed area had to be free of these features at the start. Of course, the vast majority of Sequoia and Kings Canyon met these criteria easily. Under instructions from the Washington office, park officials began to formulate specific recommendations for how much of the parks' land should be included in wilderness and thus be legally immune from any future development.

Given the evolving attitude within the parks toward backcountry preservation, it would seem that the matter could have been settled easily and quickly. However, in addition to its definition of wilderness and the regulations against development, the act also provided for public participation in the planning procedure. This was an act that rigidly proscribed economic use of large tracts of public land. Legislators wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to offer his or her comments on how large an area should be so designated. The public review procedure could be lengthy and the debate fairly intense. The Forest Service moved rapidly on its lands, designating by 1966 a large, alpine portion of the adjacent Sierra and Inyo national forests as the John Muir Wilderness Area. However, the Park Service, an agency far more committed to absolute preservation than its Department of Agriculture rival, seemed to have problems with the process.

Initial hearings for the proposed wilderness area of the two parks took place on November 21 and 22, 1966. Fifty people testified and 477 letters and documents were accepted. The Park Service had proposed an area of 740,165 acres or 87 percent of the parks' then total 847,194 acres. Conspicuously absent from the proposed area were Redwood Mountain, classified as a scientific reserve for the continuing prescribed burn experimentation, and the Yucca Mountain region in the foothills of Sequoia National Park. The Sierra Club and other preservation organizations favored up to 98 percent of the parks' land in wilderness and, in all, more than nine of every ten respondents wanted more land in the wilderness area than the Park Service had proposed. Some 2 percent wanted less or no land in wilderness and the rest went along with the Park Service plan. A few organizations interested in a planned ski development at Mineral King resisted wilderness designation for park lands surrounding that valley and adjacent to its only access route, the Mineral King Road through Sequoia. However they were perfectly content to increase wilderness area designation elsewhere in the two parks. Despite the overwhelming response in favor of greater wilderness acreage, the confusion over details temporarily shelved the whole proposal. [115]

After some rethinking, further discussion with interested groups, and more detailed planning, local park officials forwarded a new proposal to the regional office in March 1967. In this proposal, Redwood Mountain (also called Redwood Canyon) and Yucca Mountain were included as wilderness, but a buffer strip along the Mineral King Road and around the proposed ski development was removed. The new proposal totaled 768,515 acres or 91 percent of the parks. Local officials confidently awaited approval, but a few months later objections to the Mineral King exclusions and initiation of study for a new master plan once again postponed further action. [116]

With the release of the parks' master plan in 1971, the public began to review yet a third proposal for wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. During the master plan study, park officials had become extremely rigid about their interpretation of the Wilderness Act. In this latest proposal, planners had excluded small areas surrounding any and all visitor facilities including overnight shelters and sanitation facilities. On the map this created a wilderness region with so-called "swiss cheese holes" of development. In addition, planners excluded a strip along the Mineral King Road and an area around Alta Peak where a tramway was being considered. The total acreage of the new proposal was 721,970 acres or 85 percent of the parks' land, the lowest total up to that time. The Park Service then began another round of public hearings and correspondence, which met with savage attack by preservation organizations. Each area excluded from wilderness status was an area that could potentially be developed further. The "swiss cheese" look of this latest plan left opportunity for development to be scattered throughout the parks. Soon it became apparent to the Park Service that this round of simple hearings was going to take much longer and be much more acrimonious than they had hoped. By the end of 1972, the debate still raged. As the Park Service continued to shift its backcountry management priorities toward wilderness preservation, its proposals for the legalization of that "wilderness" status continued to arouse impassioned conflict among backcountry enthusiasts. [117] In 1984 Congress would settle the issue with much less political turmoil, as the next chapter will discuss.

The profound changes witnessed over these twenty-five years of backcountry resource management gave fitting evidence of the full implications of the rise of science in Park Service philosophy. Because the region had hitherto escaped severe use, its resource policy was the easiest to change. Because its users were unusually preservation-oriented themselves, they would suffer the constraints of exclusion and permits. Because the resource so easily showed stress, the evidence favoring ecological management was patently obvious. In the backcountry the revolution personified by Sumner, Armstrong, Hartesveldt, and Cain, codified by the Leopold Report, and bolstered by hundreds of smaller studies and reports sent the first shock waves that would freeze the parks as ecological islands in their time.

map of wilderness proposals
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap8f.htm — 12-Jul-2004