Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Nine:
New Directions and a Second Century


The Baby Boomers And The Backcountry

In the early years of the 1970s the demographics of the postwar "baby boom" led to an extraordinary assault on the backcountry resources of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. The combination of unprecedented numbers of young people, increasing environmental awareness, and great strides in the quality of backpacking equipment resulted in the single most drastic short-term use increase borne by the two parks during their first century. In 1962, 8,054 people entered the backcountry of the two parks; thirteen years later, the comparable figure totaled 48,207, an increase of nearly 600 percent.

By 1973, a decade of rapid growth in backcountry use had made the trend fully obvious to parks' management. Already, in July 1972, park officials had imposed daily use quotas on the popular Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park. During the winter of 1972-73, they worked rapidly on the new Backcountry Management Plan, to address these problems and update the 1963 plan. In May 1973, the Park Service released the new plan, and with it came bold new regulations aimed at tighter control of both human and stock use. [23] The plan established both seasonal and daily wilderness permit limits along with limits on total group size, length of stay per person, and the number of stock per party. New rules excluded campers from within 100 feet of water sources and from meadows and the grassy margins of lakes, prohibited open use of soap or detergents, and required that only dead and down wood be burned. Backpackers thenceforth were required to pack out all their trash. Park managers closed a number of areas to camping entirely and restricted access in the bighorn sheep areas near Sawmill, Baxter, and Shepherd passes to all but scientists or those with special permits. Stock-use capacity remained more loosely controlled, but several more meadows were ruled off limits. Of greatest significance, the new Backcountry Management Plan extended the permit/quota system to all of Kings Canyon National Park during 1973 and to both parks in 1974. Although the Park Service still strove to expand its protective control in the backcountry, the agency finally achieved there what it had shied away from in the frontcountry—limits on the number of visitors allowed on the land.

During the following decade backcountry managers continued to expand controls as particular problems became apparent. The issue of campfires soon grew to be a problem as the number of users remained high. In alpine areas wood grew so slowly that once consumed by campers it might take centuries to replace. As the 1970s proceeded, the Service closed one area after another to camp fires. Finally, the agency imposed broad-based restrictions that prohibited all fires above certain altitudes. Often the new problems demanded the addition of physical facilities, a fact that worried parks' officials as they attempted to maintain a wilderness atmosphere in the backcountry. The problem of bears, in particular, fueled wilderness management debates of the National Park Service. The great increase in human activity in the backcountry eventually attracted to the wilderness the same sort of bear activity that had long plagued frontcountry campgrounds in the two parks. As adaptable and intelligent animals, bears recognized that backpacker food justified summer forays into areas which previously had not supported them. Park Service responses, none of them truly successful, included seemingly endless attempts to teach the public how to hang food so that bears could not reach it, experiments with the design and manufacture of portable bearproof canisters, and installation of bear cables and ultimately bear boxes, both designed to separate bears from human food. Each of these tactics had its flaws, however. Visitor training efforts were not consistent enough in their results to discourage bears, and the introduction of physical measures like bear boxes led quickly to such heavy use at designated campsites that sanitation and congestion problems developed.

map of Sequoia and Kings Canyon wilderness
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Not all of the backcountry's needs could be resolved locally. In 1984, Congress finally took up again the long-standing question of wilderness status for the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. In that year Congress, formally designated 85 percent of the two parks as wilderness. This figure matched that proposed in the 1971 Master Plan, which had been savagely attacked at the time by the Sierra Club and other preservation groups. Their acceptance of the final proposal a dozen years later was due to several changes and factors. First, the final 1980 recommendation of the agency had eliminated the "swiss-cheese holes" which could, in theory, be later developed. In addition, the wilderness status of the two parks had really ceased to be a significant political issue, because the Park Service managed the lands in question as de facto wilderness, and would have had to consult the public through the NEPA process if it had decided to develop the area. Finally, the proposed designation had been attached to a much larger and more complex California Wilderness Bill. This both delayed passage and defused potential challenge of individual parts of the legislation. Thus, the Park Service and preservationists opted not to object when the final bill omitted several areas of Sequoia National Park that had been parts of previous wilderness proposals, including the Yucca Mountain/North Fork area west of the Generals Highway, the Hockett Meadow country, and all the alpine basins in the Mineral King addition. On the other hand, with the exception of the floor of Kings Canyon from Cedar Grove to Copper Creek, the entire main section of Kings Canyon National Park received wilderness designation.

Ironically, the most intense backcountry management controversies of the 1980s in the two parks did not come from backpackers, but rather from stock users, a group that represented barely 5 percent of backcountry users. In the early 1980s the Service initiated a new planning effort for the parks' backcountry that stirred up a great deal of controversy by attempting to place additional limits on stock use. In reality, the attempt reflected not a change in perceived resource impacts but a change in park standards. Prior to the 1960s, when backcountry use remained below 10,000 people a year and stock use comprised a major percentage of that use, the Service received few complaints about the impacts of horses and mules on trails and meadows. All this changed, however, with the arrival in the 1970s of tens of thousands of backpackers. Trail hikers responded angrily to muddy, stock-disturbed trails. Additional impetus came from the increasing realization that preservation of backcountry resources required careful attention to the impacts of exotic animals like horses and mules on fragile alpine vegetation. Perhaps park managers, who had become accustomed to dealing with fairly cooperative backpackers, underestimated the stubborn influence of the stock users.

The controversy arose from the efforts of the Service to update the parks' management plans for the backcountry. As the 1980s began, the 1963 Backcountry Management Plan remained technically in effect, together with its 1976 supplement. Backcountry use patterns and visitor expectations had changed so much during the 1970s, however, that the need for a new plan had become obvious. In February 1984, the Service released draft environmental assessments for both a new Backcountry Management Plan and a new Stock Use and Meadow Management Plan. In his news release about the two new complementary plans, Superintendent Boyd Evison announced a thirty-day public comment period. [24] However, instead of the quiet public support for the plans, which planners had come to expect in recent years, the park received strong protests from an organization of private stock users known as the High Sierra Stock Users Association (HSSUA). It demanded much more time to study and evaluate the Service's proposals. On March 29, Evison, under political pressure and sensing that public review of the two plans would not be as simple as previously hoped, announced that the review period would remain open for the remainder of the calendar year. No steps to implement the new plans would be made during that period. [25]

During the summer, distrust of the proposed plans mounted, despite the fact that the Service intended the plans as a mere clarification of needed backcountry controls. Particularly upsetting to private stock users were proposed new controls on when stock could be used in the backcountry and which of the parks' many meadows would be closed completely to grazing. Then in the fall, rumors began circulating among stock users that animal use would be phased out of the parks altogether. They responded furiously with letters and calls of protest. Critical among their complaints was the apparent lack of a connection between regulation or closure on one hand and demonstrated actual damage on the other.

By March 1986, when Regional Director Howard Chapman finally authorized implementation of the two plans, two full years had passed since the Service initiated what in had intended to be a mere thirty-day comment period. As finally authorized, the Stock Use and Meadow Management Plan in particular reflected a great deal of input from both private stock users and commercial packers. Through careful negotiations with user groups the Service eventually gained most of what it originally thought important, but the agency had suffered much negative criticism and substantial political pressure on behalf of the stock users. For the first time since the 1974 public meetings about Giant Forest, the Service had received significant public criticism of its plans. Several times during the previous decade, the parks successfully resolved difficult problems through public input from limited interest groups. When it issued drafts of the Backcountry Management Plan and accompanying Stock Use and Meadow Management Plan, the Service was reminded that sometimes the public that chose to pursue an issue could be critical and unsupportive of the government position. Another important issue came to light during the backcountry use controversies of the 1980s. Park management realized that backpackers, the user group they had expected to dominate the planning process, did not involve themselves to any significant degree. Several possible explanations were advanced, but perhaps the most significant was that the baby-boom generation had begun to age. Backcountry use dropped significantly in the middle 1980s. Following the peak year of 1975, when over 48,000 people entered the backcountry, annual use stabilized for a decade at approximately 42,000. Then, beginning in 1985, backcountry entries dropped and stayed below 40,000. In 1988 barely 32,000 people entered the Sequoia-Kings wilderness. As the decade ended, the demographic implications of wilderness management in an aging America were just beginning to sink in.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap9f.htm — 12-Jul-2004