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


Resources Management & Research Come of Age

The 1971 Master Plan listed as a goal the expansion of the parks' "resource-management program." Only a few years earlier the concept had not even existed. The 1963 Leopold Report committed the Park Service to a fundamental change of direction in managing natural resources. The new goal was preservation of natural scenes and systems in as near a state as possible to that found at the time of Caucasian entry into the area. However, at Sequoia and Kings Canyon there existed a large gap between stating such a goal and achieving it.

As noted previously, the Service's early response to the Leopold Report at Sequoia-Kings focused principally on giant sequoia ecology and especially on the trees' relationship to natural fire. By the middle 1970s, as a ten-year research effort drew to a close, the challenge became how to implement what had been learned. In the light of the Leopold policies, much of the parks' first century of management had been seriously misguided. The suppression of nearly all fire represented the greatest of these mistakes. Other obvious problems included the clash of bears and campers in development areas, the effects of intense human recreation on forests, and the ominous and increasing specter of air pollution. In 1976, in accordance with the Master Plan, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks separated several employees and programs from various park work units and reconstituted them as the "Division of Natural Resources Management." Resource officers were directed to manage the physical interaction between parks' visitors and the parks' natural resources. At the end of the year, Sequoia and Kings Canyon published the Natural Resources Management Plan and Environmental Assessment, the parks' first comprehensive plan for limiting and correcting human damage. [26] This plan called for a wide variety of overdue actions including a full inventory of the giant sequoias in the parks, implementation of a natural fire program, hazard tree abatement, bear management, exotic animal control, water quality monitoring, and campground revegetation. Another part of the plan identified necessary natural science research projects. Responsibility for this program fell largely to the parks' research scientist, a position first filled in 1968 with a fire ecologist. Completion of an integrated resources management plan marked the final shift at Sequoia and Kings Canyon from visual to ecological management, a change that had tentatively begun several decades earlier with the Meinecke studies of the Big Trees and was formally chartered by the Leopold board in 1963.

During the following decade the Sequoia-Kings resource management program and its smaller companion, the natural science research program, faced rapidly increasing work loads. During the 1970s, management of natural and man-made fire dominated the resource management program. Before they ended in 1974, the Hartesveldt experiments in Redwood Canyon established the necessity of repeated fire to both giant sequoia reproduction and natural fuel management. In response, the 1976 Resources Management Plan confirmed the 1968 decision which designated almost 600,000 acres of the two parks as a "natural fire zone." In such a zone natural fires would be monitored but otherwise allowed to burn unimpeded, as long as they did not threaten facilities, recreational users, or parks' boundaries. During the next several years a number of natural fires burned thousands of acres of backcountry with the largest acreage coming in the Sugarloaf/Roaring River country of southern Kings Canyon National Park. At the same time a program of deliberate fires began in the more accessible sequoia groves and especially in Giant Forest, where annual fires occurred starting in 1979. Park managers called these fires "prescribed burns" because they were perceived as a prescribed therapy for forests which had accumulated unnatural amounts of woody fuel and because they occurred only "under prescription," that is only under carefully specified environmental conditions. The fires usually reduced both accumulated fuels and the density of the forest stand to levels similar to those hypothesized to have existed in the early nineteenth century.

During the early 1980s, as the effects of the prescribed burn program began to spread across the landscape, the program generated both strong support and equally impassioned opposition. To most ecologists, and even to many parks' visitors, reintroduction of fire into the sequoia groves was a logical process that added value to the groves by making them more natural. To these fire supporters, the scorched giant sequoia bases and sometimes drastically thinned forest were nothing more than a return to the way things ought to be. Only a few ecologists questioned the return of fire, and their concerns were not about the appropriateness of the goal, but rather the ability of fire as a natural process to effectively restore a forest so changed by mankind. Other park visitors, however, found the entire process visually and ethically objectionable. Often these individuals perceived the groves as "natural cathedrals"—places where any man-made change was a change for the worse. Eventually, in 1985-86, the level of criticism grew so intense that it required a public airing. On June 30, 1986, a public review of the prescribed fire program began at Lodgepole in Sequoia National Park. To sift through the comments and draw them together into recommendations for future action, the Park Service created a special committee, consisting entirely of non-Park Service personnel and chaired by Dr. Norm Christiansen of Duke University. The committee visited a number of recent prescribed burns and listened to both criticism and support for the program. In March 1987 the committee, dominated by ecologists, released a report suggesting only minor modifications in the parks' fire management program. [27] Ultimately the gap between those who supported prescribed burning and those who described it as "government vandalism" could not be bridged through even the careful efforts of a scientific panel. Antiburn forces challenged not technical methods but rather the philosophical premises supporting the fire program. Thus, the Park Service again was forced to recognize that abrupt shifts in management philosophy, such as the Leopold Report and the infusion of ecology-trained managers, could stir a backlash from those who had accepted older, traditional policies.

Under the supervision of the division of natural resources management, activity also increased significantly in the area of wildlife management. With the Giant Forest deer crisis resolved and almost forgotten, new problems demanded attention. Programs began to protect native fish and reestablish additional herds of the sadly reduced native bighorn sheep. But no other wildlife issue received as much attention during the period as the interaction between black bears and park visitors. In the aftermath of the Leopold Report, a new perspective slowly took hold. The new position held that bears must be managed as wild animals, not as semi-tame camp followers. From this position came a prolonged and problem-laden effort to separate bears from human foods. First came "bear-proof" garbage cans, standard trash cans held in place by solid pipes topped with heavy lids which opened like mail boxes. These cans, within a few seasons, largely accomplished their task of raking garbage away from bears. Unfortunately, this did not cause bears to stop searching for human food. Instead, marauding bears shifted their search patterns to focus on less well-protected food supplies. The new weak spot turned out to be automobiles. For decades campers had been trained to hide their food from bears by placing it in their cars. This policy had worked reasonably well as long as garbage was easily available. With access to garbage now denied, however, the bears turned to cars with a vengeance. By the early 1980s, damage to automobiles by bears approached $100,000 annually. Eventually, park managers adopted an idea first tried in Yosemite, and installed bearproof metal lockers in each campground in the frontcountry of the two parks. Although the bear boxes definitely slowed down the bears, no one was willing to wager that the problem had been resolved for good.

The late 1970s and early 1980s also witnessed confirmation of a new and potentially devastating resource threat within the parks—air pollution. During the 1960s visibility in the San Joaquin Valley areas west of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks dropped noticeably, reflecting the rapidly increasing levels of human activity in the area. By the late 1960s, many summer days passed in Visalia without the towering wall of the Sierra being visible at all. In the following decade visibility loss in the parks became more commonplace, especially in the western third of Sequoia. Concern began to develop that air pollution, which consisted of a complex mix of dust, auto exhaust, farm chemicals, and industrial emissions from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area, might also have a biological effect. By 1980 this proved to be true, with ozone damage similar to that already identified in the mountains of southern California becoming clearly visible. Several years later an elaborate state study demonstrated that the alpine zone of the two parks was potentially at risk from acid rain during the summer, when thunderstorms pulled up smog from the lowlands and mixed chemically active pollutants with rainwater. Yet another study in the same years suggested that sequoia seedlings suffered significant damage from ozone pollution. The identification of these problems opened a new chapter in the long history of resource protection in the two parks. For the first time, the source of a problem which threatened park resources was outside the parks' boundaries and thus outside Park Service control.

Closely tied to the growing resources management program during the 1970s and 1980s was the smaller but equally important natural science research program. Most of the program's early efforts focused on fire, but by the mid-1970s a broader and more eclectic approach appeared. This reflected the parks' need for information on a wide variety of issues ranging from wilderness impacts to stock grazing and black bear behavior. Additional major projects during the 1980s included support for the state's air quality work, a resurgence of giant sequoia work focusing on natural fire frequency and reproduction, and attempts to reconstruct the paleoecology of the Sierra. By the late 1980s, a decade of work by Park Service scientists and cooperating research institutions had significantly enhanced the ability of parks managers to understand their increasingly complex resource situation. Perhaps the most ambitious and complex program undertaken by the research office during the 1980s was the development of a geographic information system (GIS). Taking advantage of the power of computerization, the GIS project aimed to collect and refine all the parks' many decades of resource information into one centralized computer system that stored and presented the information in a geographical framework. As a part of the same project the parks began an ambitious and detailed full inventory of vascular plants and vertebrate animals—a step long overdue in the face of modern management demands. At the same time additional encouragement and support were given no outside-supported research designed to increase knowledge of parks' resources. This was in sharp contrast to earlier years when managers believed that most research such as tree coring or animal drugging had too severe an impact on the physical resources of the parks.

In the last two decades of their century the two parks, while faced with rapidly accelerating resource threats, nevertheless attempted to realize the vision contained in the Leopold Report. Through small but professional staffs in the division of natural resources management and the research office, Sequoia-Kings Canyon aggressively pursued the elusive goal of shifting towards a more ecological and systemic version of resource preservation and management. However, during the tight budget times of the Carter and Reagan presidencies, the Park Service tried to implement and increase professional resource management and research programs without any significant reduction in visitor services. All too often the result was a program of resource management and research that reacted to problems instead of anticipating what might happen next to the increasingly isolated and fragile resources of the two parks.

After a Century of Protection

Ultimately, the success or failure of a national park may be evaluated in several ways. A park can be measured against the degree to which it succeeds in achieving the goals of its creators. By another standard, the park can be rated by its ability to preserve the natural features and systems it contains. By the first measure, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks have succeeded impressively during their first century, achieving fully the goals expressed in the legislation of 1890, 1926, and 1940. When the second standard is used, however, the situation is more complex, for in neither park have resource managers succeeded in the complete preservation of natural resources. At the end of a hundred years of protection by the U.S. Army, the Department of Interior and the National Park Service, the natural resources of the two parks are better protected than those in any other portion of the southern Sierra. Yet, they are also more threatened than ever before. Many measures have been developed to protect the parks, including strict geographic and size limits on facilities, a management philosophy increasingly focused on preserving all of the parks' natural elements, and growing resource management and research programs. But, at the same time, threats to the parks have increased. They include ever heavier visitation, the resistance of certain groups to curtailment of their traditional uses within the parks, continuing wholesale changes on adjacent and nearby lands, the recognition that the parks have become fragile biological islands, and the potential direct harm to the biological resources of the two parks which now come from outside both the parks' boundaries and the political control of parks' management.

After a century of government control, thirty-five years of unrestrained European resource assault, and several thousand years of Native American occupation, what is the state of the land? How have the varying perceptions, manipulations, and management ideals affected the human-defined region known as Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks? Let us conclude by surveying the resources in segments and in total. Let us also contemplate the concepts of "national park" and preservation in light of what has happened.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap9g.htm — 12-Jul-2004