Challenge of the Big Trees
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NATIONAL PARKS ARE MORE THAN LAND, more than just protected resources, more than policy or law, more than their histories, more than the people who use and love them. Our national parks are places where the people of the United States have undertaken a great and still-evolving experiment. Can a modern society preserve "unimpaired" not just isolated natural features, but entire natural ecosystems while at the same time intensively using them for recreation? Further, should these idealistic goals be pursued through gentle, hands-off protection, or through intense and persistent management? Is it possible to define at what point human use begins to conflict significantly with effective resource preservation? Should the natural ecosystems in national parks be allowed to evolve unimpeded towards some uncertain, but natural, future, or should they be stabilized or frozen to perpetuate the features or systems that attracted public attention to the park in the first place?

More than a century after the initiation of this grand American experiment, none of these questions has really been answered. Perhaps in the definitive sense they never will be. Each national park, however, has contributed in its own way to the ongoing debate about what parks really are and how they should be managed. The national park system and the Service that operates it have received increasing attention from scholars in recent years, yet few of these studies have focused in depth on the history of individual parks. It is a premise of this book that our understanding of the national park system can be significantly improved by detailed appraisals at the individual park level. There are two reasons for this: first because the origins of many systemwide policies can be found in episodes and conflicts within individual parks, and second, because the addition of park-level detail refines the picture we have of the entire parks system and the political forces that spawned it. In this light the histories of the oldest national parks are perhaps the most significant. Created well before the national park idea was clearly codified and long before the dawn of ecological biology, these parks have been the scenic battlegrounds where the critical and defining issues that still haunt the parks were first articulated and considered.

Several early national parks, notably Yellowstone and Yosemite, have received prolonged and serious attention from historians and other students of the national park idea. Other parks have not been so fortunate, although their stories are every bit as important. Two of these occupy and protect the spectacular southern climax of California's Sierra Nevada. Here on the rugged flanks of the highest mountains in the forty-eight contiguous states, grow the largest living things of our planet—the incomparable giant sequoias. And surrounding them is a land of enormous scenic and biological fascination, a land that has captured the imagination and spirit of uncountable numbers of people.

Today, the two national parks of the southern Sierra Nevada are know as Sequoia and Kings Canyon. In 1890, when the U.S. Congress first set them aside as the second and fourth parks of the system, they were known as Sequoia and General Grant national parks. A century has now passed since that event. During that century, much more than is realized, Sequoia, General Grant, and later Kings Canyon repeatedly played critical roles in the evolution of modern national park philosophy and management. Within these parks precedents were set that still bear fruit throughout the American park system. This book is the story of these two parks and their first century of existence.

If the critical question about national parks is "how has humanity perceived and modified the land according to its evolving values," then the state of the land itself becomes the primary historical record. Thus, in this book we shall describe through time the changing state of the lands and ecosystems that are now Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Over a century, how have individual people, and the societies they lived in, acted upon the southern Sierra? What did they assume? What did they value? What impact did they have on the land and the ecosystems; and how did this affect subsequent perception of resources and values? Our geographical focus, as noted, will be the lands now within the two national parks we seek to understand. But just as the modern national parks cannot stand fully divorced and separated from the surrounding worlds, neither can our study of them ignore adjoining lands. We shall, therefore, out of necessity, place the two parks in a larger historical and geographical perspective. We will watch and document the fate of the mountain lands which now surround the parks. We will observe also the valley lands to the west of the parks, for their fates also are inseparable from the parks.

The two parks themselves fall mostly into three definable regions or watersheds. The western half of Sequoia, west of the rugged alpine ridge known as the Great Western Divide, is drained by the five forks of the Kaweah River. East of the Great Western Divide, the other half of Sequoia National Park is the headwaters of the North Fork of the Kern River. The main portion of Kings Canyon National Park is drained by the Middle and South forks of the Kings River, which join a few miles west of the park boundary, while the Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon Park occupies the forested divide between the Kings and Kaweah rivers and provides water to both river systems. Small portions of northern Kings Canyon and southern Sequoia are drained, respectively, by the San Joaquin and Tule rivers. It is upon these lands, together with the downstream canyons and valley delta regions of the Kings and Kaweah rivers, that we shall focus.

Several themes will appear so regularly that they must be introduced before we can begin. One, already stated, is that this is a history of the land and its ecosystems. Another, basic to understanding the late-twentieth-century state of the parks, is that contrasting land management goals have worked inexorably to make the parks an increasingly isolated biological island. Yet another theme is that although the parks are places where national policies were executed, they also were the birthplaces of policy, where management philosophy and procedures were created and refined.

Finally, we must introduce one other extremely pervasive theme. We bring to this project the outlooks of two academic disciplines: Lary M. Dilsaver is a geographer; William C. Tweed a historian. We both believe, however, that only an interdisciplinary combination of these two perspectives can adequately explain the reality of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Ultimately, the natural and human worlds cannot be separated.

We wish to establish one additional point. Despite the significant cooperation of the National Park Service in preparation of this history, the opinions and interpretations presented here are solely those of the two authors and in no way those of the National Park Service or any other organization.

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


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