The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Five:
The Commission, the Cavalry, and the Natural Resource

In the twenty-six years between the establishment of the Yosemite Grant on June 30, 1864, and the approval of Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890, debate about the future of Yosemite's resources had been sporadic and inconclusive. With the establishment of the national park, debate was about to intensify. Still retained in state ownership, Yosemite Valley dramatized the phenomenon of a park within a park, inviting constant comparison between the effectiveness of state and of federal control. In keeping with precedent set at Yellowstone in 1886, Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble asked the United States Cavalry to take charge of protection in Yosemite National Park. On May 19, 1891, Captain A. E. Wood, reporting to the secretary of the interior as acting superintendent, set up headquarters at Wawona with a company of troops. In contrast to the Yosemite Park Commission, which so often had been accused of defacing the valley, the United States government appeared resolved that its preserve would not endure similar accusations of management failure and ineptitude. [1]

Much to the enhancement of the cavalry's reputation, the troopers were primarily responsible only for the protection of the park. Expected not only to protect Yosemite Valley but also to develop it for the accommodation of tourists, the Yosemite Park Commission faced a perplexing contradiction. To be sure, arguments that the valley had too many camps and hotels were still some years in the future. Most Californians both expected and understood the commission's emphasis on park improvements and visitor services. However, in those instances when charges of management impropriety in fact presaged resource controversies, during the legislative hearings held in 1889 for example, the duality of the commission's mandate steadily undermined its credibility. Over the long term, the commission was trapped between its roles as developer and as protector. Whatever the commissioners decided about the future of the valley was bound to dissatisfy either commercial or esthetic interests.

The military, on the other hand, held the proverbial high ground. Safely outside Yosemite Valley and its development controversies, the cavalry had more freedom to experiment with matters affecting forests, watersheds, and wildlife conservation. As a science, conservation was barely in its infancy. Data about wildlife, for example, was based primarily on personal observation. What might be called management was mostly trial and error. The point is that the cavalry was allowed the privilege of suggesting some experiments. In the wake of the legislative investigations of 1889, the Yosemite Park Commission rarely convinced anyone but itself that its management was competent and imbued with sincerity.

Of all the discussion that resulted from the charges brought against the commission in 1889, nothing pointed more directly to the emergence of natural resources as a management issue than the sharpening debate about the historical importance of fire. Reporting to the state legislature the following year, Secretary John P. Irish blamed Robert Underwood Johnson for any lingering bitterness aroused by the hearings. As editor of Century Magazine, Johnson continued to approve uncomplimentary articles listing "the 'destructive tendencies at work in the Yosemite Valley'. The truth or falsehood of these articles," Irish maintained, "depends upon the original condition of the valley, when first seen by white men, as it came from the hand of Nature and the Indians, who had long since been its guardians." Seen from this perspective, the "entire case" of Century was "disproved, and its urgent authors and abettors disgraced." For Yosemite Valley at the time of its discovery "was park-like in its lack of underbrush and small tree growth, with its floor clear under the tall trees, carefully preserved by the expert foresting of the Indians." Yosemite Valley in 1890 contained "one hundred trees, at least, where one grew upon its acquisition by the whites and the expulsion of the Indians." In short, the Yosemite Park Commission could not be accused of cutting down trees where none had originally grown. The problem in Yosemite Valley was not the lack of trees but their presence in unnatural abundance. This was the evidence Century "dared not print," he concluded, "because it would prove them to have willfully borne false witness against the management." [2]

Whether or not the commission, further defending its use of fire, simply grasped at anything that may have promoted public sympathy, Irish did, in retrospect, have reason to resent supposition that burning in the valley had been universally destructive. Among the commissioners, none proved more knowledgeable about fire's true significance than William H. Mills, whose resignation from the commission in 1889 further presaged the rapid erosion of its remaining credibility. Not only did he understand the role that burning had played in Yosemite Valley, but he was also among the first to identify the results of fire suppression in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. As he testified in Sacramento, debris accumulating at the base of the big trees "was endangering that forest." Originally the grove had been "burned over in such a way that a little fire did no harm." In recent years, however, "fagots had piled up at the roots of those trees to the depth of four or five feet." Thus a modern fire threatened to "burn those trees up," a tragedy that would only be compounded by the scarcity of giant sequoias. "They belonged to a species which disappeared from the earth hundreds and thousands of years ago," he remarked. Saving the remainder required the periodic removal of "those fagots and the fallen limbs and the bark from around those trees." Otherwise, he concluded, repeating his warning for emphasis, "in some dry season the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees will be burned." [3]

Similarly, the commission's decision to remove trees and underbrush from the valley had been grossly misinterpreted by the measure's opponents. As was the case beneath the giant sequoias, grass and underbrush had been accumulating across the valley floor. If accidentally ignited now, that accumulation would probably burst into "a conflagration" and rapidly turn the whole valley into "a blackened ruin." In either case, Mills contended, the threat struck him as "reasonable," and therefore, from the very start, he had been "in favor of resisting that encroachment of undergrowth." [4]

Mills's reputation, specifically his ties to the Southern Pacific Railroad and the California press, lent special credence to all of his remarks. His observations, moreover, came directly from the field, from weeks of travel and hours of discussion with Sierra Nevada natives and longtime pioneers. When asked, for example, why fires historically had not burned out the Indians, he noted again that "the accumulation of fagots" undoubtedly was the key. Generally, Native Americans had burned the forest annually, significantly reducing the amount of fuel and litter available to a single fire in any given year. Applied to the giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove, that principle alone helped explain their survival. "These trees are all blackened," he confessed. "You can see the evidence of past burning through this forest. Many of them are blackened and burned at the roots." But still the trees survived, protected because fires historically had not been life menacing. And such had been the case in Yosemite Valley. "You will see, every now and then," Mills remarked, citing his evidence, "a fallen tree or the trunk of a tree that shows that fires have run through this valley in former times." But that of course had been "when the Indians were Commissioners." Indeed, he concluded, revealing the source of his information without prejudice or embarrassment, "I have always respected the ability of the Indians to manage that valley." [5]

Ironically, Mills's knowledge about the valley and his prescience of proper management techniques were neither recognized nor understood by a majority of conservationists. Most of his contemporaries, among them John Muir, continued to preach that fire should be absolutely excluded from all Sierra forests. Especially in the eyes of nineteenth-century preservationists, the protection of park landscapes called for the strict enforcement of park rules. Invariably, as a result, the cavalry rather than the commission enjoyed preservationists' support. Captain A. E. Wood, for example, in his first annual report as acting superintendent of Yosemite National Park, set a management standard that most preservationists could applaud. "The sheep have been the curse of these mountains," he noted, echoing John Muir's despair about damaging soil erosion caused by "hoofed locusts." Wood further blamed sheep for the disappearance of game, principally bear, deer, grouse, and quail. Sheep trampled birds' nests and separated herds of animals. More alarming, herders set fires in the high country to encourage the growth of grass. "I have effectively stopped such vandalism," he remarked, and again preservationists applauded enthusiastically. As a result, he was convinced that "in a very few years" the national park would once more "be alive with game." [6]

The appeal of cavalry protection was its no-nonsense basis, especially the likelihood that shepherds and other trespassers would be dealt with severely. Shepherds in particular habitually flaunted the park boundary; Captain Wood's solution was indeed most ingenious. Patrols were ordered to separate herders from their sheep; more to the point, men and animals were to be ejected from opposite sides of the park, forcing the shepherds to circle back around the entire park boundary in the hopes of eventually reuniting with their flocks. Even under the best of circumstances, reunification required days. Meanwhile, the flock would probably have scattered or been reduced by predation. [7] When preservationists thought of protection, this was the brand of enforcement they had in mind, not the—in their view—lackadaisical or even destructive management practices of the Yosemite Park Commission.

In its defense, the commission returned time and again to William H. Mills's original premise that nothing done for management's sake broke faith with the husbandry of Native Americans. Granted, as the commissioners reported in 1892, "a considerable area of the floor of the valley was cleared of recent underbrush and disfiguring dead trees, and other obstructions to the view." But clearance itself was a technique adopted from the Indians. "The valley originally was a forest park, dotted with open meadows," the commission still argued. "Its Indian owners kept the floor clear of underbrush." Not only was fire carefully used "for this purpose," but also the natives "annually pulled up unnecessary shrubs and trees as soon as they sprouted." It was the absence of trees that "left a free view of the walls, waterfalls, and beauties of the valley." In contrast, allowing nature "her way" only choked "every vista with underbrush," obscuring "many of the finest views" and hastening "the destruction of many fine old trees, especially the oaks, which, when crowded and starved by younger growth, yield to parasites and decay," further increasing "the risk from fire." [8]

Once again the commission's report was biologically sound and historically on target. But the damage to the commission's reputation was deep and irreversible. From now on, whatever the commissioners argued would seem strained and self-serving. The cavalry, in contrast, had won universal respect among preservationists nationwide. Military tenets of strictness and discipline coincided perfectly with preservationists' own assumptions that only rigid standards of protection would save the national parks. "The effectiveness of the War Department in enforcing the laws of Congress has been illustrated in the management of Yosemite National Park," wrote John Muir, for example, in 1895. "The sheep having been rigidly excluded, a luxurient cover has sprung up on the desolate forest floor, fires have been choked before they could do any damage, and hopeful bloom and beauty have taken the place of ashes and dust." Obviously, he concluded, his biases now fully obvious, "one soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun, would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices." [9]

The commission could do nothing right, the army nothing wrong. Indeed, so convinced were preservationists of the army's greater effectiveness that they often overlooked its own management inconsistencies. As acting superintendent of Yosemite National Park, for example, Captain A. E. Wood actually called for the reduction of the preserve. His immediate successor, Captain G. H. G. Gale, reported to the secretary of the interior that a large portion of Yosemite National Park was "of practically no value to the sight-seer," nor of any importance "as a conservator of the water supply." As a result he, like Wood, recommended that any commercial districts of little scenic merit be excluded from the park as soon as possible. [10]

The appeal of Gale's report was his promise to continue the strong, uncompromising methods of protection inaugurated by Captain Wood. Accordingly, park defenders like John Muir still refrained from saying anything openly critical of the army and its policies. As long as sheep in particular threatened the high country with invasion, the cavalry's strong arm tactics of separating sheep from shepherds coincided perfectly with preservationists' overriding objectives.

For much the same reason, preservationists also tended to ignore the cavalry's immersion in the natural resources debate, even though the cavalry arrived at some of the same conclusions about fire that had cost the Yosemite Park Commission so much credibility and support. Under Captain Wood, the cavalry began its management program committed to fighting forest fires, including wildfires ignited by shepherds and occasional bolts of lightning. Wood's successor, however, Captain Gale, sided with the Yosemite Park Commission, noting that fire historically had been of great importance in actually protecting Sierra woodlands. Indeed, Gale remarked, "Examination of this subject leads me to believe that the absolute prevention of fires in these mountains will eventually lead to disastrous results." In the course of a single year, forest litter formed only a thin carpet. "This burns easily with little heat," he wrote, "and does practically little damage. This fire also destroys, or partially destroys, the fallen timber which it touches, and leaves the ground ready for the next year's growth." Similarly, enough saplings escaped most small fires to replace aging and toppled trees, "and it is not thought," he noted, "that the slight heat of the annual fires will appreciably affect the growth or life of well-grown trees." [11]

In contrast, the suppression of all fires threatened to disrupt the natural cycle. For example, "if the year's droppings are allowed to accumulate," Gale continued in his report, "they will increase until the resulting heat, when they do burn, will destroy everything before it." The buildup of but a few seasons generally resulted in "a vast amount of kindling and solid fuel" that, if ignited, would "convert the forest into a roaring furnace." Granted, shepherds were responsible for the large majority of forest fires; granted too, the herders thoughtlessly destroyed practically "every living thing in the forest within reach of a sheep's teeth." "I will, however," he confessed, "do them the justice to say that they do not kindle all the fires, and that, on the whole, it is a marvel that forest fires are so infrequent." Besides, he concluded, "It is a well-known fact that the Indians burned the forests annually." [12]

In its own defense the Yosemite Park Commission had already argued as much; it was just that the commission, unlike the cavalry, had lost public confidence. Meanwhile, the army was less likely to be seen—and therefore scrutinized—by the average park visitor. Then, as now, the public gravitated to Yosemite Valley; the soldiers patrolled the high country and distant corners of the national park. In short, valley management was far more likely to be criticized. Instances of alleged misconduct, such as stumps and blackened trees, seen in the valley aroused far more concern than did similar examples in the mountains. Simply, the cavalry continued to patrol the proverbial high ground. Management directives above the valley rim were simultaneously clearer and more insulated. For example, Captain Gale might call for burning park forests; however, even if his recommendation did in fact win approval, most park visitors would never see the fires or bear witness to their results.

Rotation procedures among cavalry officers provided the army further insulation from public scrutiny. As a rule the officer in charge of the park served only one or two years. Thus changes in management philosophy evinced by the office of superintendent escaped widespread notoriety. Captain Gale, for instance, a proponent of light burning, was replaced in 1895 by Captain Alexander Rodgers, who did not follow up with a similar recommendation. Rodgers's replacement, Lieutenant Colonel S.B.M. Young, was the next to mention fire, in his report for 1896. But instead of favoring light burning, he roundly condemned it. In his view the accumulation of forest litter significantly retarded damaging water runoff. Annual burning, "as a preventive against forest fires in the dry season," actually destroyed "the natural preservation and regulation of the water supply." For this reason alone, Young concluded, "such measures would be a violation of the spirit of the act of Congress approved October 1, 1890." [13]

On May 22, 1897, Captain Rodgers returned to Wawona for another season as acting superintendent. But again his annual report, submitted the following August, revealed his lingering prejudice against the use of fire. Earlier that summer, he noted, a fire that had threatened the Merced Grove of giant sequoias had been "put out before it could do any harm to these trees." [14] Rodgers did not suggest that several smaller fires might possibly have been of benefit had they burned through the same area.

In 1898 the superintendency of the national park turned over yet again, for the first time going to a civilian, J. W. Zevely (eligible army officers had been called up for service in the Spanish-American War). Under Zevely, Captain Gale's pathbreaking observations about fire were once more in favor. In a word, Zevely agreed that the policy of suppressing every fire was altogether "erroneous." During "conversations had with old mountaineers," themselves "deeply interested" in protecting the forests of the national park, he had also come to appreciate "the consequence" of allowing the forest floor to accumulate too much debris. "The whole mass is highly inflammable," he wrote, underscoring Captain Gale's 1894 report. Accordingly, when fires did ignite it was "next to impossible to control them at all." [15]

Although that conclusion remained controversial, army officers were not openly criticized for any differences of opinion. After 1889 that level of tolerance was rarely extended to the Yosemite Park Commission. However well-intentioned, experimentation in the state park was still liable to meet with someone's strong objection. And of course army recommendations were just that—recommendations only. Officers could not be blamed for making suggestions that they were rarely allowed to try.

Indeed the cavalry had only begun to learn about management options and alternatives. Among army officers as well as state commissioners, knowledge about natural resources was still scattered and rudimentary. Granted, proponents of light burning showed a keen awareness of the issues and, in fact, largely anticipated prescribed burning techniques of the latter twentieth century. But forests were only part of the resource picture as a whole. As yet there had been no comprehensive study of the national park and its resources; manipulation was far more common than scientific understanding. To be sure, the temptation to interfere was the strongest motivation, even if that meant advancing one resource's welfare over that of another.

In other instances, interference seemed benign and noncontroversial. The arrival of the army, for example, coincided with the beginning of extensive fish-stocking throughout the park. Historically, native fish had never lived above four thousand feet in elevation, in short, not higher than the Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy valleys, whose precipitous waterfalls blocked normal migration. [16] In September 1892 the state of California moved in to correct that troubling imbalance, however natural in origin. Thus Captain Wood proudly reported having received "25,000 young rainbow trout" from the "State fish commissioners." "I put 13,000 of them in the small tributaries of the South Fork of the Merced River," he noted, "2,000 in the headwaters of Bridal Veil Creek, 4,000 in the Illilouette Creek above the falls, and 6,000 in Lake Ostrander." [17] With the exception of lower portions of the Merced River, fish had never lived in any of those areas. As a result, Captain Wood had assisted in changing the biological composition of several highland lakes and streams. [18]

Those changes, moreover, were twofold in effect. Not only were trout introduced to pristine waters in the park, but also the number of exotic species represented increased. Only rainbow trout were native to Yosemite National Park. Nevertheless, Captain Wood reported a shipment of twenty thousand New England brook trout, scheduled for distribution by August 1893. [19]

Just two years later, in 1895, the state began operating a fish hatchery in Wawona. Peak production of trout fingerlings averaged five hundred thousand per year. Parties fishing without permits, Lieutenant Colonel S.B.M. Young also reported, were subject to ejection from the park and "loss of their tackle." [20]

Further supported by the hatchery, fish planting by the turn of the century was a well-established practice. In retrospect, agitation for the program was too insistent to ignore. Not only sportsmen but also concessionaires realized fun and profit from more fishing opportunities. Thus Major Benson proclaimed in 1905, "The park is becoming probably the finest fishing grounds in the world." [21] His temptation to overstate was normal procedure; he had been sending cans of fingerlings into every corner of Yosemite, all under the care and protection of his military patrols. Meanwhile no one seemed to mind that Yosemite's lakes were being altered biologically; indeed, who would disagree that a lake without fish was no lake at all?

Only in retrospect did planting fish seem contradictory and manipulative. And by then the practice was too well entrenched to be eradicated. Time and again the same would prove the case in matters affecting wildlife. Much as sportsmen defended their privilege to find fish in Yosemite's lakes, so most neighbors of the national park considered its resources vital to their needs and, consequently, called for similar privileges to hunt, graze cattle, and cut timber as required. Ultimately, the size of the park itself should be substantially reduced. As a gesture of compensation, Californians seriously discussed the possibility of returning Yosemite Valley to federal ownership and control. The point was that the recession of the valley alone would not stop wildlife from ranging outside the national park, especially if much of its territory was eliminated. Once outside the boundary, game would certainly be subject to greater hunting and poaching pressures.

Here again there was growing debate but still little understanding. In essence, resource decisions were beyond the knowledge of the cavalry, the commissioners, or regional politicians. Ultimately, the field of inquiry and debate would have to be broadened, encompassing not only bureaucrats and administrators but also students of natural history. Meanwhile, Congress would determine Yosemite's proper size on the basis of what was known and accepted. The temptation to interfere biologically in the park already foretold that decision. For the moment, a lasting commitment to Yosemite's flora and fauna still seemed years in the future.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap5.htm — 17-Mar-2004