History of Giant Forest Development

Early black and white photo shows ancient car on dirt road leading into the Giant Forest
In 1903, a road was built into the Giant Forest.

NPS photo

The early years

Commercial recreational use of Giant Forest began in 1899 with the construction of a tent camp that was accessed via pack train. In 1903 a proper road was completed and the tent camp grew accordingly. The terminus of the road at Round Meadow became the location for a ramshackle assemblage of semi-permanent summer camps, along with administrative and concessioner buildings. Ensuing campaigns to draw people to the national parks in general, and to see the "big trees" in particular, produced an eightfold increase in visitation. For example, the first formal lodge was erected in the summer of 1915 in anticipation of visitation spilling over from the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. In 1921, the concessioner erected the cabins that formed the core of the lodging area next to Round Meadow, for which the name "Giant Forest Lodge" was first applied in 1926. In the same summer, "Camp Kaweah" (Upper Kaweah) was established with the goal of pulling overnight development away from Round Meadow. Pinewood was developed in 1931 with the same goal. All this led to an infrastructure that by 1930 amounted to four campgrounds, dozens of parking lots, a garbage incinerator, water and sewage systems, a gas station, corrals, and over 200 cabin, tent-top, dining, office, retail, and bath-house structures. Many of these were located directly among stands of monarch sequoias.

By the late 1920’s, the first voices decried this already disturbing human impact on the Giant Forest. These voices came from two different sources, each of which were to play major roles in the restoration of the grove. The first of these sources was Emilio Meinecke, an eminent forest pathologist. He was commissioned by NPS Director Stephen Mather to study the "effects of tourist traffic on plant life, particularly big trees" in Sequoia National Park. In 1926, Meinecke reported that humans were heavily impacting the Giant Forest. The second voice was that of Colonel John White, superintendent of Sequoia National Park. He was appalled by the congestion and over-development of the grove. In 1927, he suggested that the Giant Forest Lodge cabins be removed. The efforts of these two groups, science and NPS management, were to gain power fitfully during ensuing decades.

Cars in Giant Forest
In a scene typical of the Giant Forest's early days, automobiles appear as numerous as trees.

NPS photo

Another voice to arise in the late 1920’s was that of the park concessioner, the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company (subsequently, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Company). This fledgling company immediately recognized the commercial value of the Giant Forest. Indeed, by 1941, the company owned 180 buildings in the grove.

The outspoken Colonel White was to be Superintendent of the parks for two decades, beginning in the late-1920’s. During that time, his conviction regarding the restoration of the Giant Forest would grow in nearly equal measure to the power of the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company. The latter won out in almost every regard during Colonel White’s tenure as park superintendent. In 1931 Colonel White stepped up his battle against development in Giant Forest by refusing the concessioner’s proposed addition of five new cabins to the Giant Forest Lodge. He refused on the grounds that "the company should not be in the sequoia grove in the first place." The Director of the National Park Service overruled White’s decision. While Colonel White was not successful in gaining the Director’s support for removal of development from the grove, he did institute limits on guest capacity; this was the first NPS limit on tourism development in any of its parks. The concessioner was able to construct additional development before hitting this limit, and within a few years of Colonel White’s retirement, the grove was to contain more than 400 structures.
Cars line up for gas at Giant Forest Market
Giant Forest Market area with cars lined up at the gas station.

nps photo

The Impact of Science

In the 1920s, Emilio Meinecke put considerable effort into understanding the human impact on the big trees. Generally speaking, however, the application of scientific research to Giant Forest management increased sluggishly during the mid-1900s. During these years, landscape architects directed most land- use planning. The science of ecology was in its infancy. While modern landscape architecture is grounded in the science of ecology, the early application of landscape architecture was more geared toward swift, visually appealing results that were appropriate to parks managed for the enjoyment of people. As the 1900s progressed, natural sciences gained importance and played an increasingly significant role in park policy decisions. This was to have a profound effect on park management and the Giant Forest.

In the decade beginning 1954, the National Park Service effected a dramatic change in land management policy, especially regarding giant sequoia groves. These changes were directly influenced by the results of three scientific studies. In 1954, the Yosemite Report, commissioned by the Yosemite superintendent, concluded that human impacts were harming the roots of sequoias in the Mariposa and Tuolumne groves. The report recommended removal of development.
Tent cabins were common throughout the Giant Forest
Human presence altered the grove in numerous ways.

nps photo

Planning and the Public

In 1962 and 1965 Richard Hartesveldt submitted a pair of influential reports to the National Park Service. In these reports, Hartesveldt concluded that humans were adversely affecting the sequoias of the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park and the Giant Forest Grove in Sequoia National Park, but in ways not previously suspected. Hartesveldt found that altered hydrology in the Mariposa Grove and increasingly dense competing vegetation in the absence of natural fire in both groves were causing the most severe impacts to sequoias. Impacts of development on sequoias were most damaging where major roots had been cut for road construction. Although Hartesveldt did not find other results of development - covering of roots by asphalt, soil compaction, or soil erosion - to cause profound impacts to sequoia survival or growth, he suggested that their probable effects on future sequoia health warranted action by the National Park Service.

In 1963 came the Leopold Report, which had an enormous influence on science in the parks, from both research and management standpoints. The Leopold Report was the product of an advisory panel headed by Dr. Starker Leopold, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. In essence, the report called for maintenance or restoration of natural systems to the greatest extent possible. This had direct implications for the Giant Forest, which was specifically mentioned in the report. The Secretary of the Interior issued an order that the report's recommendations be followed. This gave tremendous backing to the movement to restore the Giant Forest. Additionally, the report resulted in the establishment or expansion of numerous park research programs.

Last updated: May 16, 2016

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