Change is an inescapable part of the natural world, but the pace of change in nature sometimes has difficulty keeping up with the rapidity of changes in human attitudes. The mainstream wisdom of one generation is often abandoned – and sometimes condemned – by the next. Here’s a local example.
During the peak of the Rough Fire – the huge wildfire that spread flames over 235 square miles and is still smoldering in the Kings River watershed – much attention was given to protecting the giant sequoia groves within the fire area.
As the fire spread, it moved into a number of sequoia groves – some of them well known and others largely ignored and forgotten. Much media attention went to the Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park, the home of the second largest of all the Big Trees, but several other groves also witnessed fire activity. Among these were two particularly large giant sequoia tracts,
I speak of the Evans and Converse Basin groves. Neither of these groves is particularly well known. Certainly, they receive little attention from tourists, even though both are a part of the Giant Sequoia National Monument created by President Clinton in 2001.
When first documented in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Evans and Converse Basin groves were among the largest and most spectacular giant sequoia areas in the Sierra Nevada. The Converse Basin Grove may even have exceeded the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in terms of the number of very large trees.
But now we come to the human part of the story. In the 1880s, there was a general political consensus in this country that the best thing to do with the forests of the Sierra Nevada was to get them into private hands so that they could be logged.
An entire bureau of the federal government – the General Land Office – pursued the mission of selling public lands. The going price was $2.50 an acre, a rate set by our congress in an 1878 statute called the Timber and Stone Act.
Large tracts of forested land were sold – perhaps we should say “given away” – by the government under this law, including the Converse Basin and Evans groves.
Beginning in the late 1880s, logging began in these forests. By the time it ran down in the 1920s, thirty square miles of old-growth trees– including the two sequoia groves – had been reduced to little more than stumps and slash.
All this was done in the name of free enterprise. At the time few questioned that the profits generated were good for the nation and that the lands were better off in private hands.
But, in the end, there were no profits. The costs of cutting timber in the Kings River country were so high that the lumber company consistently lost money. The answer at the time was to increase the cut, but higher volumes of lumber just lost more money.
In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, the owners of the by-now cut-over forests struck a deal with the Forest Service to sell the lands – now minus the old-growth trees – back to the government for about $15.00 an acre. This price was, you will note, six times higher than the rate set by congress forty years earlier.
The repurchased lands were added to the national forest because there was a general realization that they should never have been sold in the first place or logged in the destructive way that they were. America had made a mistake and changed its collective mind.
Fast forward now to 2015: During the recent Rough Fire, crews worked in advance of the fire to protect some of the huge stumps left behind by loggers more than a century ago. The Chicago Stump, for example – the remains of a tree cut in Converse Basin for display at the Chicago Worlds Fare of 1893 – was wrapped in fire-resistant materials. Similar protection was applied to the Mark Twain Stump in the nearby Big Stump area of Kings Canyon National Park.
As I said at the beginning of this column, human attitudes change. In the last third of the nineteenth century, we sold giant sequoias for pennies so that they could be destroyed for short-term profit. In the first third of the twenty-first century, we now protect the stumps of some of these same giants so that we do not forget what we did.
One can see the irony in this – it’s hard to miss – but there is more. The story of these trees says something positive about how our values change. In that, at least, this bit of history has a silver lining.
© Wm. Tweed