Archive for Chair Emeritus POV

DO WE DESERVE EVERYTHING?

For many of us, an appreciation of nature is a fundamental part of who we are. Without periodic exposure to wild places and free-roaming creatures, the weight of life bears down upon us and we sink into a form of depression.

Not all of us think this way, of course. For some, the endless ability of humans to invent clever new technologies brings excitement and confidence in human capacity. People of this persuasion often possess little interest in things not created by humans.

The latest apps for our cell phones, impressive as they may be, pale, however, beside the complexity and sophistication of the natural world that surrounds us. My phone may do some wonderful things, but it has yet to fly to the arctic and replicate itself, something my garden’s white-crowned sparrows do each summer.

Years ago, when I worked as a ranger-naturalist for the national parks and led nature walks for visitors, a participant on one of my hikes asked me a very good question. I had been talking about the wildlife we were seeing and explaining how each creature had a particular niche in which it lived – a physical habitat and lifestyle that provided the animals with what it needed to survive.

“So if that’s true,” asked my questioner, “then what is our niche as humans?” That was a fine question, and it took me a while to work out an answer.

Unlike most other creatures, we humans don’t live in a single, preferred habitat. We’re not forest dwellers exactly, or limited to prairies. We don’t just live in large colonies or just scattered in small family groups. We do all that and more.

But there is a commonality to all this variety – something that we can discern that defines our “niche” in the broader community of life. The human niche is this: we take hold of the places where other organisms reside and remodel them for our own use.

We call such places cities, or farms, or reservoirs, or a hundred other man-made things. The key point is that we take over and modify the habitats of other creatures big and small so that we can prosper.

This is not exactly news, but we seldom look at it in exactly this way. Our ability to take over and convert environments is key to our biologiucal success. That is how we have managed to create a human population of over seven billion people.

Some of you will tell me at this point that this is God’s will – that we are “to be fruitful and multiply.” But that same source gives us other instructions as well. We are also told that we should “replenish the earth” and “keep it” in honor of its creator.

This brings us to the heart of our modern dilemma. The power to convert habitats – the key to our civilization – is also the power to destroy other forms of life. How do we balance our needs against the needs of other life forms?

Put another way, are we entitled to take everything?

Such a goal, when you think about it objectively, pervades much of what we do to survive in Central California. In the name of human needs we take not most but ALL of the water in our Central California rivers. We spray pesticides that often kill not just their targets but most other life forms as well. When we log the Sierra’s forests, we are told that it is more efficient to cut everything down and start over,, and so we do.

In this Christmas Season, I propose there is a moral here for us all to consider. No one denies that we must make use of much that our planet offers. But are we entitled to take it all – to destroy everything around us in the name of our short-term prosperity? For those of us who find solace and peace in the natural world – and there are many of us – this proposition is simply a leap that goes too far.

We humans have the unprecedented intelligence to modify the earth so that it better meets our own needs, but that also means that we ought to have the intelligence – and the wisdom – to manage our planet so that its other life forms can survive as well.

If we’re not smart enough to do that, then our latest phone apps will do little more than remind us that there is a huge gap between mere cleverness and true wisdom.

© Wm. Tweed

FOREST FIRES AND CARBON

A good question popped up on my email recently, and it forms the foundation for this week’s column. Like many questions about nature these days, it has to do with how to sustain the health of our planet for the benefit of our children.

It’s no secret that recent summers have seen repeated very large wildfires in the Sierra Nevada. Locally, the Rough Fire in the lower canyons of the Kings River burned well over 200 square miles of forest and chaparral this past summer.

It’s also no secret that a critical element in controlling such fires on the ground is prescribed burning done purposefully before wildfire occurs. By one estimate, almost 40% of the final perimeter of the Rough Fire coincided with the boundaries of previous prescribed burns.

And that brings us to this week’s question. My correspondent understands that prescribed fires are good for forests and that they limit the spread of wildfire, but he has another concern. Don’t prescribed burns, he asks, make climate change worse by releasing additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?

Before we answer this question, let’s insert a bit of science. Old-growth forests contain enormous amounts of stored carbon. This happens when trees grow by taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fixing it into wood and foliage. Scientists use the phrase “carbon sequestration” for this phenomenon.

Now, let’s turn the process around. Whenever a carbon-based substance is oxidized, carbon dioxide is released. That’s what happens when a wildfire burns wood. (It’s also what happens, by the way, when our own bodies oxidize the food we eat. That’s why humans breathe out carbon dioxide gas.)

We should also remind ourselves of the fundamental fact that an atmosphere with higher levels of carbon dioxide collects and retains solar heat more efficiently. This is the heart of the climate change phenomenon that is changing our planet. Since 1950, the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has risen by about 25%. As a result, the earth’s atmosphere is getting warmer.

End of science lesson; now let’s return to our question. Do prescribed burns add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and thus help warm the climate? The answer is that they do. So we’d be better off without such burns, right? Well, not necessarily.

We’re only better off without prescribed burns – in the climate sense – if we believe that other, bigger fires will NEVER occur. Unfortunately, everything we know about our California landscapes tells us that suppressing all fires, forever, is simply impossible. Sooner or later, our forests always burn.

If you accept this fact, and it is inescapable, then the answer to our question changes considerably. If we assume that some sort of fire is inevitable, then the best way to minimize carbon release is to influence the type of fire that ultimately occurs.

In our Sierra Nevada forests, this desire to manage offers two paths. We can suppress as many small fires as possible and thus allow the forest to accumulate large amounts of flammable fuel. When wildfire inevitably arrives, however, the resulting fire is likely to be very intense and the forest will be severely damaged, perhaps even completely destroyed.

The alternative, of course, is to burn on our own terms, keeping the flames under control and allowing the larger trees to survive. We call this approach prescribed burning.

Comparing these two scenarios, it’s not hard to figure out which one is better for the trees. That same approach, of course, also preserves higher levels of stored carbon.

If we want to keep the carbon locked in our forests from turning into atmospheric carbon dioxide, then we need to preserve those forests. In the Sierra Nevada, with its long fire season, the best way to preserve forests is to thin them periodically with prescribed burning before they are attacked by intense wildfires and severely damaged.

The alternative – postponing all fires until conditions overwhelm us – in the long run will neither protect our forests nor preserve sequestered carbon.

And that’s the answer to our question.

© Wm. Tweed

OF BEARS AND BOOKS

As winter approaches and nights lengthen, I find myself turning to the pile of books that always accumulates over the summer. I have many good volumes awaiting my attention.

Recently, I settled down to read Speaking of Bears, written by long-time biologist friend Rachel Mazur.

I’ve known Rachel since 2000, when she arrived at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to take over day-to-day management of the bear management program at the twin parks. She spent eight years in that demanding role, and along the way she learned an enormous amount about bears.

Anyone who spends time in our local mountains has bear stories to share. Nearly all of these reflect a fundamental point – bears and people are bound together in an intimate relationship that transcends our ties to most other wildlife species.

Seek out the heart of this relationship and you’ll find a critical fact – bears and people eat the same things, pretty much everything, in fact. Biologists call such species omnivores.

But although bears and humans both fall into the omnivorous category, the two species approach their diets in very different ways. Bears are scavengers – animals that wander the landscape searching for whatever they can find to eat. Humans, on the other hand, collect and store food.

Bring those two behaviors together and you will immediately see the problem. Scavenging bears inevitably figure out that humans can be counted on to have stored food around their campsites and cabins.

As a result, bears often come to associate places of human presence as potential food sources. Add to this mix the details that bears are both highly intelligent and physically powerful, and the relationship between bears and humans begins to become truly complicated.

And there’s more. Bears often learn that human beings are easy to scare away from their stored food. All it takes is a little (usually pretend) threatened violence.

In her book, Rachel tells the story of how well meaning humans have attempted to live with bears for the past century in the national parks of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a troubling saga. More than good intentions, it is clear, are required to keep bears away from human food.

Through a thoughtful series of interviews, Rachel lays out the long and troubled sequence of events. At various times, to keep the bears “under control,” park managers have fed bears at garbage dumps and then closed the dumps; allowed bears to eat garbage and then developed bear-resistant garbage containers; instructed campers to keep their food in their cars and then watched the bears tear those vehicles apart to get at the food.

Along the way, in desperation, park rangers often felt they had no alternative but to kill what were termed “problem bears” – bears that learned to threaten people to get food or did too much damage to human property.

Eventually, as Rachel lays out, decades of experimentation led to reasonable answers. Today, in the local national parks, you’ll find bear-resistant food lockers in campgrounds, garbage containers designed to prevent bear access to their contents, and extensive rules intended to tell people how to keep bears from starting down the human food path that leads all too often to death for the bears.

You’ll also find a world where you can get a ticket from a national park ranger for allowing a bear to obtain human food.

At the center of this story one can find an encouraging attitude. We humans like bears and want to continue to enjoy their presence in our mountains. But having bears around leads inevitably to conflicts over food. The story never ends.

I recommend Rachel’s book. If you’d like to learn more about the complex relationship that binds us to the black bears of the Sierra Nevada, buy a copy: Rachel Mazur, Speaking of Bears: The Bear Crisis and a Tale of Rewilding from Yosemite, Sequoia, and Other National Parks, Falcon Guides, 2015.

© Wm. Tweed

OF STUMPS AND MEN

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

LOOKING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL

So what are we to make of this coming winter? Seldom has the question been more compelling or the answer more significant.

 

After four consecutive dry winters, Central California is profoundly parched. And I’m not just talking about farmers, but also about the natural systems that inhabit our remaining wildlands.

 

Here in Three Rivers – where I write these columns – the Kaweah River has shrunk to a trickle and dead oaks stand on many hillsides. Toward Visalia, many valley oaks are showing signs of severe drought stress. The Kaweah Oaks Preserve has lost an alarming number of old trees.

 

So now what?  The big news, of course, is that nearly all meteorological signs point toward a strong El Niño weather pattern this winter. But what does that mean?

 

The phenomenon known as El Niño is a complex set of changes in the water temperatures across larges expanses of the Pacific Ocean. The warmer the water in certain key areas, the “stronger” an El Niño is said to be.

 

This year’s El Niño is looking very strong, and strong El Niños often – but not always it is important to note – bring heavy precipitation to southern California and adjoining regions. Some of the wettest winters ever recorded in our part of California – rainy seasons like 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 – came during El Niño winters.

 

So are we headed into a very wet winter? The answer is that it is possible. And is this a good thing? In many ways – yes – but we should be careful what we wish for.

 

The far eastern Pacific Ocean – the water off our coast – remains incredibly warm when compared to historic levels. Some areas are running 7-10 degrees above long-term averages. This suggests that our storms this winter – assuming that they come – will likely arrive with very high snowlines.

 

During storms of this type, the snowline in our local mountains can sometimes rise to 10,000 feet or even higher. When that happens, very little of the precipitation that falls in the mountains is retained as snowpack. Instead, most of the water runs off quickly in powerful surges.

 

Last winter we received about 50% of our average precipitation but ended up with barely 10% of average snowmelt runoff. This alarming discrepancy resulted from ocean warmth. Put simply, last winter was too warm to allow a significant snowpack to endure in the Sierra.

 

This winter we could see a similar situation.  It is possible that we could see intense storms but still end up with a snowpack that is below average.  The rest of the storm water will have come down to the valley during the winter – when farmers don’t need it – as flood runoff.

 

With good planning, however, much of that winter runoff can be captured in ponding basins and allowed to sink into the ground for future use. Some of it could even end up in the Tulare Lake basin west of Corcoran.

 

What we can’t do with mid-winter storm runoff is store it in Lake Kaweah for use the following summer. In wet winters, it is Lake Kaweah that protects Visalia from flooding, and there is nothing more useless than a flood control reservoir full of water.

 

Do I have you feeling uncertain?  You should be. Winter weather in Central California is always erratic, and El Niño winters tend to exaggerate that variability.

 

The odds are in favor of substantial rains this winter, but like all things that involve odds, the outcome is uncertain. We may see intense warm rains and flooding. Or, we may have a good snowpack. Or it just may stay dry.

 

So here we go.  All we have to do to prepare is make plans to control floodwaters while we stay alert to the possibility of continued drought. Such is the nature of the place in which we live.

 

© Wm. Tweed

THE ROUGH FIRE

So what are we to make of the Rough Fire now that it is winding down?

 

Most of you know the basic story. Lightning ignited this fire in the middle Kings River Canyon on July 31st, and by early September the fire had covered an enormous area (well over 200 square miles), filled the region with choking smoke, and threatened everything from the Grant Grove of the giant sequoias to the Hume Lake Christian Camp.

 

A naturalist can pull all kinds of lessons out of this incident – far more, in fact, than one can squeeze into a column this size. But allow me to share some important points.

 

The first corrects what seems to be a broadly held misconception – that the fire was “allowed” to burn in its early stages rather than being vigorously attacked by the Forest Service.

 

To hold this opinion is to deny the reality of fire fighting. This fire wasn’t called the “Rough Fire” for nothing. Nature ignited it in some of the roughest and most remote country in the Sierra. The terrain, in fact, was so steep, that it would have been murderous folly to put fire crews on the ground near the ignition site. They could easily have perished.

 

Instead, there was little choice but to fight the fire aerially.  Was this adequate?  Obviously it wasn’t, but there were no other options at that point.

 

I’ve also heard it said that the fire would not have grown so large had the areas that burned been logged first. This also denies reality. Here’s the hard fact – most of the forested country that burned in this fire had already been logged, with the result that the big fire-resistant trees were long gone, replaced by flammable thickets of smaller trees.

 

Let me say that again — this fire was made worse not by lack of logging but rather by the results of many decades of intense tree harvesting that made the forest more flammable.  

 

This is a critical point. Prescribed burns during periods of low flammability can thin forests and make them much more resistant to conflagrations. But such strategies only work in forests where the older and larger trees have been left in place.

 

Let me give you an example. Near its climax, the Rough Fire approached the boundary of the Grant Grove Section of Kings Canyon National Park. There it ran into unlogged forests containing large, fire-resistant trees. And, critically, these forests had been prescribe-burned by the National Park Service.

 

It shouldn’t surprise you that the fire was stopped there. The Rough Fire did no significant damage at Grant Grove.

 

And here’s the biggest lesson of all – expect to see more fires of this intensity in coming years. Our climate is changing – that’s no longer worth arguing about– and we can expect more intense swings between very wet cycles – this coming winter perhaps – and long, dry periods of intense heat and aridity.

 

Such a pattern will lead inevitably to more fires like the Rough Fire.  Fresno County just had its turn – one of these days, fire on this scale will come to the forests of Tulare County. Sadly, we can count on it.

 

And perhaps, if we are smart, we can also plan for it.

 

© Wm. Tweed

LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE

For those of us who find nature interesting, there is no greater pleasure than exploring this wonderful planet of ours. It’s fun to get close to little things – wildflowers for example – but sometimes the bigger patterns of nature demand our attention as well.

 

I’m opening today’s column with this thought in the way of introducing a confession.  This summer, my wife and I indulged in a guilty pleasure – we undertook an extended  “drive-about” that lasted nearly a month and a half and took us all the way to the Yukon and Alaska.  Altogether, we drove about 8500 miles, in the process burning more gasoline than I feel good about.

 

I have many friends who take little or no pleasure from driving. They consider it an unpleasant chore at best and at worse a stressful exercise in anxiety control. In California these days, they may well have a point. I don’t know anyone who enjoys driving on Highway 99.

 

But beyond the Golden State and the Interstate Highway System that links our nation’s major cities, the world opens up and there is much to see on this continent of ours, especially if you find natural history interesting.

 

Ecologists divide North America into “eco-regions” – large areas that share a consistent geology, climate, and native vegetation. In our big drive this summer, my wife and I took the measure of more than a dozen such regions.

 

If you know our continent, you can follow our route easily enough as I describe the regions we traversed. We began by crossing the Mojave Desert and then the Colorado Plateau – that broad region of red-rock country that forms the heart of Utah. Moving onward, we enjoyed the Rocky Mountains in Colorado before we turned north into the arid sagebrush uplands of Wyoming.

 

Still moving north, we skirted the semi-arid high plains grasslands of Montana and Alberta, Canada,  before we left the open country behind and entered the great northern forests– first scattered aspen groves and soon endless stands of spruce.

 

Eventually, we crossed the Rocky Mountains again and headed into the cold-stunted forests of the Yukon River basin – a permafrost region that took us all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska.

 

Coming south again, we sought out the massive glaciers of the coastal mountains of southeast Alaska, cut through the empty heart of the northwestern quarter of British Columbia and sailed down 300 miles of the Inside Passage, where we were surrounded by dense temperate rainforest.

 

Landing on the northern end of Vancouver Island, we continued south and watched rain forest transition mile by mile into more drought-resistant scenery that eventually returned us to the familiar lowland California world of oak and grass.

 

As I said above, for a naturalist, there is no greater pleasure than exploring. To watch one natural region transition into another is to see how this world of ours is stitched together.

 

But there was another lesson that came from this trip, and it is an important one.  Essentially, all of the places we went are suffering from problems related to our changing climate.

 

We Californians are usually so engrossed in our own problems with drought and fire that we have little time to pay attention to the issues endured by others. This narrow focus limits our ability to see our concerns as part of broader patterns.

 

Here is some of what we found as we wandered. The Colorado River watershed has been so dry so long (approaching twenty years now) that Lake Mead is the lowest it has been since 1938 when it was first filled.

 

The northern Rocky Mountains built up almost no snowpack last winter – not because it was too dry but rather because it was too warn in these usually frigid places to sustain the usual winter snowpack.

 

In western Canada and Alaska, glaciers that have built up over thousands of years are melting away quickly sending huge surges of silt-filled water down northern rivers.

 

The forests of Canada’s Vancouver Island are so dry that the famous city of Victoria, located just inland from a rainforest, is rationing the water it provides to its citizens.

 

The lesson I draw from all this is simple enough. What has been happening to California is part of a much larger pattern of environmental change.  The world we have called “normal” for the past century is turning into something else – a new world we will have no choice but to adapt to.

 

That’s what I learned this summer. Next time, we’ll focus on what’s been going on locally this summer.

 

© Wm. Tweed

THE ROUGH FIRE

So what are we to make of the Rough Fire now that it is winding down?

 

Most of you know the basic story. Lightning ignited this fire in the middle Kings River Canyon on July 31st, and by early September the fire had covered an enormous area (well over 200 square miles), filled the region with choking smoke, and threatened everything from the Grant Grove of the giant sequoias to the Hume Lake Christian Camp.

 

A naturalist can pull all kinds of lessons out of this incident – far more, in fact, than one can squeeze into a column this size. But allow me to share some important points.

 

The first corrects what seems to be a broadly held misconception – that the fire was “allowed” to burn in its early stages rather than being vigorously attacked by the Forest Service.

 

To hold this opinion is to deny the reality of fire fighting. This fire wasn’t called the “Rough Fire” for nothing. Nature ignited it in some of the roughest and most remote country in the Sierra. The terrain, in fact, was so steep, that it would have been murderous folly to put fire crews on the ground near the ignition site. They could easily have perished.

 

Instead, there was little choice but to fight the fire aerially.  Was this adequate?  Obviously it wasn’t, but there were no other options at that point.

 

I’ve also heard it said that the fire would not have grown so large had the areas that burned been logged first. This also denies reality. Here’s the hard fact – most of the forested country that burned in this fire had already been logged, with the result that the big fire-resistant trees were long gone, replaced by flammable thickets of smaller trees.

 

Let me say that again — this fire was made worse not by lack of logging but rather by the results of many decades of intense tree harvesting that made the forest more flammable.  

 

This is a critical point. Prescribed burns during periods of low flammability can thin forests and make them much more resistant to conflagrations. But such strategies only work in forests where the older and larger trees have been left in place.

 

Let me give you an example. Near its climax, the Rough Fire approached the boundary of the Grant Grove Section of Kings Canyon National Park. There it ran into unlogged forests containing large, fire-resistant trees. And, critically, these forests had been prescribe-burned by the National Park Service.

 

It shouldn’t surprise you that the fire was stopped there. The Rough Fire did no significant damage at Grant Grove.

 

And here’s the biggest lesson of all – expect to see more fires of this intensity in coming years. Our climate is changing – that’s no longer worth arguing about– and we can expect more intense swings between very wet cycles – this coming winter perhaps – and long, dry periods of intense heat and aridity.

 

Such a pattern will lead inevitably to more fires like the Rough Fire.  Fresno County just had its turn – one of these days, fire on this scale will come to the forests of Tulare County. Sadly, we can count on it.

 

And perhaps, if we are smart, we can also plan for it.

 

© Wm. Tweed

THE HIGH SIERRA TEAM GOES TO WORK

In the past two columns I’ve introduced the story of a group of influential men who gathered in Visalia in July 1915 and spent almost two weeks exploring the remote backcountry that now forms the wilderness heart of Sequoia National Park.

 

Just to remind us, the group included the federal congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, the director of the National Geographic Society, the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the chief geographer of the United States Geological Survey, and the state engineer of California.  

 

Leading the party was Stephen Mather, a Californian who had volunteered to spend a year helping the federal government organize its fledgling system of national parks.

 

Mather’s assignment for that year, given to him by the Secretary of the Interior, was to organize and lead a political campaign to create a federal agency to oversee the national park system. At that time, such a bureau did not exist. Each park reported directly to the secretary and had its own unique regulations and policies.

 

Mather had carefully selected the members of his High Sierra group with the hope that they would bond together and form a core team to support the park bureau campaign.

 

In this, he succeeded brilliantly. Once out of the backcountry, and after a quick visit to Yosemite to dedicate the recently purchased (from a mining company) Tioga Pass Road, the members of the “Mather Mountain Party” scattered and set to work.

 

Locally, Ben Maddox, publisher of the Visalia Daily Times (the “Times” in the modern Times-Delta), wrote a series of glowing articles about the trip.  Here, in the style of journalism of those days, are the front-page headlines from the edition of July 30th 1915:

 

“Noted Men and World Travelers of Mather Party Extol Sierra”

“Mountain Scenery of Tulare County is Not Surpassed”

“Wonderful Sequoias of Giant Forest and Grandeur of Kern and Mt. Whitney Sections Impress Visitors”

“LET THIS BE SACRED HERITAGE”

 

Other members of the team went to work as well. Congressman Frederick Gillette used his seniority and leadership role in the congress to move a park bureau bill forward.

 

Gilbert Grosvenor, with the goal of building public support for the parks, dedicated an entire issue of National Geographic Magazine to the beauty of America’s landscapes and the need to protect them. The highlight of the issue was a foldout, full-length photo of Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree.

 

Henry F. Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History rallied support for the campaign within the scientific community.

 

E. O. McCormick of the Southern Pacific Railroad worked to insure that the corporate world of Wall Street understood the benefits of better managing the national parks.

 

Several writers who had taken part, including Emerson Hough, generated a continuing flood of stories for the popular magazines of the day including especially the Saturday Evening Post.

 

And it worked. The following summer a bill successfully made its way through congress authorizing the creation of an agency to be called the National Park Service. President Woodrow Wilson signed it on August 25, 1916.

 

The following day, the good news was transmitted to Stephen Mather via telegram. He was staying, once again, in the Palace Hotel in Visalia.  The telegram said it all:  “Park Bill signed at nine o’clock last night… have pen used by President in signing for you.”

 

Years later, Mather’s personal assistant during this time, a young Californian named Horace Albright, would sum it all up when he remarked that the 1915 pack trip was the “final catalyst” that led to the passage of the act that created the National Park Service.

 

Few wilderness trips have accomplished more.

 

© Wm. Tweed

ON THE TRAIL – 1915

In my last column I introduced a group of influential men that came together in Visalia on the evening of July 14th, 1915. The following morning they motored up to the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park and camped there for the next two nights.

 

Among the group were the federal congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, the director of the National Geographic Society, the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the chief geographer of the United States Geological Survey, and the state engineer of California.  

 

Leading the party and serving as host as they prepared to ride into the backcountry on horses and mules was Stephen Mather, a Californian who had volunteered to spend a year helping the federal government organize its fledgling system of national parks.

 

Mather wanted the group to see the best and the worst of the High Sierra, and to consider what ought to be done next.

 

Finding the best was easy. Beginning in the Giant Forest, the group rode east on rough trails into some of the grandest scenery in the United States. Let’s join them.

 

From the Giant Forest they rode out the Alta Trail and then dropped down into the huge canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. They spent their first night on the trail camped among the giant sequoias at Redwood Meadow. Immediately above their camp, the 12,000-foot-high peaks of the Great Western Divide seemed to scrape the sky.

 

In following days, they crossed Timber Gap, made a quick visit to Mineral King, then rode east over Franklin Pass and descended into the Yosemite-like Kern Canyon, where they spent a day fishing and recuperating in the 104° waters at Kern Hot Spring.

 

On the trail again, the group rode north up the floor of the great Kern Canyon past Junction Meadow, then climbed a steep, rugged trail that took them onto the alpine high country along the canyon’s eastern rim. By the evening of the 22nd, they had arrived at Crabtree Meadow at the western base of Mt. Whitney.

 

The following day had been set aside for climbing the peak – the highest in the forty-eight states. The well graded trail that today leads to the summit would not be constructed until 1930, and in those days, visitors climbing the peak from the west scrambled up a crudely constructed trail over loose talus and boulders – no little challenge for these urban men.

 

Twelve men nevertheless made it to the top of the peak that day, only to be chased from the 14,500-foot summit by a thunderstorm that pelted them with hail and snow and drenched them to the skin.

 

Returning to camp that evening, they were welcomed again by their support party. We’ve been discussing the group as if it consisted only of its guests, but the trip was succeeding because of the tireless efforts of a sizeable support party.

 

Leading the effort was Chinese chef Ty Sing, on loan from the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was known as one of the best backcountry cooks in the West. Supporting him in the camp kitchen was Eugene, another Chinese cook employed by the USGS.  Every night, regardless of how far the group had traveled, these two presented freshly cooked dinners served on white linen tablecloths.

 

Keeping everyone and everything moving was a corps of muleskinners supplied by Sequoia National Park. Park packer Frank Ewing managed the effort, and park superintendent Walter Fry was along as a guide for at least the first part of the trip.

 

On July 27th, after eleven days of backcountry travel, the by-now both exhilarated and exhausted group rode down out of the high country into the desert lands of the Owens Valley. They had crossed the highest part of the Sierra and summited the range’s highest peak.

 

As promised, they had seen both the best and the worst. As a bonded group, they had marveled at the scenery and been equally impressed by miserable trails and meadows stripped bare by grazing cattle.

 

But what had they really learned? What would come of all this?

 

(To be continued)

 

© Wm. Tweed