Chapter 10 - The Lessons of the Big Trees


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Summary of Chapter 10 of Alfred Runte's book "National Parks - An American Experience"

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Chapter 10 - The Lessons of the Big Trees

  1. 1. Chapter 10The Lessons of theBig Trees
  2. 2. Bruce M. Kilgore“I can remember Dr. A. Starker Leopold, on a zoology classfield trip in Lake County, California, in 1951, telling some ofhis students that, before long, fire would be restored tonational parks. It seemed a startling and revolutionary ideaat the time.”1974
  3. 3.  The Second World Conference on NationalParks (1972) summarized ecological issuesoverlooked by the monumentalist approach toestablishing national parks. The original parks have been established withcultural rather than ecological ends in mind. Only the largest parks possessed the diversity ofnatural features necessary for experimentingwith the principles of biological management.Challenging the Traditional Concerns ofNational Park Management
  4. 4.  Gradually, scientists had begun speaking outagainst accommodating people at the expenseof the natural scene. In 1963, the Leopold Committee released itsreport Wildlife Management in National Parks. A new generation of conservationleaders, further influenced by Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring, found the Committee’s conclusionstoo provocative to ignore.Wildlife Management in the National Parks
  5. 5.  The central idea of the report underlined theimportance of maintaining habitats and thatprotection cannot be a substitute for them. Habitat had less to do with artifacts or physicalwonders and more to do with natural processes,such as wind, rain and fire. Habitat could not be regarded as “a fixed orstable entity that can be set aside andpreserved behind a fence, like a cliff dwelling ona petrified tree.”Maintaining Natural Habitats
  6. 6.  Biotic communities evolved by “change throughnatural stages of succession”; altering the parksbiologically required “direct manipulation ofplant and animal populations”. The goal was maintaining or recreating thebiotic associations that prevailed when the areawas first visited by the white man. In short, “a national park should represent avignette of primitive America”.“A vignette of primitive America”
  7. 7.  The report also admitted the obvious: the obstaclesof achieving “this seemingly simple aspiration arestupendous”. Previous indiscriminate logging, burning, livestockgrazing, hunting, predator control, followed byunnatural protection from lightning fires, insectoutbreaks, no natural population controls, no waterlevel fluctuations, invasive species and the effects ofvisitation in parks would make restoration particularlyhard and by no means complete. However, employing a new perspective for a moresensitive management program was vital.Obstacles to Restoration
  8. 8.  Restoring the parks to their appearance at thetime of European contact had been discussedas early as 1910. Only the land altering practices of NativeAmericans were endorsed byscientists, particularly their use of fire, whereasthe Europeans were seen as a disruptive force inwilderness. Therefore, by natural, the committee meantoriginal to North America before the arrival ofColumbus.Natural vs. Original
  9. 9.  The giant Sequoias of the High Sierra had thecultural symbolism of America’s “livingantiquity”, yet, with their scattered protectionhad not come an understanding of their lifecycles and true fragility. Initially, few scientists understood that fire was acommon occurrence among the groves andgovernment wardens discouraged even theperiodic ground fires safeguarded by thenatives.A Symbol of Primitive America
  10. 10.  As late as 1929, a respected conservationistsuch as Curtis K. Skinner upheld the popular viewthat fire “was the greatest threat against theperpetual scenic wealth of our largest NationalParks”. In the early 1900s the government adopted apolicy of “increased vigilance and much carefulattention to fire-fighting equipment” that theprotection of their forest required.A Threat Against Scenic Wealth
  11. 11.  Given the logic that fire was universallybad, those pointing to its necessity fought anuphill battle against public opinion. Among the first to identify the benefits of fire wasCaptain G. H. G. Gale, assigned to the patrol ofYosemite in 1984. He reported that “the absoluteprevention of fires in these mountains willeventually lead to disastrous results.” Annual firesremoved the litter of fallen needles and toppledtrees, leaving “the ground ready for next year’sgrowth.”From Threat to Necessity
  12. 12.  Gradually, the original forest molded in the presenceof fire was transformed by its replacement. By the time scientists revisited the subject of firesuppression during de 1950s, it was a case of notseeing the forest for the trees. Current managers considered the new vegetationdensity among Sequoia groves “normal”. Not until the Leopold Committee report and evenafter that did the National Park Service seriouslyreassess whether fire should be returned to its forestsas a management tool.Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees
  13. 13.  In 1961, anticipating the Leopold CommitteeReport, a pathbreaking article by H. H.Biswell, professor of Forestry at the University ofCalifornia, noted the consequences of firesuppression. Shade tolerant species developed in densethickets in the understory of Big Trees, greatlyadding to the fire hazard, together with thelarge increase in debris, and turning the SierraNevada forests from “relatively clean, open andpark-like” to “nearly impassable”.Impassable Forests
  14. 14.  Such conditions only invited a majorconflagration that would wipe out the forestentirely. Fires in the original, primeval forest had been“friendly”, limited to herbs, needles and deadleaves; the giant Sequoias asbestos-like barkeasily resisted the low flames and mild heat. A modern fire would be enormously destructive,fed by the development of a solid fuel layerfrom top to bottom, and rendering the wildfires“devastating and difficult to control”.Devastating Wildfires
  15. 15.  First major studies of the sequoia forests aftermid-century confirmed that sequoia seedssimultaneously needed open sunlight andbare, mineral soils, otherwise they failed togerminate. Young sequoias were intolerant of shade andcompetitive vegetation. In the absence of mild fires that historicallyspared enough seedlings to replenish the agingtrees, the young trees are stunted by shade orstrangled by the debris.The Needs of the Sequoia Forests
  16. 16.  John L. Vankat, assistant professor of Botany atMiami University, wrote that disturbed ecosystemsneeded to be returned to the point where naturalprocesses may act as primary management agents. The diaries of the forty-niners coming to SierraNevada spoke of the large mature trees on a “grassparkland ground, in springtime carpeted withwildflowers”. By 1963, the fire suppression led to “dog-hair thicketof young pines, white fir, incense cedar and maturebrush” common along the western slope of theSierra.Natural Processes as Management Agents
  17. 17.  In September 1967, the Park Service officiallyreversed its long-standing policy of suppressingall fires in the National Parks. “Fires in vegetation resulting from natural causesare recognized as natural phenomena”. If “contained within predetermined firemanagement units” and contributing to the“accomplishment of approved vegetation andwildlife management objectives” , wildfires “maybe allowed to run their course”.A New Policy
  18. 18.  The extensive use of fire by the Native Americansand the unnatural accumulation of deadbranches, litter and competitive vegetation justifiedhuman intervention. To restore natural fires, the vegetation growingamong the big trees had to be removed byhand, stacked and burned undersupervision, followed by the monitored burning of thelitter on the forest floor. Only then natural firesoccurring from lightning strikes would be permittedunder the watchful eye of park biologists.The Dilemma of Human Intervention
  19. 19.  Allowing fire to be restored emerged as themost profound and successful response to theprinciples of biological management outlined inthe Leopold Committee Report. Unlike other controversial recommendationssuch as the reintroduction of natural predators, itdid not depend on the cooperation of othergovernment agencies and private land owners,and could be restricted to areas solely underPark Service control.Biological Management
  20. 20.  Tourists driving hundreds or thousands of miles to seemonumental scenery protested when its featureswere obscured by smoke. Other critics saw a contradiction in allowing naturalpollution to hang over the parks while at the sametime objecting to the smoke and dust of cities andcoal-fired power plants. Broader still, where should manipulation of theenvironment begin and end? Were not the pioneersand their descendants now the natural andtherefore legitimate presence in the environment?Detractors of the New Policy
  21. 21.  Regardless, no longer were the national parks asimple case of protecting an object withoutmanaging for its longevity, especially when theobject was a living entity. Noting the planned restoration of Giant Forest inSequoia National Park, environmentalistsapplauded a solution actually advocating theremoval of visitor facilities, including cabins anda lodge. Restoration was completed in 2006, removing allhuman amenities on 231 acres.Ecological Restoration
  22. 22. Giant Instructors Initially viewed as monuments, the giantSequoias thus had become instructors of thegreater relevance of naturalenvironments, giving an object lesson for everynational park. Certainly, wherever science was now in theascendancy, the giant sequoias had helpedsmooth the way.