Podcast Episodes

Restoring the Giants

Awe-inspiring giant sequoia trees are among the largest living things on earth, but the opportunity to experience them is rare. Approximately 75 groves exist, and only along the southern Sierra’s western slope on moist sites between about 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation. Giant Forest, one of the largest groves, was saved from logging by the establishment of Sequoia National Park in 1890. But national park status did not fully protect the big trees. 

On this episode, the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park. 

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The road that brought visitors to Giant Forest also brought camping, cabins, commercial development, and congestion. The impacts of this development, both to the giant sequoia ecosystem and to the quality of visitor experience, conflicted with the National Park Service mandate to conserve park resources and values and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations. 

Commercial recreational use of Giant Forest began in 1899 with the construction of a tent camp that was reached by a pack mule train. In 1903 a proper road was completed and the tent camp grew accordingly. The end of the road at Round Meadow became the location for a ramshackle collection of semi-permanent summer camps, along with administrative and concessionaire buildings. Ensuing campaigns to draw people to the national parks — and to see the “big trees” in particular — generated a massive increase in visitation. From 1915 to 1930, lodges, four campgrounds, dozens of parking lots, a garbage incinerator, water and sewage systems, a gas station, corrals, and over 200 cabins were built, along with, restaurants, office, retail, and bath-house structures. Many of these were located directly among stands of monarch sequoias. 

By the late 1920s, this disturbing human impact on the Giant Forest was noted by many, including Emilio Meinecke, an eminent forest pathologist who was commissioned by National Park Service 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. A 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. 

Another voice to arise in the late 1920s was that of the park concessioner, the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company. This fledgling company immediately recognized the commercial value of the Giant Forest, and was at odds with those who would favor conservation. 

The outspoken Colonel White was to be Superintendent of the parks for two decades. During his tenure, 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. But the conscessionaire won nearly every battle. In 1931 Colonel White drew a line in the sand, refusing the concessioner’s proposed addition of five new cabins to the Giant Forest Lodge 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, but chose to institute limits on guest capacity — a decision that would mark the first occasion that the Park Service would limit 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 would contain more than 400 structures.

In the 1920s, Emilio Meinecke put considerable effort into understanding the human impact on the big trees, even as other scientific research on the trees was stagnant. During these years, landscape architects directed most land-use planning. The science of ecology was in its infancy, as was landscape architecture. It was geared toward swift, visually appealing results instead of preservation. 

It wouldn’t be until 1954, when the National Park Service instituted a dramatic change in land management policy, that giant sequoia groves would begin to receive protection fitting their importance. That year, the Yosemite Report, commissioned by the Yosemite superintendent, concluded that human impacts were harming the roots of sequoias, and recommended removal of development.

In 1962, scientist Richard Hartesveldt found that altered hydrology in the Mariposa Grove and increasingly dense competing vegetation without natural fire was causing the most severe impacts to sequoias. The most damage was caused where major roots had been cut for road construction. 

In 1963 came the Leopold Report, which had an enormous influence on science in the parks. 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, lending tremendous backing to the movement to restore the Giant Forest.

Colonel White’s vision of a natural Sequoia National Park wouldn’t begin to be realized until the turn of the millennium. After years of planning, design, and construction, the process began to restore the forest to its natural state.

The first challenge was to demolish and remove infrastructure without causing further damage to vegetation and soils. Over 282 buildings, 24 acres of asphalt, dozens of manholes, a sewage treatment plant and spray field, and all exposed sewer and water pipe, aerial telephone and electric lines, and underground propane and fuel tanks were removed delicately. Many of the buildings contained lead-based paint, asbestos insulation, and mercury light fixtures requiring extra care.

Asphalt pavement in roads, parking lots, and walkways was removed by lifting the pavement edges using the claw of an excavator or backhoe. To protect shallow roots, underground water and sewer lines were left in place unless portions were exposed during demolition. Underground propane tanks were purged of any remaining propane and removed completely. Telephone lines, electric lines, and light fixtures that were attached to live trees were delicately removed.

All overnight accommodations were relocated, and the entire grove has been converted from overnight-use to day-use. Once the home of nearly 300 buildings, the region now has four.

But the removal of human development was not enough. Paved roads, trails, and parking lots changed drainage patterns, allowing water to concentrate and create erosion gullies. Vehicle and foot travel compacted the soil and quickly broke down needles and twigs on the soil surface, depleting the topsoil of organic matter. Groups of mature trees were cleared for buildings and parking lots. There were very few grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, or tree seedlings due to the lack of fire and human trampling.

A massive restoration project was needed to recover the regions ecological integrity. The park service regraded roads, trails, parking lots, and other altered landforms to resemble the original topography and drainage patterns, using soil that approximated the surrounding, undisturbed soils.

The vegetation would then begin to be restored, largely by letting natural fire do its work, bringing new trees to life. 

Today’s restored Giant Forest results from the efforts of countless dedicated personnel, from biologists to heavy equipment operators. But the monumental accomplishments of this project stem from the unwavering ideals of managers and planners beginning with Colonel White.

The dramatic landscape of Sequoia National Park, and its sister park King’s Canyon, is full of huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and, of course, the world’s largest trees. The two parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley. The elevation ranges from 1,370′ to 14,494′. The largest and finest groves of giant sequoias grow at the sometimes snowy mid-elevations.

Giant Forest is one of many sequoia groves in the parks, but it’s the largest of the unlogged giant sequoia groves and contains more exceptionally large sequoias than any other, including the largest living sequoia, the General Sherman Tree. 

Giant Forest has an extensive network of hiking trails that range from 1-2 hour hikes to half-day or longer explorations. 

Throughout the summer, free in-park shuttle service will get you around without the pains of finding parking. There are fourteen campgrounds in these parks, including three that are open year-round. Most campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Check vehicle-length limits on park roads before deciding which route to take in. There are no RV hookups in the parks, but many of the campgrounds can accommodate RVs. There are also 4 lodges for those wanting the National Park Lodge experience. 

Podcast Episodes

Fighting on Arrival, Fighting for Survival

During the Indian conflicts on the western plains after the Civil War, Native Americans gave Black regiments of the U.S. Army the name Buffalo Soldiers, after their short, curly hair, which to them, looked like a bison. The soldiers took a liking to the name, and it stuck.

The Buffalo Soldiers contributed to the U.S. in many ways over the course of nearly 90 years, but one of their most important was as the first caretakers of our national parks. Between 1891 and 1913, the Army was tasked with the protection of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Buffalo soldiers fought wildfires and poachers, ended illegal grazing of livestock on federal lands, and constructing roads, trails and other infrastructure. In 1903, Captain Charles Young led a company of Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia and what is now Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, becoming the first African American park superintendent.

Gabriel & Arminta Young, an enslaved couple from May’s Lick, Kentucky, gave birth to son Charles on March 12th, 1864. That same year, Gabriel escaped enslavement and joined the 5th Regiment, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery of the Union Army. The family relocated across the river into Ripley, Ohio, seeking a new life in the river town, which was also an important station of the underground railroad.

Young Charles excelled in school, particularly in foreign languages and in music. His mother had been educated while enslaved, a rarity, and she taught him lessons beyond his public schooling. Charles graduated with academic honors from an integrated high school in 1881 at age 17. Knowing the power of education, after high school, he taught the children at the African-American elementary school in Ripley for two years while he continued his own education by studying with renowned abolitionist John Parker.

Gabriel encouraged his son to take apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Charles scored the second highest on the exam but was not selected to the Academy that year. When the candidate ahead of him dropped out of West Point, Charles Young would receive his opportunity.

As a cadet, Young encountered racial insults and isolation. He suffered poor academic performance in his first year and was forced to repeat it. Starting over, he did well, until he was faced with a failing grade in engineering during his last semester. After tutoring from his instructor, he was allowed to re-take the exam. He passed and was awarded his diploma and commission in the summer of 1889. He was only the ninth African American to attend West Point, and the third to graduate.

African American officers were not allowed to command white troops. Young was assigned as the 2nd Lieutenant to the 9th Cavalry at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. After a year of isolation and hostility, Young transferred to a post in Utah, where the command and fellow officers proved more welcoming. Here he mentored Sergeant Major Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. who later became the first African American to attain the rank of General. He also served as director of the fort’s marching band.

Between 1889 and 1907 Charles Young served in the 9th Cavalry, now known as the Buffalo Soldiers, at posts in the west and rose to the rank of captain. He taught military science, served as a military attaché, and fought in the Philippine-American War, winning the praise of his commanders for his troops’ courage and professionalism, at which point he was assigned to a post in Wilberforce, Ohio.

He was to take over the planning and eventual teaching for the new Military Sciences & Tactics courses at Wilberforce University. Young built the program to just over 100 cadets by the 1898 class. He also helped establish the Wilberforce University marching band and became one of the most distinguished professors.

Young remained at Wilberforce until early 1898 when the war with Spain had begun with the sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Cuba. He did not re-join his troopers of the 9th Cavalry, however. Instead, he was appointed as Major and commander of the Ninth Ohio Battalion, U.S. Volunteers.

In the summer of 1903, Young and his troops were tasked to manage and maintain the recently created Sequoia National Park in northern California. Buffalo Soldiers were among the first park and backcountry rangers patrolling many parts of the West. Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks with duties ranging from evicting poachers and timber thieves to extinguishing forest fires. Their noteworthy accomplishments were executed despite the added burden of racism.

Even though the Buffalo Soldiers wore the uniform of the U.S. Army, racial prejudice made the performance of their duties quite challenging. In the early 1900s, African-Americans were routinely abused, or even killed, for the slightest perceived offense. They occupied one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder; a fact which served to undercut the authority of any black man who served in any position of power. Yosemite and Sequoia’s Buffalo Soldiers had to be simultaneously strong and diplomatic to fulfill the duties of their job but to avoid giving offense.

Upon arrival, Young’s troops proceeded to construct roads and trails that other troops were unable to do in the years before them. They completed the first usable road into Giant Forest and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney. As the leader, Young would inherit the title of Acting Superintendent of Sequoia National Park. He incorporated the local townsfolk to assist his troop’s efforts and he and his troops’ accomplishments from their summer of hard work were lauded by many throughout the area.

In 1904 Captain Young became the first Military Attaché to Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. He joined 23 other officers (the only African American among them) serving in these diplomatic posts in the Theodore Roosevelt administration. He won President Roosevelt’s praise through an introduction Roosevelt wrote for his monograph on the people and customs of Hispaniola. Young’s experiences in foreign service and as a commander in the Philippines formed the basis of his book, “The Military Morale of Nations and Races.”

From 1912 to 1916, he served as the military attaché to Liberia, helping to train the Liberian Frontier Force. After returning from Liberia, he then served as a squadron commander during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico against Pancho Villa. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Agua Caliente, leading his men to the aid of a cavalry unit that had been ambushed. By 1916, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The following summer, Young was medically retired and promoted to colonel in recognition of his distinguished Army service. He wasn’t ready, however, to stop. He was the highest-ranking African American Army officer in 1918, but despite an impressive leadership record, the Army refused Young’s request to command troops in Europe. To demonstrate his fitness to serve, the then 54-year-old hopped a horse and made a historic 500-mile ride from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. Afterwards, the Secretary of War gave Young an informal hearing but did not reverse the decision. Young was, however, sent back to Ohio to help muster and train African-American recruits for the war.

After the war ended, at the request of the State Department, Colonel Young was sent once more to serve as military attaché to Liberia, arriving in Monrovia in February of 1920. While on a visit to Nigeria, he became gravely ill and died at the British hospital in Lagos on January 8th, 1922. Due to British law, Young’s body was buried in Lagos.

In the year after his death, Young’s wife and many other notable African Americans lobbied the U.S. to repatriate Young’s remains from Nigeria so he could receive a proper burial in American soil. One year later, Young’s body was exhumed and transported back to the U.S.

Upon arriving in New York City in late May of 1923, Young’s body received a hero’s welcome. Thousands upon thousands celebrated Young’s life as he made his way to Washington, D.C. On June 1st, 1923, Colonel Charles Young became the fourth soldier honored with a funeral service at Arlington Memorial Amphitheater before he was buried alongside the thousands of other heroes in Arlington.

The Buffalo Soldiers went on to serve the U.S. Army with distinction and honor until the desegregation of the military and disbandment of the 27th Cavalry on December 12, 1951.

On March 25th, 2013, President Obama signed the document establishing the 401st unit under the protection of the National Park Service, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce, Ohio. The proclamation set aside nearly 60 acres of land that includes the former home of Colonel Young. He purchased the house located at 1120 U.S. Route 42 East, with his wife Ada in 1907 and affectionately nicknamed it “Youngsholm.” The house would become the social hub of the Wilberforce University area for many years as notable African Americans, family, friends, and strangers would often gather there to enjoy the Young family hospitality. The house also serves as the face of the park.

“Youngsholm” is situated less than one mile west of the Wilberforce University and Central State University campuses, and is open for regular visitation on weekends but guests can view the historical markers on the park grounds at any time.

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Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.