Restoring the Giant Forest

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(HOST) America’s Giant Sequoias are, at last, being protected from human invasion, while the Park Service provides harmless access to visitors, as commentator Ruth Page reports.

(PAGE) The General Sherman Sequoia in California is the largest in volume of any plant species on earth. It’s 2,200 years old, 275 feet tall, has a base circumference of 103 feet and would tip the scales at 1,385 tons, if we had scales that size.

Can such an immense plant, with thick, ropy bark like strong, red muscles, be fragile? Yes. Sequoias have vast root systems, but the roots lie close to the soil surface. Surface disturbances damage them.

Until quite recently, people didn’t understand this. In the mid-19th century, when American Indians introduced the gorgeous grove to a white man, sheep-herders moved in, then prospectors, then loggers who felled the wood-rich giants. Naturalist John Muir praised the site, dubbing it the Giant Forest. In 1890 President Benjamin Harrison created Sequoia National Park; no more loggers allowed.

A new national park is an invitation to campers to visit, set up camps, call for roads, shops, cabins, a gas station, offices, dining halls and water and sewer systems. The Park Service provided them up into the 1960s. More than once the service moved a cabin, felled a sequoia, then put the cabin back. Rearranging the land led to soil erosion; wild animals either fled or were tamed; bears fed at garbage dumps; oil from tourist cars and campers polluted air, soil and streams; the natural fires required to open sequoia cones and release their seeds were suppressed so people and their cabins would not be in danger.

Soon the area suffered gridlock. Heavy traffic, litter, aging buildings starting to decay… The once breathtakingly lovely natural Giant Forest was beginning to qualify for slum removal. We were loving it to death.

In 1974 a planning team was established to study the area. They said all commercial enterprises must be removed. People soon realized that their behavior and the life of the trees were in serious conflict. They gave up their cabins and amenities. Eventually, 282 buildings, a million square feet of asphalt and many miles of overhead power lines were taken out. The grove was restored and an outside village built at a cost of about 70 million dollars. Soon there will be a shuttle system for the use of visitors, plus a special parking lot to replace the old one that was inside the park. That will complete the Giant Forest restoration.

Tony Frara, who works in the Giant Forest Museum, says he’s traveled the world and never seen anything like this park. “You can always build a gas station somewhere, but you can’t build a 2,000-year-old tree,” he points out.

This is Ruth Page of Shelburne, wondering why it took us so long to appreciate our own matchless Giant Sequoias.

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