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Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the oldest of the Sequoias, trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the eventful centuries since Christ’s time, and long before that, God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand storms; but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools; this is left to the American people. -- John Muir
In September of 2009, like many supporters and devotees of our National Parks, I watched Ken Burns' and Dayton Duncan's masterful documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. In the course of watching the six part, 12 hour series I learned the breadth of the contributions of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was far greater than I had previously realized.

In the more than two years since, I've done quite a fair bit of reading and even researching on the national parks and their history having no doubt inherited a sometimes excessively geekish fascination with history from my social studies teacher parents. In the course of that reading, I was further astonished not only by the breadth of Rockefeller's contributions, exceeding even that portrayed in the documentary but also by the depth of Rockefeller's involvement. He wasn't just some rich patron writing a check when funds were needed. He was deeply involved in the planning and development of his many contributions. By my count, Rockefeller made substantial contributions to ten national parks and one national historical park as well as minor land purchases augmenting six more national parks.

Among the long list of his contributions is one that is often overlooked because it came in the midst of several other park projects that grabbed the bigger headlines, but is perhaps one of the most important events in the history of Yosemite National Park: the preservation of the groves of great sugar pines and yellow pines near the Big Oak Flats Road north of the Crane Flats. For the whole story, jump below the squiggle.

The history of Yosemite as a park begins on June 30, 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill transferring to the care of the State of California the Yosemite Grant, a land grant that included the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias. The terms and conditions of the grant called for the land to be preserved for "public use, resort and recreation." For more than a quarter century this remained the only portion of the Sierra Nevada range protected from lumber harvesting, mining and other commercial industrial development and even this protection was at times limited by the corruption of the California commission charged with administering the Yosemite Grant.

In the areas surrounding the park, lumberman had begun felling the big trees. Miners were patenting claims under the Mining Act of 1872. Sheepherders were grazing enormous flocks of sheep in the high meadows during the summer. The entire area surrounding the pristine valley was threatened with development that would eventually destroy the life giving waters that nourished the valley.

The naturalist and popular author John Muir began a campaign in the late 1880's to extend the protection of the Yosemite region by making the high country surrounding the Yosemite Valley a national park as had been done with the Yellowstone National Park. On October 1, 1890, Muir and his allies succeeded in securing the creation of not one, but three national parks in the Sierra Nevada. Two groves of Sequoias south of the Yosemite Grant were created as Sequoia and General Grant National Parks and the high country surrounding the Yosemite Grant was made part of a massive 1512 square mile Yosemite National Park, but exclusive of the areas in the original Yosemite Grant.

The law creating Yosemite National Park, however, was passed on a suspension day in Congress to insure its passage. The bill had not undergone the rigors that a bill of this sort would normally undergo and as a result the park area took in a great many privately own parcels of forest as well as over three hundred mining claims, including one mine that had already produced in excess of $3,000,000 in gold. The competing claims by the landowners and the government would be partially rectified on February 7, 1905 when another act of Congress would remove some 543 square miles from the park area, but add some 114 square miles of land not previously in the park for a net loss of 429 square miles. A year later, joint resolutions by the Congress and State of California would cede the original Yosemite Grant back to the Federal Government for inclusion within the park.

But these two laws did not solve the problem of privately owned parcels of land within the boundaries of Yosemite. By the late 1920's timber companies began moving to log the parcels they owned within the park re-igniting an issue that had slumbered for two decades. The National Park Service simply did not have the money to buy the parcels. NPS Director Stephen Mather had lobbied Congress to set aside the funds to purchase the land back in the early 20's, but Congress refused. By 1928, the value of the timber on the privately held land had more than doubled, placing a purchase plan further out of reach.

Left with the prospect of losing trees the NPS desperately wanted preserved, the park service was forced to negotiate a devil's bargain. In exchange for saving the groves of trees it wanted to preserve, a complex land deal with the Forest Service and the lumber companies was worked out. If the plan cleared all the hurdles, some 13,200 acres of land (over half privately owned) would be carved out of the park and  made part of the national forest while ownership of the choice parcels the NPS wanted would be transferred to the government. The lumber companies would see a profit of about $90,000 in the timber swap. The plan also would have removed two of the largest groves of Sequoias, the Merced and Tuolumne Groves, from the park making them susceptible to logging by forest service lease, but it was hoped that the two groves would be designated national monuments by the President to prevent such a fate.

A law passed by Congress in 1928 authorized the land swaps, but the lumber companies only intensified their pursuit of harvesting on their other privately owned land within the park including parcels that contained some of the tallest sugar pines in North America. The area of sugar pines and yellow pines served as a natural boundary protecting the meadows of the high Sierra and were of even greater value ecologically and economically than the swaps already being contemplated. The lumber companies agreed to hold off logging the land for another year while Congress tried to arrive at a solution. The price tag for these precious sugar and yellow pines was in excess of $3,000,000.

Consider that as this point in the history of the national parks, the U.S. Government had never had to purchase land for national parks. It simply used land it already had or, in the case of Lafayette National Park, soon to be renamed Acadia, donated land. In 1929, supporters began a fundraising campaign to buy the trees on the understanding that their contributions would be matched by the Federal Government, but Montana's two U.S. Senators blocked the bill that authorized up to $3,000,000 be spent for the purchase of the land. One of them not only owned stock in one of the lumber companies, but land within the park itself. The filibuster threatened to push the battle off until the following year with the deal staying the lumbermen's axes threatening to expire. Only a last minute push managed to secure the bill's passage.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had a keen interest in the parks. He had already at this point donated and directed many park projects including $2 million for land purchases and the construction of carriage roads in Lafayette Natl Park road he personally designed and supervised the construction of, collaborated with Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright on the cleanup of the roadsides in that park to the tune of nearly $50,000, funded museum construction in Mesa Verde, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks, giving $160,000 to complete the land purchases necessary for the creation of Shenandoah National Park and a staggering $5 million to complete the $10 million needed to buy the land for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  By this time he had also spent over $1.5 million to secretly purchase 33,000 acres of land in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the future expansion of Grand Teton National park, an action that with a couple of years would spawn a cause célebre complete with its own Congressional investigation.

Rockefeller Grove - 02
A sugar pine in the Rockefeller Grove of Yosemite National Park (Photo credit: Snakefriend7)
When Rockefeller read about the controversy regarding the sugar pines, in late 1929 he offered to foot the private half of the $3.3 million to save the trees. In May of the following year, the deal was sealed and publicly announced. Rockefeller had given $1,645,955.77 to complete the purchase. That comes out to be about $22,170,000 in today's dollars. On May 31, 1930, a check drawn on the U.S. Treasury for $3,298,685.61 was delivered to the trust company owning the land.  Some 15,570 acres within the park boundary and 5,536 outside the park came under federal control. A bill passed the previous year authorized the land to be added to the park in addition to over 2,000 of Forest Service controlled acreage.

In editorializing on the purchase in the New York Times, Horace Albright, by then National Park Service Director, stated

Except for its creation in 1890 and the return of the incomparable Yosemite Valley from State ownership in 1906, no event in the history of Yosemite National Park approaches in importance this forest acquisition of 1930, and no future event, so far as we can see now, will ever eclipse it, for it halts forever the commercialization of the park's resources of plant life.
Months earlier, Albright, who exchanged regular and often quite detailed correspondence on park projects with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for a quarter century, on behalf of the National Park Service graciously thanked the great philanthropist for his generous contribution. In reply, Rockefeller told Albright
I am delighted that this long and difficult negotiation has at length been brought to a satisfactory conclusion and that these thousands of acres of virgin timber will now be for all time preserved for the enjoyment of the public.
The western boundary of Yosemite National Park. The green outline is the modern boundary reflecting the additions in 1930 and addition of tracts acquired in 1937. The blue line is the approximate boundary line of the park's 1905 reduction. The snaking portion takes in the Merced and Tuolumne Groves. The area highlighted in red is the approximate extent of the tracts saved by the joint purchase by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and the Federal Government in May 1930.
Today, the Merced and Tuolumne Groves remain within the park thanks to the deal and thousands of additional acres nearby containing the great sugar pines and yellow pines passed out of private hands. The sugar and yellow pines are now known as the Rockefeller Grove (not to be confused with the Rockefeller Grove of Coastal Redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California). The grove is on one of the  winter cross country skiing trails as the route is mostly level save one small hill. The trail follows the old logging road that would have been used to excise the trees from the park had the purchase not been completed. To reach the trailhead, take the Big Oak Flats Road to the Merced Grove trailhead parking area. Across the road and to the northwest a short way will be an unmarked trailhead leading the 1.5 miles to some of the sugar pines preserved by Rockefeller's donation.
Rockefeller Grove - 07
The trail to the Rockefeller Grove in Yosemite National Park, following the path of a former logging road. (Photo credit: Snakefriend7)
Park Avenue Note: I may be publishing a few more looks at the contributions of John D. Rockefeller, Jr and his family to the National Parks in the next couple of weeks. In fact I'm even playing with the idea of writing a book on it. The photographer Nancy Newhall wrote one on Rockefeller's contributions in 1957, but I think the subject warrants more depth than she went into and can use some updating on some of the other projects not mentioned (and ones subsequent to its publication). I have a few other non-JDR, Jr topics planned for the future as well. As always, if anyone is interested in contributing a diary on the national and state parks, let me know via Kosmail and we'll get you published on here.

Originally posted to Park Avenue on Tue Feb 14, 2012 at 09:00 AM PST.

Also republished by J Town and Community Spotlight.

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