Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

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San Gabriel Timberland Reserve, December 20, 1892

Forest conservation was a topic that gri pped eastern intellectua ls and scientists in the late nineteenth century. Various associations and, after

1881, federa l agencies sought to protect a resource that was dwi ndling alarm ingly. This concern led Congress to pass what is now called the Forest Reserve Act in 1891. 1t allowed the president to unilateraUy withdraw public lands for what would become the national forests. Twenty-one months later Benjamin Harrison procla i med California’s first un it, the San Gabriel Ti mberland Reserve, now part of Angeles National Forest. Over the next fifteen years, citi ng needs for timber and watershed conservation, presidents proclaimed un i ts i n California that now form eighteen national forests and one national grassland. They total 20,652,922 acres or twenty percent of California’s area (Figure 10). The United States Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agricu l ture admin isters these lands (Ayres 1958; Clary 1986, 3-28; Steen 1976; US Forest Service

Establishment of the national forests initiated two profound processes that have affected the California landscape. One was the withdrawal of lands from the public doma in, ha lting pri vate land aliena tion. The existence of permanent federa l conservation lands has halted sprawl from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe. At the former, much of the region’s recreation depends on the open space provided by national forests ringing the bloated metropolis. In El Dorado National Forest, the old resort of Tallac at South Lake Tahoe exemplifies one side effect of such designa­ tion-historic preservation. A private, water-oriented subdivision abuts

the forest bou ndary a little over a mile from the late n i neteenth cent ury complex (US Forest Service 1990; Fiske 2000).
In 1931, the Forest Service established eight "primitive areas·in California. Th i s form of management zoni ng exclu d ed roads, tourism development, and most other forest activities in favor of ecological preservat ion. Designation of pri mitive areas in California and within

the country’s other nationa l forests led ulti ma tely to the Wilderness Act of 1964 (78 Sta t. 890). Under that law, Congress has created 4. 5 million

acres of wilderness in California, the ma jority on Forest Service lands. (US Forest Service 1960; US Forest Service 1998).
The second process to affect the California landscape was Forest Service management a body of laws and policies underlai n by a righteous mission of utilitarian con servation. Duri ng the nineteenth cent ury, California’s forestlands su ffered decades of overgrazing, random, shepherd-set fires, and scattered deforestation. Erosion and soil deple­ tion followed, especially i n the southern pa rt of the state. Areas such as the Tahoe Basin, adjacent to Nevada’s silver mines, were particularly hard hit (Strong 1 984, 11-33). The Forest Service responded by severe!y limiting grazing and regu lating Jogging during the twentieth century (Figure 15). In 1902the agency began to reforest its lands. In the first few decades, foresters tried to expand the forests into brushlands and experimented with exotic species. While most of these efforts fa iled, the agency also favored commercially valuable western species, influencing the overa ll forest composi tion. Agency foresters continue to breed and plant superior, insect-resistant stock wh ile maintaining a seed bank to replace species eliminated by epidemics. Over the decades the agency has allowed clear-cutting followed by even-age reforestation in some places and selected species cutting in others, notably the sequoia groves of the southern Sierra Nevada (Clary 1986; Fiske 2000; Kitzmiller 1990).
Added to these actions is the agency’s history of dynamic fire suppression. Taking its cue from the railroads, the Forest Service developed an effec­ tive fire prevention system that i t shared with the National Park Service and other agencies. That prevention system, coupled with aggressive suppression, went unchallenged until the 1960s. The fi re history of California’s mountai ns and the degree to which suppression affected it are subjects of much debate among scholars. Yet the effects, while not quantifiable, are well understood and widespread: arboreal recovery, succession of meadows to forest, community composition change as scrotinous species give way to others, and adjustment of the fauna which have their own landscape impacts (Ayres 1958; Cermak 1998; Sampson

1999). The net results of a ll these actions are an i ncrease in the state’s forest cover since 1900 and a human i zation of those forests.

The Forest Service man i pulated other resources in its units. Conners (1992) has shown that the Forest Servi ce became the chief arbiter of reclamation development in the mountain wa tersheds prior to the Federal Power Act of 1920. By approving some projects and denying others it shaped the ripa ria n history of both highlands and lowlands. Recreation development in the forests has also been extensive. Los Pa­ dres Nationa l Forest a lone has more than 200 permits for second homes on its lands. Other Cal ifor nia n ational forests m atch or exceed it.

Figure 15.

Two photographs of an ElDorado National Forest scene near Caples Lake. The top one. taken in 1919, shows deforestation by Nevada miners. The bottom. from

1998. shows forest recovery under federal management.

Photographs provided by Dono Supemowicz. U. S. Forest SetYfce.

In addition to thcsr modest structures. the agency permitted tourism

development on a larger sca le ranging from the roadside commercial

strips of the Sierra Nt"v. lda highways to recreation camps for the coastal cities to major ski resorts. The Forest Service also designed campgrounds and trails to satisfy the nearly 70 million visitors that usc these lands each year. Unpaved roads and railbeds, left over from contracted log­ ging. often became the foci of off-road vehicle use and recreation homes (Los Padres National orcst n. d. ;Tweed 1980; US Forest Service 1998).
Other effects of the national forests in California extend beyond their boundaries. Encourdgcd by thei r example, the state developed its Cdli­ forn ia Demonstrat ion St. 1te Forests. Eight of these units lie within a va­ riety of the sta te’s ecologi c(I zones and tota l 71 ,000 acres. Stdte for·esters intensi vel y m(mngc them for forest improvement and nrc preven tion (Hasti ngs 1986). Marwgernent of the nationa l forests haled to key legislation other than the Wilderness Act. Over the years, cri t ics charged that the agency ignored its multiple usc mandat e in favor of one that emphasized logging. Even tually this led to the Multiple Usc Sustained Yield Act of 1960. That law and its interpretation led in tum to the National Environmental Policy Act. another of our fifteen events (fiske


In 1908 Congress passed a law (35 Stat. 251) ordering the Forest Service to rctum 25 percent of the monies gained by logging contracts. grazing perrnits, and other functionto the state. The state then distributes the funds to the counties where these forest activit ies took place. As earl y as

1930 t hat revenue exceeded the amount of money the state could raise

by taxes if the national forests d id not exist. This, in t u rn, nffccts the patterns of sta tewi de settlement and developmen t by supporting cou r>­ tics and towns, pMt icu l nrly in the northem part of the state. tha t might suffer decl i ne or abandonment wit hout those funds (US Forest Service

If one nics over the mountainous portions of California, the landscape below presents a mix of clearings, chaparral, and green forest. Twined through much of the landscape is a latticework of mostly unJ>(Wed roads totaling 45,000 miles in the eighteen forest units. A legacy of logging. fire prevention, and vehicular recreation. they halt at the edges of the Wilderness areas and at the highest elevations. Along those roads and te occasional paved highway are strung small clearings for commer­ cral and residential stnrctures. Unseen from that a l titude, but inevitably there, lie campgrounds. more spacious than those of the Nationdl f’dfk Service, tra ils mMked wit h arrows nailed to the trees, fire lookouts at the high vanwgc-poi ntand the occasiona l recreat ion hornc>tead hid­ den u nder the canopy. lJu t the most striking thi ng abou t fl yi ng over or

hiking t hrough the state’s highlands is how much of California remains forested, albeit by a h umanized aggregate of natun1l commun ities.

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