Giant Sequoia is a monument to why we need monuments

With few original trees left, the area exemplifies the need for protection.


Zach St. George is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. He is a writer in Oakland, California.

The old logging roads are grown over with brush and trees, and the smaller trails have faded to faint lines in the duff, barely visible enough to follow. The only human artifacts I’ve seen in two days of hiking are a rusty cable and a sun-bleached Tecate beer can. The only sign of what happened here are the stumps themselves.       

I’m in California’s Sierra Nevada, in a valley called Converse Basin, a corner of what is currently Giant Sequoia National Monument. I say “currently” because Giant Sequoia is one of the 20-odd monuments whose status is under review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. While I hope for this entire monument’s continued protection, Converse Basin is not so much a natural wonder as the glaring absence of one.

Between the dry ridgelines are wet alpine meadows, and in these meadows, scattered amid the pines, firs and cedars, lie the ruins of what was once the world’s greatest forest of giant sequoia trees. This place is a monument to why we need monuments.                         

The sequoias are among the biggest and oldest living things on Earth, which in one way suggests their toughness. It took a crew of men three weeks to fell their first sequoia; lacking a saw big enough for the job, they attacked it with an auger, drilling hole after hole after hole until it finally toppled. What other tree could resist so long?                                                                   

But the sequoias are few, just 70-odd groves scattered along the central Sierra Nevada’s west flank. Their rarity makes it clear that, for all their toughness, they are also fragile — and made more so by the attention they attract.

Giant Sequoia National Monument was created by former President Bill Clinton in 2000. It is one of 27 monuments currently under review.

In the northern groves, where European-Americans first found them, few sequoia could be found, and people cut them as trophies. “Many a poor, defrauded town dweller will pay his dollar and peep,” John Muir wrote. “But a true and living knowledge of these tree gods is not to be had at so cheap a rate.” I’ve seen these museum exhibits, and they are impressive, but Muir is right. It is different to stand before the living trunks, to look up and up and be made small.

But people did much worse than take a few trophies. As miners, loggers, and explorers crisscrossed the jagged mountains, they discovered the bigger southern groves, where the sequoias were the dominant trees in the forest. To many, these plentiful groves suggested that the trees could be not mere curiosities, but commodities.                        

Thanks to lobbying by Muir and other early conservationists, Congress created Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) national parks in 1890, protecting many of the biggest groves. But just a few miles from the new national parks, workmen swarmed through Converse Basin, building roads and mills.

In photos, these loggers stand on the stumps clutching saws and axes, in suspenders and brimmed hats, their faces blank. They are immigrants and Civil War veterans, with kids to feed and rent coming due — working men with the most relatable problems. Writing of that era, historians often hasten to shift blame to the lumber barons themselves. Part of that is true: Hiram Smith and Austin Moore were the ones who built the mill and sent the sequoias sailing down from Converse. But they only did what many business owners would do, then or now, given the option. Timberlands were cheap and the burgeoning West was hungry for lumber.

But that is not their legacy. I walk the logging roads, cutting across hillsides now covered with regrown woods. Here and there are the big stumps. The sequoias often splintered when they hit the ground; other times, they were just too big to buck. In what is now called Stump Meadow, the wasted boles lie crowded together like the columns of a fallen Greek temple. In the evening, I sit on one of the stumps and have my dinner, listening to the frogs. It is a mournful place.                                                            

Many young sequoias grow at the edges of this meadow and the others. Maybe someday people will travel to Converse Basin to see its giant trees. Maybe by then the stumps will have rotted away and people will have forgotten the destruction. Maybe they’ll even have forgotten the name of John Muir, who by his foresight made himself memorable.

It’s more certain that there will still be people looking for work, with kids to feed and rent to pay. In their need, they will often want to take for themselves things that are big and rare and old, and they will probably often take them. But hopefully not all of them.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • This position provides professional* real estate services for CPW and the Commission to include acting as an official representative in real property transactions and negotiations...
  • 16' Long x 7' Wide x 7',fully equipped,top of line,$7000 sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • Sycamore Land Trust, a 501(c)(3) located in Bloomington, IN, is seeking an exceptionally qualified, motivated candidates for Executive Director.
  • The Director of Marketing and Communications will plan and lead execution of the NFF external marketing and communications efforts. The position will provide strategic and...
  • Development and Communications Coordinator for HawkWatch International. Emphasis on grant writing and fundraising through various social media platforms. Salary range $35,000-$38,000.
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is hiring a full-time Restoration Program Coordinator based in Escalante, Utah.
  • Work passionately on behalf of the finest hiking and equestrian trail in the Western United States. Work for the Pacific Crest Trail Association! The Pacific...
  • 7.58 Acres in Delta County for $198,000. and a contiguous 25 acre parcel of land zoned agricultural is available in Montrose county for an additional...
  • in Moab, UT start in Spring. Naturalist, River Guides, Camp Cooks, Internships available. Details at
  • Work passionately on behalf of the Pacific Crest Trail Association! Headquartered in Sacramento, California, PCTA is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest...
  • The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) seeks an energetic and motivated Stewardship Coordinator to manage on-going conservation easement stewardship and to work within our...
  • Program Manager, Tongass Forest Program Position Description The Southeast Alaska Conservation Councils Tongass Forest Program Manager coordinates all of the forest and land-use-related campaign work...
  • Friends of the San Juans is looking for an experienced attorney. Details at:
  • 25 acre in native grasses. Cedar draw. Year-round spring. At foot of Moscow Mnt, ID, 7 miles from town.
  • Custom-built pumice home, endless views, 20 minutes to Taos Ski Valley, NM. Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Taos Real Estate, 575-758-1924,
  • 5,000 square foot sustainable home on 30 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 20 minutes to Taos Ski Valley, NM. Berkshire Hathaway Home Services...
  • 541-987-2363, [email protected]
  • Reporting to the Board of Directors (Board), the Executive Director (ED) has overall operational responsibility for FoGB staff, programs, expansion, and execution of the mission....