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Front St.Trails Section - Clovis Free PressBack St.
Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press
July 26, 2000

Sierra National Monument
Is A Done Deal. Now What?

   BAKERSFIELD -- Take a president with battered approval rating, drop him into a spectacular grove of sequoias, throw in a forest-protection proclamation and what do you get? "Election-year politics at its worst," according to one critic.
   "Gimmickry" that's nothing more than "a slap in the face" to the people who enjoy and benefit from the forest, according to others.Yes, George Bush took it on the chin from quite a few people when he visited the Sequoia National Forest in July 1992.
   Bush stood among the giants in the Freeman Grove and signed a document ensuring that those sequoias, barring an executive order to the contrary, would be forever spared from timber industry saws. The 2,000-year old, 220 foot sequoia that served as a backdrop for the president's speech was officially dubbed the George Bush Tree.
    How much has changed in eight years? Paul "Rocky" Leitzell can specify a few things, reputation and style being just two. The executive director of R.M. Pyles Boys Camp, the high-altitude program for disadvantaged boys just a few circuitous miles north of the Kern County line, was on hand for Bush's visit.
   Acknowledging the camp's stellar record of achievement in changing young lives, Bush had named Pyles one of his "thousand points of light" just four months earlier, and now the president was cashing in on a campaign photo op.
    Bush, handed a roast beef sandwich and a Diet Coke, sat down next to Freeman Creek and chatted with a group of Pyles campers with names like "Snag" and "Reckless." Leitzell sat off to the side, letting the teen-age boys do the talking, jumping in only when translation of their street jargon was required.
   Eight years after Bush's visit, President Bill Clinton flew to Bakersfield, blinked at the sky, waved to the small crowd given limited (and distant) access, and within 90 seconds boarded a helicopter bound for the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.
    There, along the Trail of 100 Giants, he made the announcement that had been widely anticipated: Some 328,000 acres of rugged upcountry terrain would be bumped up one more notch in the hierarchy of federal land protection. As the Giant Sequoia National Monument, rather than a mere national forest, trees within the protected area's vastly increased boundaries would be off-limits to loggers and, to a greater extent, ATV'ers and other motorized recreationalists.
   Eight years ago, Leitzell actually felt somewhat reassured by Bush's tightening of restrictions in the sequoias. Today he feels considerably less so, even though his 35-acre youth camp, just a short walk from the George Bush Tree, has been specifically mentioned more than once during this process as a worthy tenant.
   "The proof's in the pudding," Leitzell said Saturday, citing Clinton's "problematic" credibility. He still hopes for real evidence that Pyles will be considered "a stakeholder and active participant" in the creation of operational guidelines that still must be hammered out for the newly anointed monument.
    He and other youth-camp leaders within the monument's boundaries will continue to fight for the opportunity to be part of that process, and rightly so.
   The Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, which it oversees, will continue to manage the area, making Sequoia the first national monument placed by presidential decree under the jurisdiction of those agencies.
    Many, including Leitzell, had feared that the more exclusionary Department of the Interior would take over.Will that concession be enough for longtime tenants like the Pyles Camp, whose advocates desperately hope to find life in a national monument as unencumbered as before?
   "There are so many unknowns," Leitzell said, "and unknowns breed fear."Leitzell's primary concern is based on the aftermath of Clinton's 1996 proclamation creating Utah's 1.9-million acre Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument.
   According to the original plan, existing user groups would not be affected. But when the operational guidelines were revealed, access was reduced, some use permits were not renewed, roads were closed and private landholders were forced to become "willing sellers" when roads and bridges ceased be maintained.
   On the other hand, Grand Staircase-Escalante saw an increase in
tourism between 1996, when 520,000 people in Bermuda shorts and sun-block visited the area, and 1998, when some 850,000 visitors poured through.
     Clinton's Utah critics realized there was little they could do about the perceived outrage visited upon their communities, so they planned new avenues for tourism, research and education associated with their new national monument.
    They built tourism and administrative facilities in towns surrounding the monument, giving themselves an economic stake in Grand Staircase-Escalante's success as an attraction.
   They made lemonade. At Giant Sequoia National Monument, the deed is done. No matter how people feel about sequoias, Bill Clinton, the timber industry, the Sierra Club, outdoor presidential press conferences or lemons, the deed is done. Lemonade, anyone?

Letter to the Editor

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