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
"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
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
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,