Place-Making: How Nature and Humanity Conspired to Create Devils Postpile National Monument

Photo Courtesy National Park Service

Devils Postpile National Monument, despite its wonderfully lurid name, is not much of a draw.

The site, located near Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra, is small, a mere 798 acres. It is buried under upwards of 400 inches of snow a year, so its visiting season is a short four months (It just opened on June 29). Even the pile to which its name refers--a columnar basalt structure, formed from a lava flow that may date back 100,000 years ago--isn't particularly unusual; they can be found across the globe.

Curiously, it wasn't the first national monument named after Beezlebub; that nod goes to Devils Tower, founded in 1906. Neither can it claim the same kind of legendary status attached to such legendary places as Arizona's Petrified Forest (1906), California's Muir Woods (1908), and Utah's Mukuntuweap, which later morphed in Zion National Park (1909).

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And compared to the Grand Canyon, originally protected via national-monument designation in 1906: well, nothing compares to the canyon. That's one reason why President Theodore Roosevelt never stood before the postpile's striking geologic features and thundered, as he did on the edge of the Grand Canyon in 1903:

Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.
Yet however small and unnoticed it may be, Devils Postpile should also draw the curious and mobile, especially this summer when it celebrates its centennial (festivities start today, July 6th). A trip there will be well worth your while, for the site's geology, like its human history, testifies as to why earlier conservationists fought so hard to protect it and the other iconic landscapes-turned-monuments in the American west.

Not that Euro-America explorers or settlers in eastern California had much to say about the postpile. Even the loquacious John Muir, namesake of the famed hiking trail that runs through the landmark, said little about it prior to 1910 (more on that later). His silence is surprising: you couldn't get him to shut up about the geological wonders of the Yosemite or how glaciers had done so much to carve its magnificent contours.

Fishing at Soda Springs Meadow within Devils Postpile National Monument | Photo Courtesy National Park Service

Yet every bit as fascinating is the valley in which Devils Postpile is located, which millennia ago was filled with lava to a depth of 400 feet; as the molten mass cooled, settled, and shrank it did so gradually enough that its columnar structure maintained its celebrated regularity.

This physical characteristic could only become apparent after the massive ice flow that subsequently filled the basin, retreated: its force had quarried much of the volcanic material, but it left exposed a largely intact fragment of the original structure. In the intervening years--10,000 or so--segments of the column fell away, piling up at the base like so many logs; this led some 19th-century mapmakers to call it Devil's Woodpile. Had Muir clambered to its top, he would have seen, as he had with such great clarity in nearby Yosemite, the scouring power of ice, nature's buff and polish.

The human imprint is less immediately visible. But it's there. Start with the site's boundary lines, which have changed over time. The establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890 included the postpile region, not because of its special value--few then knew of it--but as a result of aggressive surveying.

Or re-surveying. This iteration of the park actually marked its re-establishment: in June 1864, as General U.S. Grant waged his brutal Wilderness Campaign in Virginia, President Lincoln signed Yosemite's initial enabling legislation, placing portions of the fabled terrain under state control.

A 1934 shot of the monument | Photo Courtesy National Park ServiceBy the late 1880s, Muir, his ally Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson, and other conservationists started agitating for full national park status. In October 1890, they prevailed. Understandably, those responsible for mapping out this latest version of the park sought to incorporate as much territory as possible.

Their ambition set up the first controversy in which Devils Postpile figured, if indirectly. In 1905, as the Roosevelt administration negotiated with Congress over the creation of the U. S. Forest Service and a national-forest system, lobbyists for mining, grazing, and logging interests made a play to shrink Yosemite, stripping away acreage that then would be shifted to the new agency. They pushed for this transfer because the Forest Service's soon-to-be mission was to allow regulated resource extraction, making local mineral deposits, grasslands, and timber available for use. The Sierra Club, which over the years had fought off attacks on the park's extent, failed this time. Roosevelt signed off on the transfer of approximately 500 square miles, much of which would become part of the Sierra National Forest.

The import of this change of venue became clear five years later. Water-resource proponents began scheming for dam the middle fork of the San Joaquin River, whose captured streamflow would power nearby mining operations. This action would have submerged the postpile, and, adding insult to injury, there was talk of first blasting the geological formation and using its "logs" as part of the new reservoir's bulwark.

The timing of this 1910 project could not have been fraught. It "was submitted in the midst of the battle over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite and several other conservation struggles," observes a recent National Park Service document. Yet if its advocates expected that this tumultuous moment offered perfect cover for their proposal, they did not count on Walter Huber, a Forest Service engineer, to whom they submitted their brief.

He was appalled. Arguing that the plan was "a wanton destruction of scenery" (long before the agency itself promoted scenic values), he urged his superiors to press President William Howard Taft to designate what was then called Devil's Postpile (note the possessive) as a national monument. John Muir and others in the Sierra Club, along with distinguished California scientists such as Joseph N. LeConte, joined the chorus, sending petitions to the White House and to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior. Suddenly, Devil's Postpile was on the map.

The resolution that the protesters pushed for would not have been possible five years earlier. But in 1906, Congress had passed the Antiquities Act (16 USC 431-433), which granted the Chief Executive extraordinary powers. Its key second section reads:

That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected...
A skier at the base of the Postpile | Photo courtesy National Park ServiceI hope you caught the essential phrase: "in his discretion." These three words allow the president to create national monuments without consulting Congress. Starting with Teddy Roosevelt, who by the stroke of his pen created 18 of them, many Chief Executives have followed suit.

Even George W. Bush. Although not the most environmentally minded of presidents, in 2006 he unilaterally established Papahānaumokuākea Marine NM (covering 140,000 square miles, extending northwest from Hawaii); and three years later inked the founding documents for the Pacific Remote Islands NM, sweeping across 86,000 square miles of the central Pacific.

Taft wasn't a staunch conservationist, either. In January 1910, he had enraged those who were when he fired Gifford Pinchot as the Forest Service chief for publicly challenging the administration's decision to relinquish prime coalfields in Alaska to a New York syndicate; and for alleging thereby that the president was dismantling Roosevelt's environmental commitments. The resulting furor consumed the rest of Taft's presidency.

Amid the uproar--and perhaps to prop up his sagging reputation--on July 6, 1911 our 27th president put his signature on Proclamation 1166 that turned the newly named Devil Postpile (someone, somewhere dropped the 's' and the possessive!) into the country's newest national monument.

Not a lot of people noticed, however it was spelled. Because the area was well off the beaten track, with only a poorly maintained mining road for access, the number of visitors was few. The Forest Service, which then had management responsibilities for the national monument (but no budget to do so), posted signs about its legal status and left it at that; other agencies did the same for their sites, leading the late historian Hal Rothman to dub this strategy "warning sign preservationism."

A more pronounced protection policy finally emerged during the Great Depression. Via an Inside-the-Cabinet coup, in 1934 Franklin Roosevelt's Interior Secretary Harold Ickes arranged to have all national monuments transferred to the National Park Service (NPS), including Devils Postpile. This transfer strengthened the Parks Service's mission, making it essentially the only federal agency charged with managing the nation's significant geologic, historic, or cultural resources.

Detail of Devil's Postpile | Photo Courtesy of National Park Service

In retrospect, this exclusivity seems like a mistake; as a consequence neither the Forest Service nor the Bureau of Land Management have had a major commitment to, because they have not had the mandated funding for, historic preservation or the promotion of history itself.

But for NPS, Ickes' deft maneuver gave it an expanded workload and larger budget, enabling it for the first time to station a ranger at Devils Postpile during the summer months. This assignment continued until World War II, when because of funding losses the Park and Forest Services struck a deal in which the later took responsibility for the monument; in 1952, NPS regained the supervisory role, and has maintained it ever since.

What this brief history of Devils Postpile reveals is the complex manner by which Americans have negotiated (and renegotiated) their relationship with the natural world. It was not enough that this particular geological formation was unusual in North America. It had to be identified as important, which required scientific explanation and a cultural receptivity to the fact of its proclaimed "value."

The postpile also required a committed group of people, experts and activists, to fight in its defense, once that they knew what to fight for; it needed as well a legislative initiative that could transform its legal status; and the near-simultaneous creation of a pair of new federal land-management agencies--the Forest Service (1905) and the Park Service (1916), each with different missions--that could be entrusted with its care through the work of a new occupation, the ranger.

Not until adequate roads were constructed, however, could the all-important tourist come to see what the fuss was about, and once there become schooled about its import through a peculiar innovation, the ranger-led evening campfire.

At those summer gatherings, as sparks whirl up into the dark sky and the Milky Way wheels overhead, I hope the rangers weave together the two histories that have converged at Devils Postpile: the geologic pressures that over tens of thousands of years formed, exposed, and then burnished the basalt column; and the mere 30 years or so that it took to invent the language and social institutions required to protect this chunk of hardened minerals.

A malleable earth and a nimble human imagination: good reasons all to celebrate the centennial of a place we call Devils Postpile National Monument.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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