A Brief History of Pinnacles National Park

Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET
Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

The news was as bright as the day.

It came in the form of an email that arrived as we sped through the sun-drenched Salinas Valley, flicking past tractors tilling the fertile soil, work crews laying down irrigation pipes, and fields bearing winter crops of kale, red cabbage, and, one sign promised, "romaine lettuce: coming soon!" That exclamation mark was doubled as I scrolled through the much-anticipated announcement that President Obama had signed legislation turning Pinnacles National Monument in the nation's 59th national park. I looked up from the screen and there the new park's signature landform, North Chalone Peak, filling the windshield; it and the rest of the Galiban Mountains dazzled in the crisp blue sky.

For all the Pinnacles' striking beauty, for all its geological significance (its heights comprise the remnants of an ancient volcano), cultural resonance (the Cholone people and others made good use of its upcountry woodlands and riparian habitats), and ecological richness (California condors have been successfully reintroduced here) -- none of these values by themselves were responsible for the initial creation of the national monument in 1908 or its redesignation as a national park in 2013. Both moments required a very human force: politics.

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As with so many other origin stories about the national forests, monuments, and parks in the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt was present at the creation of Pinnacles National Monument. Indeed, it is a rare example of a site that has enjoyed protection under these three different forms of federal management. Its initial 14,108 acres were set aside as the Pinnacles Forest Reserve in 1906, one year after the U. S. Forest Service had been created; in 1907, all forest reserves became known as national forests, a subtle shift in name that the agency's first chief Gifford Pinchot believed reflected their purposeful utility to all the American people.

There would be precious little logging in this particular forest. Its real value, as conservationists on the national level like Roosevelt and Pinchot, and on the local, like Schyler Hain, a homesteader and the landscape's most persistent booster, lay in a different kind of commodity: what we would call ecotourism.

Schyler Hain, second from the right, stands with Park Service Director Stephen Mather and the Pinnacles Boys in 1924. | Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

Hain, for one, was convinced that the craggy terrain, and the numerous caves and native artifacts that he and others had located there, would draw curious travelers eager to know more about the young nation's distant past. He likened its entrance to "the doorway to the Garden of the Gods, but on a grander scale. Here the cliffs of many-colored rock rise hundreds of feet in sharply defined terraces, or great domes or pinnacles. Beyond, and scattered over an area of some six square miles is a mass of conglomerate rocks wonderful in extent and in fantastic variety of form and coloring."

Schyler Hain's article in the July 1905 issue of Out West magazine. | Image: Open Library

As much as to defend the Pinnacles' natural beauty and archeological resources as to promote his guide business, Hain advocated for a more consistent and rigorous protection of the parkland, a theme he pressed through a lantern slideshow that he toured through the region and in articles written for statewide publications.

The enterprising Hain worked as well through connections at Stanford University to reach out to the local congressional representative and national figures such as forester Pinchot. University president David Starr Jordan was crucial go-between, assuring Pinchot that the site was home to rare species that should be saved, offered abundant recreational opportunities for an urbanizing Bay Area, and contained a geological record unusual enough to warrant scientific investigation under controlled conditions. Apparently Pinchot then asked that the relevant acreage be "withdrawn from entry" -- a technical term that meant that no grazing, logging, or mining claims could be filed on this portion of public land.

But it took Roosevelt's signature to make the national forest a national monument. With the 1906 passage of the Antiquities Act, which granted the Chief Executive the power to create such monuments on federal property to protect their indigenous artifacts and other special features, Roosevelt had a tool of considerable power, and he wielded it readily. Over the next four years, he created 18 national monuments, from Devil's Tower in Wyoming to Mount Olympus in what is now Olympic National Park in Washington State. During one week in January 1908 alone, he proclaimed three: Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon, and Pinnacles.

View of the Pinnacles from the west side in 1911, showing unidentified homestead, possibly the Bates Ranch. | Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

The latter's proclamation stressed that because its "natural formations, known as the Pinnacles Rocks, with a series of caves underlying them...are of scientific value," their significance would now forever be reserved. It contained a key caution, too: "Warning is given to all unauthorized persons not to appropriate, injure, or destroy any feature of this National Monument or to locate or settle upon any of the lands reserved by this proclamation." By this act, the Pinnacles were integrated into the nation's growing inventory of special places, a political landscape that defined how people could approach and appreciate its significance. Schuyler Hain must have been ecstatic.

Imagine his joy today, now that Pinnacles has become a national park. Strikingly, he would have little trouble recognizing the rhetoric devices embedded in the Department of Interior's press release about the transition, for the language of preservation has changed little in the intervening years. "This ancient and awe-inspiring volcanic field with its massive monoliths, spires, cave passages and canyons is a place that restores our souls and energizes our bodies with its beauty and abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared. Although Hain surely would have been stunned by the economic impact that recreation brings to the monument/park -- in 2012 it welcomed nearly 350,000 visitors who spent an estimated $4.8 million locally -- the fact that that has proved such an effective economic generator for the Salinas and San Benito valleys was consistent with his original claims.

Pinnacles National Park. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET
Pinnacles National Park. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

The political process that brought about the name change would also dovetail with his experience a century ago. As Hain rallied his friends and neighbors, he also had to reach out across the region to secure media attention, congressional interest, and executive branch action. Tapping into local, regional, and federal networks was essential to the success of his project.

It remains just as critical. Representative Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who has been pushing for this legislative change since the early 2000s, and has had the support of such powerful Democrats as Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, did not gain serious traction until he built up a bipartisan coalition that included chambers of commerce and environmental organizations, secured a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), and agreed to drop plans to expand the monument's wilderness area by 3000 acres. In a polarized Washington, the only way to secure even such a simple name change is to reach across the aisle.

This fraught context is why similarly worthy initiatives elsewhere have not yet succeeded. One of these is the Red Rock region of the Greater Canyonlands in southern Utah, which writer Stephen Trimble describes as a "magical rejuvenating" environment. Site of the some of the richest archaeological records of native peoples anywhere, replete with ancient granaries, cliff dwellings, and rock art, its forests, grasslands, rivers, and rock formations, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance it "shelters at least two dozen endangered or sensitive species as well as an unusually large number of species found nowhere else in the world."

Little wonder that in the mid-1990s, after an extensive tour of the Red Rock region, a fact-finding group of prominent biologists, ecologists, and zoologists strongly urged the Bureau of Land Management to designate the site as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System to safeguard and preserve "Utah's unique biological heritage."

It still awaits that level of extra protection, and does so because of deeply divisive political context. Utah, after all, is a blood-red state, with an aggressive anti-federal politics that plays well among county commissioners, state legislators, and the governor, as well as the congressional delegation.

Among those ever ready to quash efforts to expand wilderness protections to places like Red Rock is Representative Rob Bishop (R-Brigham City), currently chair of the public-lands subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee. He and his likeminded legislative peers are on record as wanting to strip these wild and scenic places out of federal hands and place them under state control so as to accelerate their economic development. In this hostile climate, calls for additional regulatory control over Red Rock and its unique archeological, biological, and geological features, have been dismissed out of hand.

In 1989, Rep. Wayne Owens filed the first of a long line of bills seeking wilderness protection for the area; he was a rare breed, a liberal Democrat in a thoroughly GOP-dominated state, and that surely accounts for why he found little support among his colleagues. When in 1992 he gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, his friend Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York carried on, filing one bill after another in coordination with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Note that none of these later initiatives has originated within the Utah delegation, and none will get to a vote until that collection of congressionals decides to support such legislation. As the Pinnacles example demonstrates, public-land legislation must have bipartisan (and home-based) support before it can get to the floor.

This roadblock is why the indefatigable Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has pushed for President Obama to play Theodore Roosevelt, using the authority invested in the Oval Office through the Antiquities Act to declare a Greater Canyonlands National Monument. But it was another president's use of this executive power finesse that partly accounts for Utah Republicans' unwavering resistance to the establishment of another wilderness area in the Beehive State.

In September 1996, in the final weeks of a tense presidential campaign, incumbent Bill Clinton went to the Grand Canyon in Arizona -- and on its south rim, signed into law the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast tract of nearly 1.9 million acres in southern Utah. Across the border, a political furor erupted that has never really died down. Clinton's dramatic gesture, for all the environmental benefits it produced, made it exceedingly difficult for a subsequent Chief Executive to act as unilaterally. Red Rock will have to wait for a new, more accommodating political climate.

Yet as SUWA continues to fight for that better day, its activists might need to take the long view. After all, Schuyler Hain and other early promoters of Pinnacles had hoped to secure national park status for that iconic Central California landscape; they and their successors have had to plug away for more than a century before they achieved their original goal. Let's hope Red Rock and the Greater Canyonlands get there sooner.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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