Monday, September 21, 2015

Devil's Postpile National Monument and the Need for Conservationists

Devil’s Postpile National Monument isn’t particularly well known outside of California, for some reason. Even within California, many people scratch their heads when you mention it. Perhaps this is because California boasts several better-known National Parks, and these eat up the publicity. Perhaps it is because of the remote location. Or perhaps it is that most people visit the area to ski, and the place is buried under many feet of snow.

It’s also a small place, not even two square miles, and accessible only by a narrow one-lane road. (They run shuttles during the peak season.) Nonetheless, it is a fascinating place, beautiful to look at, and intriguing for its geologic and human history.

The postpiles themselves are basalt columns well over 100 feet tall, which cooled and cracked into regular hexagonal shapes about 100,000 years ago. Much later, a period of glaciation would scrape the top off the formation, exposing the columns, and leaving a neatly scraped "tile floor" at the top. The whole history of the geology of the Sierra Nevada is fascinating in itself. The National Park Service has a good summary of the forces that shaped the area around the Monument. 

The human history is more recent, and is interesting in its own right. Originally, Devil’s Postpile was part of what would eventually be designated Yosemite National Park. President Abraham Lincoln placed the area under government control in 1864. Back then, there was no such designation as a National Park or National Monument. That would come later.

In 1890, Yosemite was designated as a National Park. At that time, the fairly unknown postpile formation was within the boundaries. However, there were other interests at work. Mining operations, loggers, and ranchers eyed the federal forest land as resources to be obtained. As a result of their lobbying pressure, Yosemite’s boundaries were redrawn, opening significant areas - including Devil’s Postpile - to development. Within a few years, plans were made to dam the San Joaquin River to provide power for mining operations. This proposal would have flooded the entire valley, and the postpiles would have been lost to public knowledge. To add insult to injury, the miners proposed dynamiting the formation to obtain materials for the dam.

Fortunately for posterity, conservationists including John Muir himself took notice, and put political pressure on President William Howard Taft (hardly a conservationist himself), and convinced him to establish the Monument.

This was possible due to the Antiquities Act, which was passed a mere five years prior.

When asked about the difference between a National Park and a National Monument, most people - if they are even familiar with the subject at all - will note that National Parks are selected for their scenic and recreational value. National Monuments can also be selected for their historical or cultural significance, which is why Fort McHenry (setting for The Star Spangled Banner) is a National Monument, but will never be a National Park.

There is another difference, however, and it is of interest to us lawyer sorts: National Parks can only be created by Congress. National Monuments can be created Congress, but also by the President, under the Antiquities Act. This has led to some significant friction between the political parties. I remember when President Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah back in the 1990s. The other party went ballistic, claiming abuse of power and all that. Never mind that nearly every president of both major parties since Theodore Roosevelt has used the Antiquities Act power.

There is also an interesting dynamic at work here. Because - as in the case of Devil’s Postpile - there are often economic interests opposed to the designation, areas are quite often protected first as National Monuments. A conservationist need only convince the President of the value, and the deed can be done. If Congress were to be involved, the big money machine would rev up and little would get done.

However, once the place is protected from development as a National Monument, there is little to prevent it from becoming a National Park, assuming it otherwise meets the standard. A later Congress can agree to the change in designation, claim credit for feel-good legislation, yet pay no price from industrial donors, because the Monument is already protected.

Just in my lifetime, many former National Monuments have become National Parks. (See, for example, Pinnacles and Capitol Reef, which I blogged about previously.) The most noticeable effect in my experience is a greater level of staffing, which is a plus.

There are many things about the United States that I love, from our freedoms of speech and religion, to our quirky court system. I think, however, that we should also be proud of our National Parks and Monuments. We led the world in recognizing that natural wonders should not belong to the wealthy alone, but to all of us. The history of Devil’s Postpile is merely one example of the tendency of those focused on the accumulation of wealth to run roughshod over the earth, and never notice the beauty and wonder of creation. I am thankful for those like John Muir, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Virginia McClurg, and many other men and women who helped ensure that my children would be able to enjoy these wonders.

A few pictures from our trip:

The postpiles.

The kids and me. Picture by Paul Swanson.

Tiles at the top, scraped flat by a glacier.

Rainbow Falls. Not much water this year due to the drought.

 The kids on the trail to Crystal Lake, above Lake George and Lake Mary. This is not in the Monument itself, but nearby.

Goofing around with her first fish. 

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