Debate of Senate Bill 203. 38th Congress, 1864
Debate of Senate Bill 203. 38th Congress, 1864
Mother of the Forest Cut Down
By: United States Senate, 38th Congress
Source: 38th Congress, Congressional Globe 2300-301 (17 May 1864)
About the Author: The 38th U.S. Congress met from 1863 to 1865. Convening during the Civil War, the legislation of the 38th Congress initially applied only to Union states until the war's end. The parcel of land that the 38th Congress granted to the State of California for the conservation of the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees became part of Yosemite National Park in 1906.
On February 20, 1864, Israel Ward Raymond, a representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company (New York), sent a letter to U.S. Senator John Conness (California), urging the preservation of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Soon afterwards, George Catlin (1796–1872), a U.S. explorer, painter, and writer of the western territories, proposed legislation to Conness that would preserve these lands. (Catlin had advocated the preservation of lands solely for their aesthetic beauty around forty years before the U.S. Congress acted formally to set aside such lands.) In fact, many writers such as James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau played important roles in encouraging the preservation of beautiful lands and in starting the environmental movement in the United States. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), in particular, played an especially critical role when he published his 1854 book Walden, which ultimately became an important starting point for the conservation movement of the nineteenth century and later as a significant reference book for environmentalists in the twentieth century.
On March 28, 1864, Conness introduced a bill into the U.S. Senate that, if passed, would establish two preservation areas in the state of California described as Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove. In both cases, Conness expressed his opinion during his reporting to the Senate on May 17, 1864 (as stated in the Congressional Record), that the two tracts of land are "for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world." He went on to state, "The trees contained in that grove have no parallel, perhaps, in the world. They are subject now to damage and injury; and this bill, as I have before stated, proposes to commit them to the care of the authorities of that State for their constant preservation, that they may be exposed to public view, and that they may be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind."
Within the discussion as recorded by the Congressional Record, Conness referred to an incident that happened in 1852 when a giant sequoia tree—300 feet (91.4 meters) tall, 92 feet (28.0 meters) in circumference, and about 2,500 years old—was stripped of some of its bark for a carnival sideshow. The tree, called the Mother of the Forest, was located in Calaveras Grove, an isolated valley of the Sierra Nevada mountain range that contained about 160 mountainous acres (65 hectares) and was approximately 240 miles (385 kilometers) east of San Francisco, California. Many people who saw the publicity stunt were angered that such a statuesque tree was injured for the sole purpose of monetary gain. The outrage of the Mother of the Forest incident is considered by many as the one key event that eventually led to the establishment of the U.S. national park system.
Such legislation—preservation of the big trees and the land for the benefit of all—was considered unusual by most Congressmen at the time. Even during the Senate discussion, Senator Foster from Connecticut voiced his feelings that such action was "rather a singular grant, unprecedented so far as my recollection goes." However, after serious discussion, the members of the U.S. Senate passed the bill on May 17, 1864. The members of the U.S. House of Representatives passed the measure on June 29, 1864, and, the following day, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Act of 1864 into law. Today, this legislation is commonly considered the first act to bring about conservation of wilderness areas, along with helping to establish the U.S. national park system.
Mr. Conness. I now move that the Senate proceed to the consideration of Senate bill No. 203, reported by the Senator from Vermont [Mr. Foot] this morning from the Committee on Public Lands.
There being no objection, the Senate, as in Committee of the Whole, proceeded to consider the bill (S. No. 203) authorizing a grant to the State of California of the "Yosemite valley" and of the land embracing the "Mariposa Big Tree Grove."
The first section of the bill provides that there shall be granted to the State of California the "cleft" or "gorge" in the Granite peak of the Sierra Nevada mountains, situated in the county of Mariposa and the headwaters of the Merced river, and known as the Yosemite valley, with its branches or spurs in estimated length fifteen miles, and in average width one mile back from the main edge of the precipice on each side of the valley, with the stipulation, nevertheless, that the State is to accept this grant upon the express conditions that the premises are to be held for public use, resort, and recreation, and are to be inalienable for all time; but leases, not exceeding ten years, may be granted for portions of the premises. All incomes derived from leases of privileges are to be expended in the preservation and improvement of the property, or the roads leading thereto; the boundaries to be established at the cost of the State by the United States surveyor general of California, whose official plat, when affirmed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, is to constitute the evidence of the locus, extent, and limits of the cleft or gorge. The premises are to be managed by the Governor of the State, with eight other commissioners, to be appointed by the Executive of California, and who are to receive no compensation for their services.
The second section provides that there shall likewise be granted to the State of California the tracts embracing what is known as the "Mariposa Big Tree Grove," not to exceed the area of four sections, and to be taken in legal subdivisions of one quarter section each, with the like stipulations as expressed in the first section of this act as to the State's acceptance, with like conditions as to inalienability, yet with the same lease privilege; the income to be expended in the preservation, improvement, and protection of the property; the premises to be managed by commissioners, as stipulated in the first section, and to be taken in legal subdivisions, and the official plat of the United States surveyor general, when affirmed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, to be the evidence of the locus of the "Mariposa Big Tree Grove."
Mr. Conness. I will state to the Senate that this bill proposes to make a grant of certain premises located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the State of California, that are for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world. The object and purpose is to make a grant to the State, on the stipulations contained in the bill, that the property shall be inalienable forever, and preserved and improved as a place of public resort, to be taken charge of by gentlemen to be appointed by the Governor, who are to receive no compensation for their services, and who are to undertake the management and improvement of the property by making roads leading thereto and adopting such other means as may be necessary for its preservation and improvement. It includes a grant of a few sections of ground of that State is located, of which most Senators doubtless have heard. The trees contained in that grove have no parallel, perhaps, in the world. They are subject now to damage and injury; and this bill, as I have before stated, proposes to commit them to the care of the authorities of that State for their constant preservation, that they may be exposed to public view, and that they may be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind. It is a matter involving no appropriation whatever. The property is of no value to the Government. I make this explanation that the Senate may understand what the purpose is.
The bill was reported to the Senate without amendment.
Mr. Foster. I should like to ask the Senator from California whether the State of California—
The President pro tempore. The Chair must interrupt the Senator to call up the special order of the day, the time fixed for its consideration having arrived.
Mr. Conness. I hope it will lie over for the present.
Mr. Wilson. Let it go over informally for a few minutes.
The President pro tempore. That course will be taken, if there be no objection.
Mr. Foster. I should like to ask the Senator from California whether the State of California has intimated any wish that we should thus make this grant to them, and how it comes about that we propose making it.
Mr. Conness. I will state to the Senator from Connecticut and to the Senate, that they may understand it, that the application comes to use from various gentlemen in California, gentlemen of fortune, of taste, and of refinement, and the plan proposed in this bill has been suggested by them, that this property be committed to the care of the State. I submitted the plan as presented by these gentlemen to the Land Office, and the bill now before the Senate has been prepared by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, who also takes a great interest in the preservation both of the Yosemite valley and the Big Tree Grove. Such was the origin of the measure, and such are its purposes.
Mr. Foster. I did not by any means mean to intimate any opposition to the bill; but it struck me as being rather a singular grant, unprecedented so far as my recollection goes, and unless the State through her appropriate authorities signified some wish in the matter, it might be deemed by the State officious on our part to make a grant of this kind.
Mr. Conness. Ordinarily I should hope I spoke for the State of California here. I feel authorized to do so under existing circumstances. There is no parallel, and can be no parallel for this measure, for there is not, as I stated before, on earth just such a condition of things. The Mariposa Big Tree Grove is really the wonder of the world, containing those magnificent monarchs of the forest that are from thirty to forty feet in diameter.
Mr. Davis. How old?
Mr. Conness. Well, sir, they are estimated to reach an age of three thousand years. There are two such groves in the State. One is known as the Mariposa grove, the one contemplated in this bill; and the other is known as the Calaveras grove. From the Calaveras grove some sections of a fallen tree were cut during and pending the great World's Fair that was held in London some years since. One joint of the tree was sectionized and transported to that country in sections, and then set up there. The English who saw it declared it to be a Yankee invention, made from beginning to end; that is was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country; that it could not be; and, although the section of the tree was transported there at an expense of several thousand dollars, we were not able to convince them that it was a specimen of American growth. They would not believe us. The purpose of this bill is to preserve one of these groves from devastation and injury. The necessity of taking early possession and care of these great wonders can easily be seen and understood.
Mr. Foster. I certainly did not mean to say anything which implied that the honorable Senator from California had not the most perfect and entire right to speak for his State, and I am at a loss to understand what I was so unfortunate as to say which led him to suppose that I doubted it.
The bill was ordered to be engrossed for a third reading, and was read the third time, and passed.
The passage of the Act of 1864, which granted the state of California two tracts of land, did not give the U.S. federal government any responsibility for managing nor preserving any lands or objects. Responsibility was placed solely on the state of California for all duties relating to Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove. After the U.S. Congress passed its legislation, the state legislature of California quickly passed the State Park Act in 1864 and, on September 28, 1864, the governor of California appointed a board of commissioners to manage the parks. However, it is unfortunate that these persons in charge of the managements and preservations did not follow through with what was promised. This lack of follow-through on the part of Californian politicians resulted in the failure to preserve these two land tracts and what is generally considered the first formal attempt at preserving land in the United States.
Soon after the California lands were set aside, it was recognized by conservationists that additional land needed to be set aside within Yosemite Valley. Then, upon the failures by California, members of the U.S. Senate asked representatives from California to honor the obligation to protect the Yosemite Valley. When the state failed in its promise, the federal government took formative action to establish the national park system. In March 1890, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives called for land surrounding Yosemite Valley to be preserved as a national park. Both the U.S. House and Senate easily passed the measure and the act was approved on October 1, 1890, by President Benjamin Harrison.
Ultimately, the historic significance of this legislation "the Act of 1864, for which discussion was recorded within the Congressional Record" is simply that land was set aside for the first time strictly for conservation purposes. Senator Conness' innovative bill was pioneering legislation that set a precedent for the conservation of public lands. Although California's attempt to preserve land was not successful, the tireless work by California Senator Conness, along with conservationists, explorers, writers, and artists, helped to identify the need to protect and conserve land and, eventually, to establish the U.S. national park system.
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Neuzil, Mark, and Bill Kovarik. "The Media and Social Change: 1. Mother of the Forest." in Mass Media & Environmental Conflict: America's Green Crusades, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996. Also available online on the Environmental History Timeline, Radford University, 〈http://www.radford.edu/∼wkovarik/envhist/mother.html〉 (accessed March 15, 2005).
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