Park Service evacuates Sequoia archives to UC Merced

John Lindt

National parks rescue archives from potential danger, partners with UC Merced to ensure their safety

SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS – Staff worked under ash-filled skies to evacuate the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks archives to UC Merced in mid-September fearing a wildfire could overrun park headquarters in Three Rivers.

Ward Eldredge warily monitored the fire’s progress. As curator of the archives of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI), he deliberated what would need to be done if the nearby Castle Fire continued its approach toward the parks’ headquarters. The air around Three Rivers grew thick with smoke. It was looking bad.

“The fire had exhibited some very alarming behavior — long runs, great distances traveled,” Eldredge recalled.

Residents of the Sierra Nevada foothills community spent the weekend of Sept. 12-13 preparing to evacuate. And, if the fire reached the town, Eldredge reasoned, “it’s only five more miles up the canyon before we get to headquarters.

“That’s when everybody started looking at this very closely — the idea that the fire might reach the headquarters complex,” he said. “If that’s the case, there’s going to be a whole bunch of things at risk.”

130 years of history

The archives contain the 130-year history of the Sequoias, the country’s second-oldest national park: documents dating to its founding; tens of thousands of photographs and negatives; early journals of guides and rangers; plant samples of every known species; and a collection of precious baskets from the Yokuts, some of the land’s earliest inhabitants.

All of it was at risk. To save it, quickly and safely, Eldredge turned to a relative newcomer on the landscape — the 15-year-old campus of UC Merced.

“At the mountain headquarters there is a complete record of what a national park is, what a national park could be and how it has changed over the course of the 20th century. That story is told in this really fascinating documentary record,” Eldredge said.

The artifacts include documents from the Mather Mountain Party, a group of influential figures led by industrialist and conservationist Stephen Mather, whose 1915 trek into the Sierra was instrumental in creating the National Park Service the next year.

“That trip was in Sequoia National Park,” Eldredge said. “We have a photo album that was assembled and belonged to one of the participants, Mark Daniels.”

There are photo albums documenting the Civilian Conservation Corps at the end of the Great Depression; park budgets and manager logs; the diaries of individual rangers who spent summers in back country cabins; administrative correspondence with outside agencies such as the Sierra Club; and wildlife observations, including all manner of bear incidents.

“Essentially, anything that happened in Sequoia and Kings Canyon,” he said. “It’s hard to exaggerate the breadth of the records.”

Having the help of UC Merced, he said, enabled them to move 12 herbarium cabinets — large metal cases — holding the parks’ collection of 8,000 plant samples known as “vouchers,” which Eldredge said are “the ultimate proof that something is here.”

“With the changing ecosystems,” he said, “it’s really important to have that physical, tangible proof.”

As the team prepared to leave Three Rivers, Eldredge said he was, “so shattered because it had been multiple days of stress.”

“There were several lucky breaks — a compounding of good fortune. And a whole bunch of that was just the good will of UC Merced. Just utterly and completely. There were parts of the collection that we wouldn’t have been able to get out without their help,” Eldredge added.

The cooperation has sparked discussions on how UC Merced could further collaborate with the parks and Yosemite National Park, about 75 miles northeast of the campus.

“Both Yosemite and SEKI archives are located in very vulnerable locations,” Emily Lin, the UC Merced librarian said, noting that a 2018 fire nearly reached Yosemite’s archive building. “It would be a disaster if either of those were ever destroyed by fire. The other challenge is, where they’re located, they’re less accessible to researchers.”

Lin said UC Merced hopes to also become a hub for a “mountain-valley archive,” one that encompasses the Sierra Nevada region as well as the agricultural collections of the San Joaquin Valley.

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