The old logging roads are grown over with brush and trees, and the smaller trails have faded to faint lines in the duff, barely visible enough to follow. The only human artifacts I've seen in two days of hiking are a rusty cable and a sun-bleached Tecate beer can. The only signs of what happened here are the stumps themselves.
I'm in California's Sierra Nevada, in a valley called Converse Basin, a corner of what is currently Giant Sequoia National Monument. I say "currently" because Giant Sequoia is one of the 20-odd monuments whose status is under review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. While I hope for this entire monument's continued protection, Converse Basin is not so much a natural wonder as the glaring absence of one.
Between the dry ridgelines are wet alpine meadows, and in these meadows, scattered amid the pines, firs and cedars, lie the ruins of what was once the world's greatest forest of giant sequoia trees. This place is a monument to why we need monuments.
The sequoias are among the biggest and oldest living things on Earth, which in one way suggests their toughness. It took a crew of men three weeks to fell its first sequoia; lacking a saw big enough for the job, the workers attacked it with an auger, drilling hole after hole after hole until it finally toppled. What other tree could resist so long?
But the sequoias are few, just 70-odd groves scattered along the central Sierra Nevada's west flank. Their rarity makes it clear that, for all their toughness, they are also fragile—and made more so by the attention they attract.
In the northern groves, where European-Americans first found them, few sequoia could be found, and people cut them as trophies. "Many a poor, defrauded town dweller will pay his dollar and peep," John Muir wrote. "But a true and living knowledge of these tree gods is not to be had at so cheap a rate." I've seen these museum exhibits, and they are impressive, but Muir is right. It is different to stand before the living trunks, to look up and up and be made small.
But people did much worse than take a few trophies. As miners, loggers, and explorers crisscrossed the jagged mountains, they discovered the bigger southern groves, where the sequoias were the dominant trees in the forest. To many, these plentiful groves suggested that the trees could be not mere curiosities, but commodities.
Thanks to lobbying by Muir and other early conservationists, Congress created Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) national parks in 1890, protecting many of the biggest groves. But just a few miles from the new national parks, workmen swarmed through Converse Basin, building roads and mills.
In photos, these loggers stand on the stumps clutching saws and axes, wearing suspenders and brimmed hats, their faces blank. They are immigrants and Civil War veterans, with kids to feed and rent coming due—working men with the most relatable problems. Writing of that era, historians often hasten to shift blame to the lumber barons themselves. Part of that is true: Hiram Smith and Austin Moore were the ones who built the mill and sent the sequoias sailing down from Converse. But they only did what many business owners would do, then or now, given the option. Timberlands were cheap and the burgeoning West was hungry for lumber.
But that is not their legacy. I walk the logging roads, cutting across hillsides now covered with regrown woods. Here and there are the big stumps. The sequoias often splintered when they hit the ground. Other times, they were just too big to buck. In what is now called Stump Meadow, the wasted boles lie crowded together like the columns of a fallen Greek temple. In the evening, I sit on one of the stumps and have my dinner, listening to the frogs. It is a mournful place.
Many young sequoias grow at the edges of this meadow and the others. Maybe someday people will travel to Converse Basin to see its giant trees. Maybe by then, the stumps will have rotted away and people will have forgotten the destruction. Maybe they'll even have forgotten the name of John Muir, who by his foresight made himself memorable.
It's more certain that there will still be people looking for work, with kids to feed and rent to pay. In their need, they will often want to take for themselves things that are big and rare and old, and they will probably often take them. But hopefully not all of them.
Zach St. George is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, hcn.org. He is a writer in Oakland, California.