Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon

Ansel Adams, photographer and Sierra Club director, used his photographs to lobby the U.S. Congress to create the Kings Canyon National Park.

Summary of Event

On March 4, 1940, the U.S. Congress enacted the legislation necessary for the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park in east-central California. The passage into law of the proposed legislation marked the successful conclusion of a long battle to protect these lands from commercial development, protection first sought by the preservationist John Muir nearly forty-nine years earlier. During his initial exploratory trip into the Kings Canyon area in 1875, Muir recognized the unique scenic beauty of the region. Even at that early date, however, Muir encountered signs indicating attempts to establish livestock rights in the canyons and the initial stages of environmental degradation. [kw]Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon (Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940)
[kw]Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon, Adams Lobbies (Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940)
[kw]Preserve Kings Canyon, Adams Lobbies Congress to (Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940)
[kw]Kings Canyon, Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve (Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940)
[kw]Canyon, Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings (Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940)
Kings Canyon;preservation
Wilderness preservation
Photographers;Ansel Adams[Adams]
[g]United States;Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940: Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon[09380]
[c]Environmental issues;Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940: Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon[09380]
[c]Natural resources;Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940: Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon[09380]
[c]Photography;Jan., 1937-Feb., 1940: Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon[09380]
Adams, Ansel
Ickes, Harold
Gearhart, Bertrand Wesley
Muir, John

In December, 1881, Senator John F. Miller of California introduced a bill in Congress that would have established an enormous national park in the Sierra Nevada that would have included the Kings River area. This attempt failed. Ten years later, on his fourth visit to the canyons of the Kings River, Muir found the surroundings suffering from the ever-increasing activities of loggers and sheepherders. Muir had just successfully completed the campaign that led to the establishment of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite National Park barely one hundred miles to the northeast. The signs of commercial and agricultural encroachment in the Kings area spurred Muir to make a public request for park status for this region as well. Commercial interests were already well established in the area, however.

In the end, national forest status was conferred on the region, and it was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. Forest Service, U.S. Afterward, although repeated attempts were made to introduce legislation in Congress that would transfer the status of the area from national forest to that of national park, Forest Service lobbies successfully defeated all proposals. National park status would have placed the Kings Canyon forests under the direction of the Federal Park Service, a division of the Department of the Interior, and the lands would have been managed in the interest of preservation and recreation, without commercial interest. In the meantime, the Forest Service, as part of the Department of Agriculture, encouraged active management of the land and allowed hunting, logging, and mining to take place. During the previous year, in 1890, Sequoia National Park Sequoia National Park had been established, but without Kings Canyon. In the same year the General Grant National Park was established to preserve the General Grant grove of sequoia trees.

The efforts of Muir and others were resisted by stockmen, lumbermen, and those in Los Angeles who feared restrictions on waterpower development. The Federal Water Power Act of 1920 Federal Water Power Act (1920) was amended in 1921 to exclude existing national parks from future water projects, but not national parks established after that date. The Kings Canyon had tremendous potential for waterpower development. The city of Los Angeles was seeking six sites in the region, thereby making any battle for park status that much more difficult. Between the years 1916 and 1926, bills were sent before each session of Congress calling for the enlargement of Sequoia National Park so that it included the Kings and Kern River canyons and the Mount Whitney area. Partial success was attained in 1926 when the latter two parcels were added to Sequoia National Park.

In 1935, the threat of greater and greater commercial development in the territories of the Kings River took on a new urgency among park constituents when the New Deal public works program proposed constructing a major highway into the area to spur private development of the region. The threat of a new road into the remote countryside reinvigorated conservationists’ efforts to preserve the area as a public park. Leading the movement was the Sierra Club, Sierra Club a recreational and environmental organization cofounded in 1892 by John Muir, who served as its first president until his death in 1914.

Ansel Adams had joined the Sierra Club in 1919 and had been a member of the organization’s board of directors for two years when in 1936 he was assigned the task of assisting the club’s congressional lobby. The Sierra Club’s lobbyists were promoting the preservation of much of the Kings Canyon as originally proposed by Muir, land that had been repeatedly left out of Sequoia National Park. Included in the lobbyists’ bid was the Redwood Mountain Sequoia Grove, one of the largest stands of big trees outside of the national parks. This grove had been under the protection of private owners, but as a result of a tax sale, it had become available for purchase.

The club’s directors believed that the best means of achieving their goal was for Adams to present his photographs, as visual surrogates, to those lawmakers who were unable to experience the beauties of this region personally. Previously, photographs had had a positive effect in establishing Yosemite Park in 1864 and Yellowstone Park in 1872.

Adams had visited the Kings Canyon region in 1925 and again in 1926. The photos he would present in Washington, however, were taken long before he became a part of the efforts to establish the park; these images were not special products designed for propagandizing the club’s cause. Adams’s approach to photography was known as straight photography, because his photos were artistically achieved without retouching. Furthermore, as Adams would later explain, the subject was of secondary importance in his work. Adams’s first objective was achieving a print that accurately recorded the artist’s feelings or emotions visualized at the moment of exposure. Adams’s photos were therefore particularly well suited to the Sierra Club’s endeavor.

In November, 1936, Adams traveled to New York for the opening of his solo exhibition of fifty photos sponsored by Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. Stieglitz was honoring the young photographer with a one-man show, something that he had allowed only once before with the work of noted American photographer Paul Strand.

Adams departed New York for Washington, D.C., during the second week of January, and after visiting congressmen with his portfolio of photographs under his arm, he was invited to address the congressional commission conducting park hearings. Afterward he spent two days in the capital with congressmen from districts abutting the Kings River territory.

On his return to California there was no indication of the bill’s impending doom. Without further active support, however, the bill for a Kings Canyon Park failed in the 1937-1938 session of Congress. Nearly three more years elapsed before the Kings Canyon project passed into law.

During this interim, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, whom Adams had encountered in Washington, visited San Francisco, where he met with Sierra Club directors. The meeting resulted in a compromise between Ickes, who promised to protect the wilderness values of Kings Canyon with special provisions in a new park bill, and the club, which promised to support a smaller park area. Another part of Ickes’s strategy was to accept a proposal from other park advocates and append the name of John Muir to the proposed bill, thereby assuring Sierra Club support.

One of the photographs that Ansel Adams took with him to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the preservation of Kings Canyon.


Ickes convinced the club that this bill contained the idea for a new type of park, one that would not allow Yosemite-like luxury accommodations. The secretary of the interior envisioned a park for fishermen and hikers or mountaineers, where wildlife could be restored, a park serviced by a minimum of roads and horse or foot trails. Permanent improvements such as hotels and roads would be prohibited. At Ickes’s request, a bill for a John Muir-Kings Canyon Park was introduced in Congress by Representative Bertrand Wesley Gearhart of California early in 1939. The title honoring Muir was later changed while the bill was in committee because it was not a custom to assign individuals’ names to national parks.

Prior to the submission of this successful legislation, Adams sent a complimentary copy of his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail (1938) Sierra Nevada (Adams, A.) to the National Park Service, which forwarded it to Ickes in early January, 1939. This work contained many of the pictures of the Kings Canyon region Adams had taken to Washington, D.C., three years before. Ickes was enthusiastic about Adams’s book and presented his copy to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who consequently lobbied in favor of the bill’s passage. The Kings Canyon National Park bill passed the House that summer and the Senate in February, 1940.

Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail obtained the desired response and brought Adams compliments on the persuasive effectiveness of his photography. Adams often argued, however, that he was not willing to produce propaganda. Speaking later about his Kings Canyon folio, he insisted that he had adhered first of all to his own artistry.


General Grant National Park was abolished in 1940 and became a part of the 460,123 acres set aside for Kings Canyon National Park. This and other groves in the Kings park area contain some of the largest living trees in the world. Following the establishment of the new park, visitors could enjoy not only the giant sequoia trees but also the spectacular contrasts between some of the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada and the canyons formed by the middle and south forks of the Kings River rising in the High Sierra north of the border of Sequoia National Park.

The Kings Canyon National Park bill represented a significant and early move toward wilderness visions advocating preservation of natural environments rather than unlimited recreational use of the same areas. The creation of Kings Canyon National park was the culmination of the Sierra Club’s most important conservation campaign of the 1930’s. As of the end of the twentieth century, the park remained nearly roadless, closed to hunting, and accessible only to hikers or horseback riders.

Another result of Adams’s work on the Kings Canyon Park project was the commission he received from Ickes in 1941 for a landscape photomural to hang in the Interior Department’s Washington, D.C., offices. Adams’s artistry continued to be instrumental in the preservation of many regions throughout the United States, including Three Sisters Park in Oregon’s Cascades and Golden Gate Recreation Area near his own home. In 1958, Adams began collaboration with Nancy Newhall on the production of This Is the American Earth (1960), a book based on a photographic exhibit first organized in 1956. This Is the American Earth is only one of many of Adams’s publications that focuses on the American wilderness environment.

Adams’s environmental concerns went far beyond the artistic recording of nature. For example, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the National Park Service initiated the “Mission 66” program, promoting automobile travel and thereby necessitating more park accommodations for the increasingly larger numbers of visitors to national parks. Part of the Mission 66 proposal included the remaking of the Tioga Road through the Yosemite high country, the construction of which would destroy a part of the Tenaya Lake area. Adams and others proposed alternative routes so that the road would avoid Tenaya Lake. In addition, Adams offered his resignation to the Sierra Club to protest the club’s lack of action as well as the government’s construction policy. Although Adams’s actions gained some media attention, particularly his telegram to the heads of the National Park Service and the secretary of commerce in 1958, the road design changed little.

Adams also actively worked for the preservation of Alaskan lands; he was a member of the preservationist groups Americans for Alaska and the Wilderness Society, in addition to serving as president of the Trustees for Conservation, established in 1954 as an adjunct lobbying group in support of conservationist organizations.

Adams was tireless in his efforts to protect the nation’s wilderness areas at the highest levels of national government. In 1965, he joined the environmental task force created by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and he later presented President Gerald R. Ford with a copy of his memorandum listing New Initiatives for the National Parks. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter recognized Adams’s artistic and environmental achievements when he awarded the photographer the National Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Adams’s portrait of President Carter, the first official photographic presidential portrait, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Adams continued to challenge the federal government regarding care of the nation’s environmental resources under the Ronald Reagan administration when he called for the resignation of Interior Secretary James Watt, whose federal land policy he opposed.

The name, artwork, and environmental achievements of Ansel Adams will always be inseparable from the American conservationist movement. Adams’s photographs continue to give artistic tangibility to a specifically American vision of a people’s relationship with its parks and wilderness. Kings Canyon;preservation
Wilderness preservation
Photographers;Ansel Adams[Adams]

Further Reading

  • Adams, Ansel. Interview by David Sheff and Victoria Sheff. Playboy, May, 1983, 5-6, 67-73, 76, 81-82, 84, 87, 226. Good source for a frank discussion of Adams’s objections to the policies of Interior Secretary James Watt.
  • Adams, Ansel, and Mary Street Alinder. Ansel Adams: An Autobiography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Bulfinch, 1996. Provides insights into the artist’s personal history and viewpoint. Very readable.
  • Cohen, Michael P. The History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988. Carefully written, well-researched study sheds light on the context in which Ansel Adams’s artwork was nurtured, endorsed, and publicized.
  • Fox, Stephen. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. Very useful, well-written guide to the myriad personal, political, and philosophical influences that contributed to the environmental movement in the United States in the nineteenth century.
  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Intellectual history of Americans’ relationship with the wilderness begins with the earliest days of European contact. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Newhall, Nancy. Ansel Adams: The Eloquent Light. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1964. Well-illustrated topical treatment of Adams’s photographic work.
  • Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. 3d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. History of national parks in the United States discusses the various motivations, political constraints, and other factors that have affected the establishment and maintenance of the park system. Includes maps, illustrations, and index.
  • Strong, Douglas Hillman. Trees—or Timber? The Story of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Three Rivers, Calif.: Sequoia National History Association, 1967. Provides sound historical treatment of the forestry issues surrounding the establishment of the two parks.

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