Restoring the Giant Forest
The National Park Service eventually realized that the Giant Forest was no place for such an extensive built compound and began a long effort to restore the landscape.
Two main objectives drove the restoration of the Giant Forest Museum area. First, the National Park Service wanted to restore the area to as close to natural conditions as possible, including the removal of parking and most buildings. While doing so, the agency wanted to teach visitors about the ecological requirements and management needs of the sequoias.
Removal and Reuse
The first step was the demolition and removal of nearly 300 buildings and about 1 million square feet (93,000 square meters) of asphalt from parking areas and campgrounds. Construction teams were given strict orders to protect the sequoias, under threat of fines, and were asked to hand-dig wherever possible.
Today, only four structures remain — the museum building, a comfort station, a ranger residence, and an environmental education center. Other visitor facilities have been relocated to Wuksachi Village, situated in a less sensitive fir forest six miles (ten kilometers) away. A shuttle bus now takes visitors to the Giant Forest.
The design and construction teams reused as much material as possible in the restoration. Asphalt and concrete were recycled for use as paving base material. Contaminated soils from a gas station were remediated and reused as slurry fill. Other salvaged materials included granite curbing, timber, light fixtures, and natural boulders.
"Sequoia National Park is very remote, so it's expensive to haul things out," says Joanne Cody, ASLA, landscape architecture group leader in planning and site design for the National Park Service's Denver Service Center, and the job captain on the Giant Forest project. "We also wanted it to be a very sustainable project. Anything that was reusable we reused."
Restoring the Market and Surrounds
In December 2001, more than 15 years of planning, design, restoration, and construction culminated in the opening of the Giant Forest Museum, housed in Underwood's historic building.
In addition to its original use as a market, the museum building's interior had been altered for use over the years as a guest registration office, pizza parlor, and bar. Outside, the roof had been weakened by snow, and bears had damaged portions of exterior walls.
The design team gave the same care to the restoration and construction of the new museum and surrounding facilities as it did to restoring the landscape. In addition to replacing the roof and repairing the walls, the designers referred to historic photographs and other archival materials to preserve the building's original river rock fireplace and repaint certain areas to match the original design.
On the outside, scale dominated the design process. The sheer size of the surrounding forest is represented by a nearby sequoia dubbed the "Sentinel Tree," which served as design inspiration for the outdoor areas. "The museum building is long and low," says Cody, "but the landscape is very much oversized. The building is completely dwarfed by the sequoia tree."
To emphasize this disparity, Cody designed a large terrace in front of the museum that matches the footprint of the Sentinel Tree. Visitors can walk along a granite scale laid in the pavement that marks the tree's exact height and diameter. Adding to the sense of size is a newly placed sequoia log, cut from the last sequoia felled to protect buildings. (Today, instead of cutting down the tree, the Park Service would simply close and relocate the building.)
Native boulders uncovered during demolition were used in detailing for drinking fountains and stairways. Where locally quarried granite was used, the team applied Permeon, a simulated rock varnish, to age the stone faces so that they blended with on-site material. The varnish produces variegated earth tones on rock, concrete, and metal surfaces.
The team also worked with an ecologist to replant native seedlings in disturbed areas. To protect already damaged root systems, the team did regrading with imported fill to avoid any cutting.
Blending in the New
In addition to restoring the site's natural and historic attributes, the team made allowances for modern needs. The new visitor exhibits on ecology are modern and interactive. Double-doors from the museum make the terrace accessible to all park visitors.
The museum is also the hub for a series of connected hiking trails, several of which have been regraded and paved to meet accessibility requirements. And, in a park that routinely gets several feet (a meter or two) of snow, it helps that the terrace is large enough to accommodate snow plows.
The restoration of the museum and remediation of the surrounding areas were so carefully executed that the Colorado Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects recently gave the project two awards for design and land stewardship.
In addition to fostering public education about the Giant Forest, this project clearly demonstrates that federal agencies can make environmental improvements writ as large as the sequoias themselves. "It's really the first major pullout of a developed area in the national parks," Cody says. "We hope it can set a precedent for other sensitive areas."
Kim A. O'Connell is a freelance writer who specializes in environmental and preservation journalism.