The big trees have been falling for decades, crashing down on roofs and cars and occasionally landing on people. For just about as long, the National Park Service has been trying to move Giant Forest Village, the park's commercial hub, out from under the regal sequoias.
Now, unless officials can come up with at least $30 million in private capital, the second-oldest national park and one of the most frequently visited could be without hotel rooms, restaurants, shops and other visitor services by 1998.
Giant Forest Village will be closed this winter, officials have decided, and some buildings near leaning trees have already been vacated. The state, reacting to chronic sewage spills, has ordered the Park Service to shut down the village's ancient sewer system.
Sequoia's plight has become a focal point of wrangling in Congress over the Park Service budget and whether the system of parks, monuments and recreation areas should be shrunk to help ease the federal deficit.
Facing a $4-billion maintenance backlog, and watching many of its prized historical sites fall into ruin, the Park Service is pushing for legislation that gives parks a larger share of the profits of concessionaires--the private businesses that provide most visitor services.
Less than 3% of the $650 million in annual concession revenues comes back to the parks. But the reform legislation is opposed by Republicans and some conservative Democrats who contend it is too hard on concessionaires.
Opponents, instead, are sponsoring bills that would require the park system to solve its financial problems by raising entrance fees and closing a number of parks.
One pending House bill--expected to come up for a vote today--would create a park closure commission that Park Service officials say would take aim at over 100 historical parks, battlefields and urban parks--such as the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Under the bill, a commission similar to the panel established to oversee the closure of military bases would decide whether to close parks and monuments or turn them over to states, local governments or private companies.
Proponents of the commission argue that fewer parks would mean more money for the most popular parks, including Sequoia. But critics fear that a slimmed-down park system would lead to even smaller budgets, and warn that the commission would be under pressure to close significant historical sites that don't draw large crowds as well as remote wilderness parks.
Sequoia National Park, located about 100 miles north of Bakersfield, was created in the southern Sierra Nevada in 1890, a few days before Yosemite became a national park.
The towering sequoias, the world's largest, were always the park's star attraction. Yet by the 1920s, the Park Service knew it had made a mistake building facilities in one of the most stately groves of ancient redwoods.
Already weakened by age--some are believed to be 2,000 years old--the trees were further undermined when their shallow root systems were disturbed by foundations, road excavations and water and sewer lines necessary to support a village of 2,000 people.
"We built cabins around fallen trees assuming that no more trees would fall," observed William Tweed, the park's planning chief. "I don't know a better example of folly."
Officials first sought to move the village in 1930, but the concessionaire at that time resisted the move, said Tweed. Now, Sequoia is in a somewhat similar bind.
According to the Park Service, the current concessionaire, Guest Services Inc., doesn't want to invest the money necessary to finance the relocation of commercial operations. At the same time, Guest Services wants to stay on as the concessionaire in Giant Forest.
Guest Services has been in Sequoia for over 30 years. It grosses between $8 million and $10 million annually and returns less than 1% of that revenue to the federal government, according to Park Service figures. Guest Services officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
When the Sequoia concession contract came up for renewal earlier this year, the Park Service hoped to receive bids from outside companies willing to put up the money necessary to relocate the village.
When no such bids came in, the Park Service blamed the current concessions law, which gives a competitive advantage to established concessionaires.
"Since the current law went into effect in 1965," said Destry Jarvis, a Park Service administrator, "we have negotiated 1,900 contracts but signed only eight with someone other than the established concessionaire."
At least one company initially interested in the Sequoia contract agreed with the Park Service on the impact of the law.
Delaware North Companies Inc., the concessionaire at Yosemite, criticized the law in a letter to the Park Service.
"Due to the substantial investment associated with preparing a winning bid for a national parks contract, Delaware North will, in all likelihood, never be in a position to respond to a request for [a] proposal where the current operator has a preferential right to renewal," the letter stated.
That right amounts to a second bite at the apple for existing concessionaires. It offers the opportunity for them to come back and match a rival's bid.
"It's a truly anti-competitive situation that doesn't exist anywhere else in the hospitality business," said Bill Bissett, Delaware North's vice president for business development.
The legislation advocated by the Park Service would eliminate that bidding advantage. Proponents of the measure, however, face strong opposition from influential Republicans in Congress.
A bill backed by most major concessionaires and introduced by Sen. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, would continue to offer a competitive edge to existing concessionaires--regardless of how low their fees are--if they are doing a good job.
Under Murkowski's bill, higher fees could be collected from the concessionaires, but the money would be factored into Congress' annual appropriations process and could be used to justify reductions in park budgets.
Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Resources Committee are proposing legislation that would require parks to pay for 75% of the services they offer.
For families driving into Yellowstone, or one of the other big-budget parks, that could mean an increase in entry fees from the current $5 per car to as high as $50, said Jarvis.
Nothing short of a massive infusion of private capital will solve Sequoia's problem.
The Park Service has already spent several million dollars preparing a site for a new commercial center. Six miles from Giant Forest, it is well away from the big trees on a hillside overlooking the High Sierra.
The land has been cleared and leveled. Retaining walls, footbridges, parking lots and camping areas have been constructed. There is a brand-new fire station as well as housing for park personnel. What is left to do--lodging for several hundred guests, restaurants and stores--must be provided by a concessionaire, park officials contend.
In the meantime, park visitors are having to make do with the existing cluster of deteriorating facilities among towering trees that are also on their last legs.
Designed nearly a century ago as a summer resort, Giant Forest Village is sagging and buckling from the weight of too many heavy winters.
The plumbing doesn't always work, and the 1930s-era sewage treatment plant is so rudimentary, "the treated waste coming out is as bad as the stuff going into some plants," said Tweed.
Mice skitter across cabin floors and there are gaps in the walls so wide that "people stuff newspapers to ensure privacy," Tweed said.
He added that the Park Service has posted signs in some cabins apologizing for the conditions.
"This place is a remnant of the auto court era, the kind of place you saw along Route 66 in 1935," Tweed said. "It is not what we should be offering visitors to national parks in 1995."