WASHINGTON — Los Banos resident Geneva Ma- rie Brett urged lawmakers Thursday to honor the African-American military men known as Buffalo Soldiers, who once helped protect the fledgling Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
Accompanied by colorfully uniformed representatives of a Buffalo Soldiers organization, Brett found a largely sympathetic congressional audience for legislation that could help designate a future national historic trail through the San Joaquin Valley.
"It is a rare, yet thrilling opportunity to share history of local and national significance," Brett told the House national parks, forests and public lands subcommittee.
A Realtor by profession, Brett has thrown herself into the volunteer work of the Los Banos Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Cavalry Association. The nonprofit group, founded in December 2008, seeks to honor in various ways the San Francisco-based Buffalo Soldiers who served during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Roads built, fires quelled
On multiple occasions, the soldiers rode more than 320 miles from the Presidio to the Sequoia and Yosemite national parks, which until 1914 were under U.S. Army management. The soldiers patrolled the backcountry, built roads and trails, fought fires and undertook other work later assigned to park rangers.
One of the Buffalo Soldiers, 1884 West Point graduate Col. Charles Young, served during the summer of 1903 as military superintendent of Sequoia. Young led his men in building a trail to the top of Mount Whitney, among other projects.
"The presence of these soldiers as official stewards of park lands prior to the National Park Service establishment brought a sense of law and order to the mountain wilderness," Associate Park Service Director Stephen Whitesell testified.
Legislation authored by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, would direct the National Park Service to study options for commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers. The study would include evaluating a potential national historic trail that follows the soldiers' route from the Presidio to the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The study would also identify properties that could be added to the National Register of Historic Places, or designated as a national historic landmark.
"These soldiers were truly the first guardians of our national parks," Speier said.
History on view
Los Banos residents David Ofwono and Kevin Craig, dressed in turn-of-the-century Buffalo Soldier garb, sat nearby as Speier and then Brett spoke. The Los Banos men, accompanied by Craig's son Kevin, brought with them a large map showing the towns through which the soldiers once passed: Los Banos, Madera, Firebaugh, Fresno, Kingsburg and others.
Whitesell said the National Park Service supports the legislation. At the same time, he cautioned that first priority should be clearing away a backlog of 48 other studies that Congress has authorized to examine potential park service additions.
Conservatives and budget hawks have warned, in general, that Congress has been too quick to designate new national parks.
Still, Republican and Democratic members of the House parks subcommittee on Thursday voiced their general support for measures to honor the Buffalo Soldiers.
The apparent lack of controversy, for a bill now endorsed by 53 House co-sponsors, including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, could ease eventual passage. No schedule is yet set for a vote.
Congress has previously designated national historic trails to honor the 3,700-mile Lewis and Clark expedition and the 1,966-mile Pony Express route, among others. Designated trails can combine public and private lands, while federal administrators are assigned to coordinate planning, interpretive exhibits, signs and the like.
"A national historic trail makes a statement to future generations that this history, this contribution is important," Brett said.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or 202-383-0006.