House bill would honor work Buffalo Soldiers did in Sierra

WASHINGTON -- Congress is closer to commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers who rode long ago through the San Joaquin Valley on their way to protect Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

This week, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill to study designating a new national historic trail in honor of the black troopers and their campaigns to protect the parks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But like the 320-plus-mile treks that took Buffalo Soldiers through Los Banos, Madera and Firebaugh, the congressional march could be long and arduous. Success will require patience, persistence and perhaps a bit of luck.

"The story of the Buffalo Soldiers must be included in teaching our children about California's rich and diverse history," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, said Thursday.

Speier wrote the Buffalo Soldiers legislation and invited Los Banos resident Geneva Marie Brett and other advocates to testify on its behalf in February. Brett volunteers with the Los Banos Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Cavalry Association.

The nonprofit association attempts in various ways to honor the soldiers who rode from San Francisco's Presidio to the Yosemite and Sequoia parks while those public lands were under U.S. Army management.

The soldiers patrolled the back country, built roads and trails, fought fires and served, essentially, as the first park rangers.

"I've lived my entire life within walking distance of El Camino Real and never knew this forgotten chapter in our local and California history," Speier said.

The Buffalo Soldiers made the 16-day trek to the Sierra Nevada in 1899, 1903 and 1904.

Cardoza not a sponsor

Introduced in January, Speier's legislation has 54 co-sponsors, all Democrats. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, is not a co-sponsor but Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, is.

Quietly approved Wednesday in the Natural Resources Committee by voice vote, the legislation heading to the House floor calls for a three-year Interior Department study of ways to honor the California-based Buffalo Soldiers. The study will include evaluating the "suitability and feasibility" of establishing a national historic trail commemorating the soldiers' dusty route.

The study also will look at potential additions to the National Register of Historic Places or the National Historic Landmark list.

Honored trails include the 1,966-mile Pony Express National Historic Trail. Yosemite's famed Ahwahnee Hotel is one of roughly 2,500 sites designated historic landmarks.

There are no known opponents to the Buffalo Soldiers legislation, but it will not get a free ride. The National Park Service estimates the study will cost $400,000.

Federal officials caution that they are conducting 48 other studies of potential additions to the National Park Service system. "We feel that priority should be given to the ... previously authorized studies," Associate Park Service Director Stephen Whitesell told a House panel earlier this year.

Congressional budget hawks have voiced skepticism, in general, about the wisdom of continually piling more responsibilities on the park service's plate. Dozens of other bills have been introduced this Congress to add park service units, from the Bronx in New York City to an old mountain warfare training camp in Colorado.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.