Amidst a flurry of pomp and circumstance, this weekend’s grand opening of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest’s Schulman Grove Visitor Center will celebrate its long-awaited recovery and rebirth from the destruction caused by an arsonist’s flames.
Four years ago, Sept. 3, it had been business as usual. Serene silence permeated the Schulman Grove, broken only by the reverent, hushed tones of visitors to the home of the ancient ones, or their occasional exclamations of awe. Those would soon dissipate as travelers took to the trails or explored the visitor center, frequently described as the most beautiful wilderness visitor center they had ever seen.
Then, sometime during the night, tragedy struck. On the morning of Sept. 4, 2008, Schulman Grove’s serenity was shattered. U.S. Forest Service arriving for work were shocked – and grief-stricken – to find a still-smoldering heap of twisted metal roofing, charred Idaho lodge poles and the smoking carcasses of several nearby ancient ones – the aftermath of an arsonist’s fire, set within a quarter-mile of 4,875-year-old Methuselah, the oldest known bristlecone pine and the oldest known living creature on Earth.
But this weekend, the Schulman Grove Visitor Center is back. On Saturday, Sept. 1, the new and improved facility will be unveiled to the public in a grand opening ceremony to celebrate its triumphant rise from the ashes of tragedy.
“There is wide interest from all over,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Interpretive Specialist and Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Manager John Louth said, of the grand opening. It is attracting locals, state residents and visitors from across the nation. For example, he said, past researchers’ family members will be coming in from Pennsylvania.
“The old, much-loved, cozy, mountain cabin feeling” of the previous Schulman Grove Visitor Center has been replaced with a “partial-lodge construction with a rough-sawn plank look to it,” explained Louth, giving it a “new old-national-park lodge feeling.” Using a resource much in abundance, the new facility is now completely solar-powered.
The Schulman Grove Visitor Center grand opening ceremony represents a four-year collaborative effort between the Forest Service, Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, artists, scientists and community members.
This past weekend’s brilliantly sunny weather and moderate temperatures could grace the big day which starts with music from 12:45-1:45 p.m. by local bluegrass Idle Hands String Band. Bob Mora will perform on Native American flute from 1:45-2 p.m.
At 2 p.m., Mora will intone a Paiute blessing and Saya Novinger’s vocal rendition of “America the Beautiful” will herald in the formal ceremony.
Dr. Malcolm Hughes, Ph.D. will be one of the opening speakers. Currently engaged in research at the University of Arizona Tree-ring Research Laboratory, Hughes is “the world’s preeminent scientist in tree-ring research,” explained Louth. And Dr. Connie Millar, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, will speak on the impact of global warming on high-altitude conifers.
Courtesy of Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, appetizers, cake and drink will be served at 2:45 p.m., with musical accompaniment. Then, tours of the visitor center will be led by U.S. Forest Service staff who will be available to answer questions about the facility and the ancient bristlecone pines.
Louth said “people will have a visual experience (with) new world-class exhibits, which mostly pertain to the natural history of the bristlecones.” Exhibits included outdoor kiosks with informative panels, such as “From Ashes to Achievement” – the journey from the ruins of the old visitor center to the contemporary, 2,100-square-foot facility.
Inside, a wide range of exhibits meld form with function. A
gallery room set up for the occasion will display finalists’ work submitted for the Bristlecone Art Contest.
A watercolor by MaryAnn Thomas, titled “Bristlecones on a Hillside,” which hangs above the
reception area mantel piece, was declared the winner this week.
The most prominent feature on the permanent gallery wall is a six- by 14-foot mural by Larry Eiffort, an Oregon artist. A new, improved bristlecone pine slab is accompanied by an exhibit panel that shows growth forms. The exhibit panel delineates how these growth forms tell not just the age of the tree, but important information such as branch growth, heart rot, strip bark growth and climatic changes, Louth explained.
Other additions include several continuous-loop, mini documentaries, which will inform visitors about the geological history of the Great Basin and the increment boring method used to date trees.
A “beautiful new” Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association bookstore offers its former array of educational and memorabilia items with several new additions, such as: commemorative wine glass, filtration thermos, “Advice from a Pine Tree” journal book, Advice from a Bristlecone Pine T-shirt and, of course, new book titles, said Louth.
A new 28-seat theater will show a 19-minute documentary that tells the story of the human discovery of the bristlecone pine, how the tree changed history and more. The virgin facility also offers an archive, library and research use room, added the interpretive ranger.
For those who want to commune with the ancient ones on this auspicious day, there are three trails: the half-mile Bristlecone Cabin, the one-mile Discovery and the four-mile Methuselah Walk. Another new convenience, the 25-year-old, self-guided Methuselah Walk tour brochure, has had a glossy, full-color, expanded-information facelift.
Festivities are expected to end by 4 p.m. Guests are encouraged to carpool to the event as Schulman Grove parking is limited. Heading east on State Route 168 off of U.S. 395, just north of Big Pine, the 24-mile drive to Schulman Grove takes approximately 45 minutes.