WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday saluted the Buffalo Soldiers who once rode through the San Joaquin Valley of California and protected Sierra Nevada public lands.
Despite some Republican resistance, the House approved legislation to study establishing a new national historic trail that could range from Los Banos and Madera to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. The trail would commemorate the African-American cavalrymen who made the dusty trek around the start of the 20th century.
"We all learned in history class about the Spanish missionaries, the 49ers and the railroad barons," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, Calif. "The sacrifices the Buffalo Soldiers made in service to our country should be added to that history."
In 1899, 1903 and 1904, the Buffalo Soldiers traveled south from the Presidio in San Francisco, passed through San Joaquin Valley towns and then spent time at Yosemite and Sequoia, then under Army management. The soldiers patrolled the backcountry, cut trails and fought fires, among other ranger-like duties.
The bill goes beyond the Buffalo Soldiers who served in California. The legislation also mandates a broader federal study of "alternatives for commemorating and interpreting the role of the Buffalo Soldiers in the early years of the national parks."
The study, for instance, could identify properties potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, or designation as a National Historic Landmark.
Urged on by local activists, including Los Banos resident Geneva Marie Brett, Speier first introduced her "Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act" in January 2010. Several months later, the House approved the measure by a voice vote. Then, the legislation stalled.
On Wednesday, the revived bill passed the House by a 338-70 vote. All of the lawmakers voting no were Republican, though some GOP members from the San Joaquin Valley supported the measure, including Reps. Devin Nunes of Visalia and Jeff Denham of Atwater.
No opponent spoke during the brief House floor debate, conducted Tuesday.
"The Buffalo Soldiers played a key role protecting those park resources that have since been enjoyed by millions of Americans," Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, acknowledged Tuesday.
On general policy grounds, some conservative lawmakers have cautioned against expanding a national park system that already struggles under a $10 billion deferred-maintenance backlog. The National Park Service estimates the new Buffalo Soldiers study would cost about $400,000.
The park service is already undertaking more than three dozen other studies of potential additions to the park system, and lawmakers keep adding more. During this Congress, for instance, Colorado senators are pushing a bill to consider adding to the park system Camp Hale, where the famed 10th Mountain Division trained in World War II, while a New York City congressman wants to study adding a site commemorating a devastating 1904 fire aboard the steamship General Slocum.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has introduced a companion Buffalo Soldiers bill, which is essentially teed up for Senate action following a sympathetic committee hearing last October.
"By amplifying the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, this bill could help bridge cultural divides and expand opportunities to appeal to an all-inclusive audience," William Shaddox, acting associate director of the park service, told a Senate committee last year.
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