Panel passes bill to study honoring California's Buffalo Soldiers

WASHINGTON — Congress is now 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 African-American troopers and their park-protection campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But like the 320-plus-mile treks that took Buffalo Soldiers through towns like Los Banos, Madera and Firebaugh, this 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 authored 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 backcountry, 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.

Introduced in January, Speier's legislation has 54 co-sponsors, all of them 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 now 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 designations as National Historic Landmark.

Potentially, it's good company to be in. Currently honored trails include the 1,966-mile Pony Express National Historic Trail. Yosemite's famed Ahwahnee hotel is one of roughly 2,500 sites on the National Historic Landmark list.

There are no known opponents to the Buffalo Soldiers legislation, but it is not a free ride. The National Park Service estimates the study will cost $400,000. Federal officials also caution that they are already 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 also 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.