David Laws (October 19, 2018)
As with many tourist magnets across the globe, surging crowds are now threatening the very essence of the promise that draws them to the location in the first place. During a visit to Yosemite in early fall, I learned about how the park is addressing this problem that impacts some of its most beloved landscapes.
Communing with nature while jostled by herds of humanity seeking the most favored selfie spot is not what Fredrick Law Olmsted had in mind when, as a commissioner to Congress responsible for Yosemite, in 1865 he wrote; “It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them.”
For the first time in U.S. history, the federal government set aside scenic natural areas to be protected for the benefit of future generations. Roads were built and facilities provided to ease access to the most favored spots. With more than 4 million visitors a year, today Yosemite often resembles a forested theme park more than a sanctuary for the soul. In partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy, a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting preservation and managing access in the park, in 2015 work began on the largest protection, restoration and improvement project in park history.
I visited the recently completed $40 million project to improve habitat and visitor experience in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Roads, trails, and buildings encroaching on the roots of the ancient trees have been removed, an ADA-accessible boardwalk constructed, and natural hydrology improved. A shuttle service ferries visitors from a more distant parking area. And while the experience is still far from the pristine forest enjoyed by Olmsted, elimination of vehicles and new trails made of natural surfaces instead of pavement offer do offer 21st century visitors a glimpse of the grove’s original grandeur and serenity.
At Bridalveil Fall sign boards describe plans to upgrade the popular site with improved paths and facilities. I was intrigued by the promise to open unobstructed views of the fall “through the expansion of several vista opportunities and the restoration of historic vistas.”
I met with Yosemite National Park Public Affairs Officer, Scott Gediman, to learn more about this aspect of the restoration program. He described the Scenic Vista Management Plan (SVP) to reestablish and maintain the Park’s iconic views, vistas, and lines of sight that are obscured by vegetation growth. When the park was originally set aside, vegetation patterns were much more open, with unblocked views and open meadows. Early photographs and paintings portrayed open oak woodlands that allowed for easy viewing of granite walls and waterfalls from the valley floor. The mix of meadows and forests throughout the park was maintained by natural wildfires.
Based on criteria of vividness, uniqueness, access, and intactness, the plan established in 2011 identified 93 vista sites appropriate for management where conifer encroachment has obscured previously open vistas. A total of 21 sites had been worked on through 2017. At Scott’s recommendation, I stopped to look at work proceeding on the meadow near the base of El Capitan. Many of the conifers and dead trees had been removed to reveal a view made famous in a photograph by Carlton Watkins that was used on a postage stamp in 1934. With all such projects, the question is what historic era should be chosen for the restoration. In this case, as the current road was completed in 1928, the decision was made to leave all trees established before that date. Details of individual sites are posted on the NPS website from which the picture below is taken.