Yosemite's anniversary: Looking back at 150 years of paradise

The Fresno BeeMay 31, 2014 

Ron Mackie remembers picking up toilet paper for two weeks after Memorial Day 1970. About 1,500 "flower children" spent the holiday jammed into a lovely camping spot not far from Nevada Fall.

Yosemite National Park was going through another growth spurt as young people flocked to places where indoor plumbing was not a priority. And, as always, America's mad love affair with this granite wonderland got more complicated.

How do you protect a national treasure while inviting the world — including 1,500 hippies — to come see it?

"Before that Memorial Day, you would see a few backpackers in the wilderness, and that was about it," said Mackie, 79, a former Yosemite wilderness manager who worked decades in the park. "By 1970, it became a real challenge."

But it shouldn't have been a surprise. The worry over big crowds started in the 1860s shortly after Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.

The topic will surely come up again as the National Park Service celebrates the 150th anniversary of the act on June 30, the date Lincoln signed it.

TIMELINE: Slide and click through Yosemite's history

A ceremony is planned at venerable Mariposa Grove, which is near the park's south entrance at Highway 41. The event also will serve as the groundbreaking for a return-to-nature renovation of the human footprint around the big trees. A crowd of several hundred people is expected.

Visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted spoke of the human footprint in 1865, but his remarks pointed at nature — "protecting the dignity of the scenery," he called it.

"In a century, the whole number of visitors will be counted by millions," he told a gathering at Yosemite Valley. "An injury to the scenery so slight that it may be unheeded by any visitor now, will be one multiplied by those millions."

Incomparable views

Glance around at 7-square-mile Yosemite Valley. It's pretty clear why Olmsted wanted to protect this place.

The view takes in a glittering lineup of sights — Half Dome, El Capitan, North Dome, Cathedral Rocks and several waterfalls, including the tallest in North America, Yosemite Falls at 2,425 feet.

High Sierra snowmelt blasts over the falls and crashes to the valley floor in a stunning water ballet. Streams flow. Wildflowers bloom. Deer browse. Coyotes hunt. Birds dart in and out.

This iconic panorama is the spiritual heart of Yosemite, even though it is only a tiny part of a 1,169-square-mile park that stretches to glaciers at the Sierra crest.

Former Yosemite superintendent Michael Tollefson said people recognize the valley as a grand focal point in nature.

He served in 10 national parks during a 36-year career that included leadership posts at Great Smoky Mountains, Alaska's Glacier Bay and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

"I never had a favorite park until I was superintendent of Yosemite," said Tollefson, who retired in 2009 after a six-year tenure in Yosemite and now is president of the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy.

"What a privilege to live in Yosemite Valley and walk through it every day. I had a sore neck from looking up all the time."

Don Neubacher, who occupies the superintendent's office now, reminded his staff this spring that Yosemite was the first place in the world set aside for future generations. Other places followed.

"The preservation of parks and protected areas for future generations is now an institution in over 100 countries on six continents," he said.

Attracting visitors

For more than 150 years, Yosemite has become a global crossroads and a destination for celebrities, noted politicians and England's Queen Elizabeth II in the 1980s. Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy visited during their presidencies.

For hard-core climbers, the big walls of Yosemite might be the best on the planet. Ansel Adams and other photographers made careers here. Skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts built a long history at Badger Pass Ski Resort.

Most of all, though, Yosemite has been a tradition for many families — camping, hiking, rafting, bicycle riding, picnicking. They made Olmsted's prediction stand up. Annual visitor totals grew to more than 1 million by 1954. Today, the totals push 4 million.

Roughly three-quarters of those visitors come through Yosemite Valley. Along the way, the tourists create lucrative trade in gateway communities, such as Oakhurst. Legal and political battles follow the crowds.

The biggest recent legal action over such issues spans the last 15 years. It centers on a plan to protect the Merced River, the main stream in the valley.

And one more Yosemite argument surrounds a provocative question: Which national park was really first?

Congress established Yellowstone in 1872 as the first national park — well ahead of Yosemite's official beginning in 1890.

But the seed for Yellowstone was planted at Yosemite years before, as the argument goes.

Yellowstone or Yosemite?

Why was Yellowstone officially the first national park instead of Yosemite?

Because Wyoming was not yet a state in 1872, said author Dayton Duncan, who wrote "Seed of the Future," a book commissioned by the Yosemite Conservancy, which raises money for park improvements and advocates for Yosemite.

The Yosemite grant in 1864 set up the first state park for California. The idea was for states to protect these kinds of special places. But without statehood in Wyoming, Congress decided to make Yellowstone a national park, Duncan said.

Duncan has spent years researching these kinds of questions surrounding Yosemite and other parks.

In addition to being an author, he is a documentary filmmaker, working many years with fellow acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. Duncan wrote and co-produced "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," the award-winning documentary on PBS.

Duncan said he went to the congressional records of the discussions about Yellowstone and discovered the park was patterned after the 1864 Yosemite grant. The idea started with Yosemite, he said.

"There's no disputing Yellowstone was the first national park," Duncan said. "But the DNA of Yellowstone is 95% Yosemite. If you look at this in a larger context, it grew out of the Yosemite grant."

Not everyone celebrates the land grant. Many Native Americans can't forget how their ancestors were treated in the 1800s.

The native people of Yosemite ran for their lives from U.S. soldiers in 1851, when Maj. James Savage led the Mariposa Battalion into Yosemite Valley to hunt down "renegade" Indians.

"I don't know if you ever make peace with it because … you never forget your ancestors," said Lois Martin, 70, a Miwok and Paiute woman who grew up in Yosemite Valley.

Another Yosemite native descendant said Yosemite Valley has suffered from the past 150 years.

"The changes, the destruction — that's what I don't like about it," said Les James, 78, a Miwok and Chukchansi who worked in Yosemite for 31 years and is active in Yosemite's native community. "You've destroyed something that we preserved for thousands of years. In 150 years, you've ruined it."

Business opportunity

What led Congress to preserve Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove? That's a little hazy, according to historians. California Sen. John Conness introduced the act at the request of "various gentlemen in California," according to the record. He never said which gentlemen.

Lincoln had a lot on his mind in June 1864 as Confederate forces readied for a possible raid on Washington, D.C., Duncan wrote.

In addition to signing a bill increasing import duties and another broadening income tax, Lincoln signed the law preserving Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Without much debate, it was done.

But an argument that would become very familiar in Yosemite developed over the question of how people would see the park.

On one side was promoter James Mason Hutchings, a hotel owner and former journalist. On the other was Galen Clark, who was hired by the state as the park's first guardian.

Clark did not like the idea of Hutchings' private claims in the public's playground. Meanwhile, Hutchings clearly wanted to turn Yosemite into a profit center as he enticed the world to see it.

Modern historian Alfred Runte wrote of Hutchings: "You have to pay him for the privilege of seeing Yosemite Valley."

Hutchings was bold, politically connected and adept at navigating roadblocks to his development of the valley.

As Duncan wrote, the "only real impediment to his expansive plans, in fact, was the absence of a sawmill that could turn out the lumber he needed fast enough."

Hutchings found just the right person to run a sawmill. He hired a bright young man with a need for work, experience in running mills and a knack with mechanisms. His name was John Muir.

Passionate activist

Muir, 31 at the time, had left his job as a sheepherder at Tuolumne Meadows. He didn't like the sight of the sheep trampling the high-elevation meadow grasses and flowers. Like many modern-day sojourners who want to spend time in a place such as Yosemite, he was not there for the work.

He agreed to assemble and run the sawmill in Yosemite Valley "as it turned pine trees into two-by-fours and sawdust" for Hutchings' hotel, Duncan wrote.

As his time allowed, Muir trekked all over, learning about nature, fanning his own outdoor passion and eventually stepping into the political fray at Yosemite.

He butted heads with Josiah Whitney, state geologist. From observation, Muir theorized that glaciers had scoured Yosemite Valley, creating the granite features and hanging valleys where creeks poured the prodigious waterfalls.

Whitney stood by the prevailing scientific thought, which was a cataclysmic sinking of the valley floor. He dismissed Muir as an "ignoramus" and "mere sheepherder."

Later, geologists would side with Muir. In the process, they came up with fascinating details.

Scientific boon

Most of the valley's rock originated about 100 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The glaciers are a more recent phenomenon — within the last million years or so. The peak of the latest glacial period was about 20,000 years ago.

For decades, scientists have studied Yosemite's ecosystem, from sparkling lakes to ridgeline vegetation. Protecting this land over the past 150 years has been a boon to science, said research forester Jan van Wagtendonk, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who spent the last 40 years studying Yosemite.

While mining, logging, grazing and other activities have shaped areas outside the park, Yosemite has remained relatively untouched, he said.

"Without places like Yosemite, we wouldn't know how the ecosystem has changed and how it might react to climate change," he said.

Muir grasped the importance of Yosemite's ecosystem by studying the geology and plants, deepening his commitment to prevent the valley and the Sierra from further development.

Muir and Galen Clark became friends, and both would eventually become adversaries to Hutchings. Muir evolved into a writer and tireless activist for the Sierra. A founder of the Sierra Club, Muir petitioned Congress for the bill that established Yosemite and Sequoia as national parks in 1890.

But he also is remembered for the big argument he lost — construction of O'Shaunessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, north of Yosemite Valley.

The reservoir still provides Tuolumne River water for San Francisco, which city fathers said was needed after the destructive 1906 earthquake revealed the unreliability of its water supplies.

For many environmentalists, it is still a bitter subject — a big city's water supply in one of the country's most prized national parks.

The advocacy group Restore Hetch Hetchy said the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite grant is an opportunity to again bring up the subject of restoring Hetch Hetchy.

"This 150th celebration is an unprecedented moment of celebrity worldwide," said Spreck Rosekrans, who leads Restore Hetch Hetchy. "It is diminished by the elephant in the room — that reservoir. It's time to return Hetch Hetchy Valley to future generations."

The place has changed

In November 1958, Fresno native George Whitmore stood atop El Capitan with fellow climbers Warren Harding and Wayne Merry after completing the first successful ascent of the 3,000-foot wall in Yosemite.

A welcoming committee hiked a trail to meet them at the top, bringing champagne for a toast.

"We were drinking from real glasses," said Whitmore, 83, who still lives in Fresno. "We flung our glasses over the edge. We would never do that now."

Things have changed since 1958. National Park Service records show about 1.1 million people visited Yosemite the year Harding, Merry and Whitmore conquered El Capitan. Visitor totals have more than quadrupled since then.

Tossing champagne glasses over a 3,000-foot cliff isn't the only practice that has gone away. Feeding the black bears at the garbage dump in the valley became a no-no as environmental awareness grew.

One of the more beloved bygone traditions was the nightly fire fall from Glacier Point to Curry Village.

It began in the 1800s when camp fires were lit at Glacier Point so visitors could sit around and talk. At the end of the evening, the glowing coals would be kicked over the side of the cliff, plunging thousands of feet and creating a streak of fire in the dark.

In the 1900s when Camp Curry had been established, it continued on special occasions. By 1917, it became a nightly ritual.

As the glowing coals fell, the tune "Indian love call" was sung at Camp Curry. The time of the fire fall was established as 9 p.m., though it was held off until 9:30 p.m. one night in 1962 for visiting President John F. Kennedy, who was on the phone until 9 p.m.

The National Park Service stopped the tradition in 1968, saying it was a man-made attraction that prompted visitors to trample meadows to get a good view. But that didn't put a damper on visitor totals, said Ed Hardy, 79, who served as president of the Curry Co., the park concession, from 1974 to 1994.

He was both praised and criticized for promoting more visitation to Yosemite.

"The park would be basically closed on Labor Day and reopened on Memorial Day," he said. "People deserve to see it 365 days a year, but people weren't taking advantage of it."

By the 1990s, Yosemite visitor totals broke the 4 million barrier. Lines of cars waited at the gates on holidays, and traffic remained snarled for hours inside Yosemite Valley. Gates were temporarily closed at times.

As it had in the past, the park was going through another growth spasm, and the debate over managing crowds expanded.

Leaders added shuttle buses, improved parking, protected meadows with boardwalks, restored several areas and made many other changes. Park leaders even started a permit system to limit traffic on the busy hiking trail for Half Dome.

Hardy and others say they are pleased that some popular attractions, such as bicycling and river rafting, were not eliminated. Many activities had been under a microscope as Yosemite studied ways to better protect the Merced River.

"The best way to see the park is floating in the river and looking up," Hardy said. "It's magic."

But Whitmore added that it may not be possible to experience the park the way he did more than a half century ago when Yosemite Valley had fewer visitors, far fewer bureaucratic rules and a lot of freedom.

"The trend is in the other direction now," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or @markgrossi on Twitter. Staff writer Carmen George contributed to this story.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service