Giant sequoias to star at Yosemite's 150th anniversary celebration

The Fresno BeeJune 28, 2014 

A melancholy John Muir camped alone among the giant sequoias at the Mariposa Grove in 1871. He had just waved goodbye to an elderly New Englander he would never see again — famed essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"Though lonesome for the first time in these forests, I quickly took heart again," Muir later wrote. "The trees had not gone to Boston, nor the birds."

Today, the giant trees and the birds still are here, but this is not a lonely place anymore — especially not this week.

Hundreds of people, television cameras, lawmakers, government leaders and the California State Parks Mounted Patrol on horseback are expected at the grove Monday. They're celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act, which set aside Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley.

TIMELINE: Slide and click through Yosemite's history

Though Yosemite didn't become a national park until 1890, the land grant planted the seed for national parks all over the globe. The National Park Service is not going to let this landmark anniversary pass without a memorable celebration.

The 10 a.m. event is exactly the kind of tight-rope walk one would expect at Yosemite National Park. It's a balance between showing off nature and preventing the public from trampling it in the process.

The backdrop will be about 500 magnificent giant sequoias — Mariposa Grove is the park's largest grove of the big trees. The event is free, but there is a $20 fee to enter the park.

During the celebration, the park is kicking off a $36 million renovation at the grove, which will mean ripping out asphalt and other parts of the human footprint.

The anniversary celebration and the kickoff of the renovation project may sound like quite a fuss for one little corner of the park. But it's pretty typical of the Yosemite lovefest that Abraham Lincoln started when he signed the 1864 land grant. Yosemite is a keystone of the Park Service.

"This date is historic and significant," Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. "We want the public to share in it. There may be 500 or 600 people, so we will direct people to parking areas in other places and use shuttle buses to transport them to the grove."

SPECIAL REPORT: Yosemite celebrates 150th anniversary

There will be no parking at the grove from 3 p.m. today to 2 p.m. Monday. For people passing through the South Entrance, park-and-ride shuttle locations will be at the Highway 41 entrance and Goat Meadow along Highway 41 outside of the park.

For those coming from inside the park or through other entrances, there will be park-and-ride shuttle locations in Wawona. They include the Wawona Store-Pioneer parking area, Forest Drive, Alder Creek Trailhead and Meadow Loop Trailhead near the Wawona Golf Course.

Park Service Director Jon Jarvis will address the crowd, as will California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, also are scheduled to speak.

Michael Tollefson, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, will attend, along with many of the nonprofit's supporters. The conservancy is providing $20 million for the grove renovation.

The star of this show will be the gargantuan trees. Some are more than 200 feet tall with thousands of tons of wood in their trunks. Their striking, cinnamon-colored bark and sheer size make them an imposing distraction.

The fire-scarred Grizzly Giant is the most famous resident and one of the largest trees in the grove. It is about 2,000 years old and ranks as the 23rd largest giant sequoia in the world.

The Grizzly's trunk has an estimated 31,400 cubic feet of wood — impressive but less than the General Sherman's 52,500 cubic feet of wood in Sequoia National Park. Though there are taller trees — coastal redwoods — the Sherman's volume makes it the largest tree in the world.

The Sherman lives 100 miles south of Yosemite in Giant Forest, which was the site of a landmark grove restoration in the 1990s. The Park Service successfully hauled out 280 buildings, 24 acres of asphalt and a leaking, 1920s sewage treatment plant from Giant Forest.

Nathan Stephenson of the U.S. Geological Survey's field station in Three Rivers said pavement tends to warm up the ground below and accelerate the growth of the big trees. It also sets the stage for root rot. The renovation in Giant Forest took care of that problem.

Among the other advantages of renovation: Restoring natural water flow through the trees and allowing more sequoia seeds to grow.

At the Mariposa Grove, the restoration will include installation of boardwalks to let people pass through sensitive areas without harming the sensitive ecosystem beneath.

The Mariposa Grove is among the world's 65 remaining natural giant sequoia groves. All are on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The trees thrive in a damp, narrow slice of the Sierra, generally between 4,000 and 7,500 feet.

The sturdy giants are among the oldest trees in the world, living thousands of years, Yosemite ranger Dean Shank said.

"They don't die of old age," he said. "Usually, they are brought down in a storm."

A very prominent downed giant at Mariposa Grove is Fallen Monarch. It was first noted in 1857, but it may have been on the ground for a century or more at that point.

Once they fall and die, giant sequoias continue to exist for centuries because their wood resists decay, fire and many kinds of insects and fungus. Natural enemies find easier targets in other trees, ecologists say.

Shank said, "Why try to eat a giant sequoia when you can have a sugar pine? The sequoia bark is very tough. The Fallen Monarch will continue to be part of the ecosystem for a long, long time."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or @markgrossi on Twitter.

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