YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- Giant sequoias stood silently Monday morning as they have for centuries at Mariposa Grove while a few hundred people celebrated President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the 1864 Yosemite Land Grant, protecting the ancient trees.
Two congressmen, California's lieutenant governor and National Park Service officials praised Lincoln for signing the grant 150 years ago, launching the idea of national parks all over the globe.
Near the end of the ceremony, park leaders joined with a longtime fundraising friend, the Yosemite Conservancy, in breaking ground on a restoration project at the grove.
Most speakers said the land grant signed by Lincoln made it possible to stand in the shadows of the big trees today.
Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said the grant took place during a critical time in the Civil War. Thousands of soldiers were dying every month. The Union's first burials were occurring at Arlington.
The war consumed most of Lincoln's energy, but he recognized the importance of saving the public's most treasured landscape.
"Without any great discussion, he signed the bill to preserve Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove -- places he had never seen, places he would never see," said Jarvis.
Mariposa Grove has about 500 mature giant sequoias, the largest grove in Yosemite. The 7-square-mile Yosemite Valley is surrounded with 3,000-foot granite cliffs, domes, spires and hanging valleys that provide spectacular waterfalls.
Yosemite became a state park after Lincoln signed the grant. Congress passed a bill establishing it as a national park in 1890. Historians say the grant was the seed from which national parks grew.
Since the 1800s, leaders have struggled to maintain the balance between protecting Yosemite and allowing the public to see it.
At the ceremony Monday, the Park Service broke ground on the $36 million restoration project to better protect the grove and give people a more natural setting to see the trees.
More than 1 million people visit the grove each year, Yosemite leaders said. Yosemite's annual visitor totals for the entire park are about 4 million.
The Yosemite Conservancy, a longtime supporter of the park, raised $20 million for the project. The conservancy has provided more than $80 million for park projects, including the high-profile renovations of Yosemite Falls and Tunnel View.
Michael Tollefson, conservancy president and former Yosemite superintendent, brought out sledge hammers and led officials in pounding the pavement to start off the project.
Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher said the project will rip out parking lots and pavement, backing development off the toes of the giant trees. Visitors will be guided to parking lots in other places and ride shuttles to the grove.
He said other issues will be addressed, such as fixing the leaky water system, improving restrooms and providing better signs to help visitors around the grove.
At the same time, the big trees will benefit with better water flow through the grove when pavement is removed.
"Right now, you're sitting on the roots of giant sequoias," he told the audience, which sat in chairs on a parking lot.
Yosemite botanist Lisa Acree, who attended the ceremony Monday, said the renovation will help the grove through drought years, such as this one.
"That's one reason why we're doing this project," she said. "This is probably the most exciting project I've ever seen in Yosemite."
Other speakers included Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who both said the grant opened America's outdoor cathedrals to the world. McClintock's district includes Yosemite and stretches south into eastern Fresno County.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom represented the state at the event. He noted the idea for preserving outdoor havens came to California first. He said the state always has been on the cutting edge, leading the way.
"It should be no surprise it all started here in California," said Newsom after talking with reporters as he stood next to one of the big trees.
Retired Fresno doctor Michael Adams said his father, famed photographer Ansel Adams, would have been impressed by the ceremony. He said his father loved the big trees but didn't take many photographs of the sequoias.
"They are hard to photograph, being so tall," he said. "But he always loved coming to the grove."