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Yosemite National Park Was Created 150 Years Ago

Nature preserve planted the seed of an idea that has spread around the world

Adapted from Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea by Dayton Duncan. Copyright © 2013, used with permission from Yosemite Conservancy, yosemiteconservancy.org.

The idea that a nation’s most majestic and sacred places should be preserved for everyone, and for all time, is what we now call the national park idea. At age 150, the national park idea seems such a natural part of our landscape that we often forget that it wasn’t always so. We take it for granted that the grandest canyon on earth or the nation’s highest mountain or the world’s greatest collection of geysers would of course be protected from destruction or despoliation. We assume that an exquisite valley with the continent’s highest waterfalls and a grove of Creation’s biggest trees would of course be saved for future generations to enjoy and experience. “Of course,” we think, “that’s only natural. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it’s always been.” But in this last thought, we are mistaken.

Yosemite Valley Viewphoto by Trey Ratcliff/FlickrView of Yosemite Valley. From Yosemite the idea of national parks would spread to other places.

National parks are simultaneously very real places and the embodiment of an idea, and that idea found its first home in a very real place. The place was the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. From Yosemite the idea would spread to other places, evolving and changing as it grew and interacted with the world around it. Biology, ecology, evolution – and history, too – work that way: not just as mechanical processes of predictable cause and effect, but something more fluid, something that takes chance and choice and change into equal account, realizing the nearly infinite variables at play in the myriad interconnections of existence, and recognizing that the way things are now is not the only way things could have turned out.

Yosemite was not the world’s first national park. Yellowstone holds that distinction. But Yellowstone National Park’s creation came eight years after Yosemite was set aside by Congress and entrusted to the state of California. Its DNA was 99 percent that of Yosemite’s, the only difference being which level of government was in charge. On an evolutionary tree, Yellowstone is a branch of Yosemite – a very big branch to be sure, like the one on the Grizzly Giant, but a branch nonetheless. So the best place to begin the story of the national park idea is at Yosemite, where it first sprouted, in 1864.

By the summer of 1864, the Civil War pitting the United States against the upstart Confederacy had entered its fourth blood-soaked year. Union forces under the command of Ulysses S. Grant were sustaining appalling casualties – 18,400 in the Wilderness, 18,000 at Spotsylvania, 12,000 at Cold Harbor, 8,150 at Petersburg, all within the space of little more than a month – in Grant’s grim determination to force the South to surrender at any cost. William Tecumseh Sherman and 100,000 troops were advancing on Atlanta, intent on defeating its 60,000 rebel defenders and laying waste to the city’s industries and railroad facilities.

No place could have been geographically farther from the carnage than the quiet Yosemite Valley and the silent sequoias of the Mariposa Grove.

Mariposa Grovephoto by Miles Sabin/FlickrThe Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, Yosemite National Park.

Earlier that year, a letter had arrived at the United States Capitol for California’s junior senator, John Conness. It was from Captain Israel Ward Raymond, the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company in New York, one of the many outfits that made its money getting people to the El Dorado of the Pacific Coast. Included in the package was a set of Carleton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite. In his brief letter, Raymond pointed out that a proper government survey of Yosemite was probably years away, but “I think it important to obtain the proprietorship soon, to prevent occupation and especially to preserve the trees … from destruction.” He suggested that Congress grant the Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the State of California “for public use, resort and recreation” and made “inalienable forever” – that is, reserved from private ownership for all time. Instead, the state would name a commission to “take control and begin to consider and lay out their plans for the gradual improvement of the properties.”   

The early years of Yosemite’s experiment as a park, in the last half of the nineteenth century, took place when the nation was busily engaged in finishing its conquest of a continent. The principal business of Congress was disposing of the public domain by converting it to private property, and the prevailing attitude toward nature was encapsulated by how the Census Bureau described the westward-marching line it drew every ten years to mark the retreating frontier. Once a place had a population density of more than two people per square mile, the Census Bureau said, it had been “redeemed from wilderness and brought into the service of man.” Note this phrase: “redeemed from wilderness.” A virgin forest, in other words, was “redeemed” when the trees were clearcut. A wild-flowing river was “redeemed” by a dam.

When the Civil War slowed the rate of expansion, Congress tried to stimulate it by upping the ante. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 promised vast tracts of the public domain to the companies building the first transcontinental railroad from Omaha to Sacramento. That same year the Homestead Act offered individuals their own 160 acres for free, if they improved the land and filed for their deed. Into this environment Senator John Conness planted his Yosemite bill, which proposed that Congress do the exact opposite of what it had been doing for all of its existence: save a piece of public land for the public instead of trying everything possible to sell it, or even give it away so it could become private property. So it could finally be made “useful.” So it could be “redeemed from wilderness.”

Conness obviously understood this when he introduced his bill on the Senate floor on May 17, 1864. “I will state to the Senate that this bill proposes to make a grant of certain premises located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the State of California, that are for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world.” For all public purposes worthless. That was the first point he made, before tossing in a little nationalism that Yosemite and trees like the Grizzly Giant were also world-class wonders. Those sequoias, in fact, constituted a bigger selling point than the Valley in Conness’s remarks. You’ve no doubt heard about them, he told his colleagues, recounting the story of the Calaveras Grove tree that was stripped and reassembled for disbelieving Europeans at the London World’s Fair. The Mariposa Grove was even bigger, containing trees that “have no parallel, perhaps, in the world,” he said, but “are subject now to damage and injury.” His bill would assure their protection, “that they may be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind.” Then, in case his fellow senators had forgotten his first point, he reiterated it: “It is a matter involving no appropriation whatever. The property is of no value to the Government.”

Virtually no real debate arose over the bill – a testament to Conness’s political skills in framing the argument. The Senate passed the bill and moved on to other issues. A month later, the House did the same thing and sent the bill to the White House.

Tuolumne Meadows Sunset, Yosemite National Parkphoto by Steve Dunleavy/FlickrTuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park.

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln had a lot on his mind. Confederate General Jubal Early had reached New Market, Virginia, readying his forces for a raid on Washington itself. Salmon Chase, the politically ambitious and perpetually petulant Secretary of the Treasury, had once more, as was his habit, written a threatening letter of resignation when he didn’t get his way. This time, to Chase’s surprise, Lincoln accepted it. The president had plenty of other business to take care of, besides finally ridding himself of an irritating cabinet secretary. He signed a bill increasing import duties and another broadening an income tax in order to continue the war for the Union’s preservation. And on that day, whether he fully realized it or not, Abraham Lincoln took a historic step for a different kind of preservation. He signed a law to preserve forever a beautiful valley and a grove of trees that neither he nor the members of Congress had ever seen, thousands of miles away in California.

What if history had proceeded differently? What if James Mason Hutchings [who led one of the first tourist expeditions to Yosemite] had not read about a waterfall bigger than Niagara’s; had instead been content to publicize the Calaveras Big Trees, with the stump that doubled as a ballroom floor and the stripped-down “Mother of the Forest”; had decided to begin rather than end his career as a hotelier there? What if, for whatever reason, no one had asked Congress in 1864 to create the Yosemite Grant and entrust it to the state of California? What if Frederick Law Olmsted had simply presided over a failed mining venture in the Sierra foothills before returning to New York City’s Central Park at the end of the Civil War? What if John Muir had gone to Brazil as planned instead of California in 1868; or what if he had encountered a Yosemite Valley already carved into a multitude of private homesteads with perhaps a small town at its center? What if the wonders of Yellowstone had been laid before the nation’s lawmakers in 1872 without any precedent whatsoever for treating such a place as anything but yet another parcel of land best turned into private property, just like every other part of the public domain? Without the Yosemite Grant, would America have ever come up with the revolutionary idea of national parks and developed them into something Muir proudly called “the admiration and joy of the world”?

It’s impossible to say. Maybe people and events would have brought us to the same place. Then again, maybe not. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a number of alternative histories, none of which provides the combination of conditions resulting in what became America’s best idea. It’s even easier to know what America would be like without the national parks that grew from that idea.

And Yosemite? Without the protection that came with the Yosemite Grant and ultimate national park, the ancient sequoias of the Mariposa Grove would have suffered the fate of the nearby Nelder Grove, also “discovered” by Galen Clark: 80 percent of the mature trees turned into fence posts and pencils during the great logging boom of the late 1800s. Perhaps the Grizzly Giant would have been spared, because of the dark cavity at its base and its less-than-straight trunk, making it a lonely sentinel of a lost race awkwardly waving its massive arms at no one in particular; or perhaps it would have been the first to be felled, because it’s already leaning toward the ground. Yosemite’s high country would have remained open to overgrazing and logging; without the trees and grasses to trap and hold the winter snows, the springtime melts would be swifter and the clear streams would be clogged with silt.

The Valley itself, which so many people have considered a cathedral designed by Nature, could just as easily have been considered perfectly designed for a gated community. Yet somehow, in Yosemite, a first tentative step was taken in a different direction, and the course of history was deflected toward a different, better future. Human nature didn’t necessarily change, but the world no longer necessarily worked the way it always had. The seed of a new idea had finally sprouted.

Dayton Duncan
Dayton Duncan is an award-winning writer and film producer. He was one of the co-producers and co-writers of the PBS documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Buy a copy of Seed of the Future here.

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