Plans To Restore Mariposa Grove Of Giant Sequoias In Yosemite National Park Open For Comments

The tree known as the Fallen Monarch is a popular stop for visitors to the Mariposa Grove. Photo by Agathe B via Creative Commons and flickr.

The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias has been attracting visitors to what is now Yosemite National Park for over 150 years. Much has changed since Abraham Lincoln signed a bill setting aside the Grove as part of a protected area in 1864, and it was a landmark action. According to the park, this was "the first time Congress set aside public lands for the express purpose of preserving scenic and natural values..."

As the name implies, the key attraction in the Mariposa Grove is the concentration of about 500 mature giant sequoia trees "that are among the oldest, rarest, and largest living organisms in the world." Despite their impressive size, the big trees aren't indestructible, and well over a century of visits by tourists and their vehicles have taken a toll on the area.

A Plan to Restore the Grove

If you've visited the Grove during the busy summer season, you've likely noticed some of the concerns: facilities such as parking, comfort stations and trails are long since out-of-date and inadequate for current crowds. According to the National Park Service, the area is in need of "comprehensive action to ensure that the grove continues to thrive and provide inspiration and enjoyment for future generations."

Plans to guide those actions are underway, and the NPS is seeking public input through May 7, 2013, on the Restoration of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Mariposa Grove DEIS).

Plenty of Challenges Facing the Grove

The first chapter of the document describes the "Purpose and Need" for the project, and it includes a lengthy list of issues. Peak visitation at Mariposa Grove exceeds 4,200 visitors per day, and traffic congestion, inadequate parking and long visitor wait times for shuttle vehicles all contribute to "visitor frustration." Pedestrians and a tram system currently share the road within the Grove area, causing both congestion and safety concerns.

Visitors looking for some fresh mountain air may not find it near the parking lot. The report notes, "The vault toilets adjacent to the lower Grove parking lot are one of the most common visitor complaints in Grove, particularly the nuisance odors that detract from the Grove experience."

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A lot has changed since tunnels were cut through two trees in the Grove in the late 1800s. NPS Historic Photograph Collection.

There are plenty of concerns about impacts of facilities and heavy use on the famous trees themselves and the overall natural environment. Foot and vehicle traffic is damaging tree trunks, compacting soils, and exposing shallow tree roots; roads, trails and other infrastructure are disrupting natural water flows; the deteriorated water distribution system through the Grove is leaking thousands of gallons of chlorinated water per day, and may be affecting shallow hydrology and local vegetation.

Finally, given all the attention in recent years to major wildland fires across the nation, the plan raises this concern: "The risk of catastrophic fire remains high due to heavy fuel loading (primarily in the form of downed trees and heavy duff and litter) and high tree density in forested areas surrounding the Grove." You'll find the complete text of the Purpose and Need chapter from the DEIS at this link.

A Range of Possible Solutions

So, what might be done to correct these and other problems?

According to the DEIS, the primary goals of this project are "to restore degraded giant sequoia habitat and natural processes critical to the long-term health of the Grove, and to improve the overall experience for visitors." The document offers three alternatives for achieving those goals, (along with the obligatory "Alternative 1, No Action," which represents maintaining the status quo.)

Alternative 2, dubbed the "South Entrance Hub," is identified as the preferred option by the DEIS. Under this approach, most of the public parking would be removed from Mariposa Grove; visitor parking and information services would be moved to a new transit hub at the park’s South Entrance, with free shuttle service to and from the Grove.

Under this alternative, the gift shop and commercial tram staging area would be removed from the Grove and the current tram service within the Grove would be eliminated. A new pedestrian trail would link the South Entrance and Mariposa Grove, and accessible pathways would be added. If continuing congestion warrants it, a new roundabout would be constructed at the intersection of Wawona Road and Mariposa Grove Road at the South Entrance to improve traffic flow.

This option would also include limited restoration of wetlands and giant sequoia habitat in the lower portion of the Grove.

Alternative 3, labeled the "Grizzly Giant Hub," would relocate public parking and visitor information services from the lower part of the Grove to a more centralized location outside the extent of giant sequoia habitat but near the landmark tree called the Grizzly Giant. The existing road, gift shop, parking area, and commercial tram staging would be removed from the lower Grove area to allow for comprehensive restoration of wetland and giant sequoia habitat. Tram operations would be eliminated within the Grove and a new road would be constructed around the lower Grove area to the new Grizzly Giant visitor parking area.

Alternative 3 also would add accessible trails in the lower part of the Mariposa Grove and at the Grizzly Giant. The existing T-intersection would be retained at South Entrance.

Alternative 4, "South Entrance Hub with Modified Commercial Tram Service," would be generally similar to Alternative 2, but under this alternative, the commercial tram staging area would be moved to the South Entrance. Tram operations would continue in the Mariposa Grove, but with a modified route and hours of operation would be reduced. Under this alternative, an accessible trail would be established through the ecologically restored lower Grove area, and an accessible overlook would be provided at the Grizzly Giant. A pedestrian trail would be established between the South Entrance and Mariposa Grove and a modified T-intersection would be constructed at the South Entrance to improve traffic flow.

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The Mariposa Grove. Photo by Sebastian Bergmann via Flickr

Key Steps Are Common to All Alternatives

A number of key steps are included in all three of the above alternatives to deal with "resource management, ecological restoration, historic rehabilitation, and visitor experience enhancement actions."

These steps would include road, trail, and drainage improvements to restore more natural hydrologic flows; project-specific prescribed fire and fuel reduction treatments; soil decompaction; and improvements to visitor orientation and interpretation. Under any of the alternatives, utilities and visitor facilities would be repaired, renovated, or replaced. Steps common to all of the options include removal of the gift shop and much of the existing hardscape near the entrance to the Grove.

Visitor amenities would be improved, including the addition of accessible trails to the giant sequoias, and historic features at Wawona Point and in the Grove also would be rehabilitated.

Other common steps include repair or replacement of the leaking water system, and as to those smelly vault toilets, the plans states, "All of the action alternatives would improve sanitary facilities."

What will the proposed changes cost? You'll find estimates for each of the alternatives on page 2-41 in Chapter 2 of the DEIS. You'll find a copy of that chapter here.

How to Get a Copy of the Document

Interested in more details? A good overview of the document is found in the Executive Summary, which can be viewed or downloaded here.

You'll find a complete copy of the DEIS, which is divided into a number of smaller sections for convenience and download speed, on this website. That approach obviously saves a lot of paper and holds down costs, but if you feel you need a printed or CD version of the DEIS, you'll find information on how to request those copies at this link.

Two Open House meetings are scheduled in the park on March 27 and April 24, and and addition meetings are planned this spring in park gateway communities, including Oakhurst and Wawona. You'll find details about those meetings here.

Want to weigh in with your opinions about the ideas presented in the DEIS? You can do so until 11:59 PM Mountain Time on May 7, 2013, and a low-cost way to submit a comment is via this page on the planning process website. You can also submit written comments by fax to (209) 379-1294 or by U.S. Mail to: Yosemite National Park, Attn.: Mariposa Grove DEIS, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite, CA 95389.

This is an important process for a very important place. Here's a chance to be informed and have your say.

Comments

EDIT 6:25 pm --- Oops. I was suffering from a senior moment and had the Mariposa and Merced Groves confused. I was thinking the grove near Wawona was called the Wawona Grove. Sorry.

But that does not negate the need for caution.

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Wow.

I just finished reading Barbara Moritsch's book The Soul of Yosemite. After finishing with that and now looking at this, I have all sorts of alarm bells going off in my head.

I haven't been back to Yosemite since about 1980 -- and that was the first time back since working there in 1968 - 70. Things have certainly changed a bit. Back then, you could make a trip into the Mariposa or Tuolomne groves any time of the year and be completely alone. I spent a day with Bob Barbee as he surveyed the Mariposa Grove while preparing his study of Sequoia regeneration. There were no real roads, no buildings, and no parking lot or vehicle traffic. What roads existed were rough dirt with only a dusting of gravel on the surfaces. I remember Bob pointing out many of the problems then that are mentioned in this article. Such things as soil compaction, deep forest duff that prevented tiny seeds from germinating, a heavy understory of large trees that would support disastrous fire and more. I know some starts were made to implement Bob's recommendations, but don't know if they were ever completed. At the time there was a lot of controversy over such things as logging out much of the understory and then using fire to manage other plants as native Americans had done for centuries.

I'm obviously no longer familiar with Yosemite, but find myself appalled at most of what I have been able to see and hear. It seems that many things are proposed but are never implemented -- for whatever reason. When I left the park, it seemed that development within the Valley would be nearly eliminated and moved mostly to El Portal. That never happened. Just looking at maps and Google Earth I can see that where there was a very small NPS enclave at Wawona back then, a city exists there now.

Just off the top of my head, I believe that Option 1 of the plan above is the only sensible way to go. A gift shop in the Mariposa Grove????? Who needs it? Vehicle traffic through the grove???? One of the most precious things I remember about the place was its quiet solitude. Eliminating vehicles is probably the only way that can possibly be approximated now.

Whatever happens, it's extremely critical that it be done with tremendous care. And if there is error, let it be on the side of preservation. I'm afraid, though, that it will require terrific wisdom and an enormous amount of courage to stand up to pressures from those who might want to profit in some way from continuing or even expanding commercial interests in this incredible and sacred place.

Will we find what it takes to balance the needs of preservation and enjoyment? I hope so.

And if you haven't read Barbara's book -- you really do need to . . . .