Park History: Yosemite National Park

Older than Yellowstone National Park in terms of being set aside for the public's enjoyment, Yosemite could fairly be called the elder statesman of the National Park System. And, no doubt, there are those who would say Yosemite's scenery is second to none in the system.

You also could say that Yosemite is a macrocosm of sorts of the National Park System, both in terms of the scenery it projects and the issues it must grapple with.

Fears over what might happen to the incredible beauty of the Yosemite area by those looking to exploit that scenery for their own gain led U.S. Senator John Conness of California to lobby in the 1860s for some form of protection for the area. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln granted his wishes by signing a bill that granted the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California as an inalienable public trust.

This was, as the National Park Service points out in its history on the park, "the first time in history that a federal government had set aside scenic lands simply to protect them and to allow for their enjoyment by all people. This idea was the spark that allowed for Yellowstone becoming the first official national park a few years later, in 1872."

Eighteen years later, still not convinced the Yosemite area was being adequately protected, John Muir led efforts that resulted in Yosemite gaining national park status on October 1, 1890.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and Yosemite still is struggling with development issues. A 1997 flood in the Yosemite Valley not only wiped out campgrounds, but it spurred roughly a decade of litigation over how the valley should be managed and how much human imprint was too much.

The gist of the litigation -- which claimed the Park Service was allowing inappropriate development to intrude upon the wild and scenic river corridor-- began shortly after Yosemite officials completed their first Merced Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management plan in August 2000.

Years of litigation led to preparation in 2005 of a supplemental environmental impact statement, which led to more litigation that culminated in a 2006 U.S. District Court decision that invalidated the park’s plan and ordered the Park Service to start anew. While the Park Service appealed that lower court ruling, on March 26, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion affirming the judgment of the District Court and expanding the scope of what the NPS had previously understood must be included in a legally valid Merced Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan.

That ruling, which brought to a halt more than $100 million in construction work on the valley floor, centered on whether the park's development plan for the valley would illegally intrude on the wild and scenic Merced River.

The litigation finally ended in September 2009 with a settlement between the National Park Service and advocacy groups over development in the Yosemite Valley and how it might impact the Merced River, a wild and scenic stream.

On its face, that settlement between the Park Service and with Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government called for park officials to start anew on developing a Merced Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan. A key aspect of that new plan, however, required the Park Serivce to identify a user capacity for the Yosemite Valley. While no number was immediately placed on exactly how many visitors the valley can handle on a regular basis, in the end that determination could result in a reduced human footprint on the valley.

Planning efforts to produce this management approach were continuing in 2011.

Now, this was not the first time concerns over the valley's development were brought to light. Back in 1971 former National Park Service Director George Hartzog fretted about traffic in the Yosemite Valley, and went so far as to say that, "(T)he automobile as a recreational experience is obsolete. We cannot accommodate automobiles in such numbers and still provide a quality environment for a recreational experience."

And for sure, head into the Yosemite Valley at the height of summer and you'll by confronted by masses of humanity. Humanity on bikes, on roller blades, drifting on rafts and tubes down the Merced River, milling about food courts, gawking at climbers tackling El Capitan.

Fortunately, there's much, much more to Yosemite National Park than the glacially-scraped valley floor. True, you can't say you've really experienced Yosemite without touring the valley floor, without looking at the cascading waterfalls, perhaps hiking to the top of Half Dome, walking through the opulent Ahwahnee Hotel, without hiking at least part of the way up the Mist Trail.

There's also the photography shop that descends from Ansel Adams, the interesting Yosemite Museum with its interpretive exhibits on Yosemite's native Miwok and Paiute people, as well as demonstrations of basket-weaving, beadwork, and traditional games. And the reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee behind the museum is always open and worth a stroll.

Head out of the valley, though, and you'll find a spectacular, horizon-stretching landscape in just about any direction you head. Go south to Wawona and you can tour the Mariposa Grove of sequoias or visit Glacier Point with its breathtaking overlook of the Yosemite Valley. Head to the Tioga Road and the High Sierra overwhelms your windshield and invites you to explore this landscape of granite domes, wildflower meadows, forests, and lakes.

Those with time shouldn't miss an opportunity to walk out into this landscape, whether for a short hike or a longer, multi-day excursion.