Last month, interior department secretary Ryan Zinke wrote in an op-ed that the U.S.’s national parks are being loved to death. He specifically lamented the National Park System’s $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. But another symptom of the overwhelming power of tourists is ecosystems that need to be rehabilitated. Last week, Yosemite National Park unveiled its biggest conservation project to date, and it aimed to protect some of the park’s biggest and oldest inhabitants.
Just inside Yosemite National Park’s south gate is the park’s newest bus depot. You park your car in a new 300-space parking lot, walk past the new wood-frame welcome center, and hop on one of the hybrid buses that circulate every 10 minutes. Ride just two miles, and you emerge in another world. It's not a new world—in fact, it’s one of the most historic parts of the park—but it’s recently gotten a makeover.
“It's quite a transformation,” says Sue Beatty, a restoration ecologist with the National Park Service. She’s standing in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the largest giant sequoia grove in the park. “They're probably a thousand years old,” Beatty says—and she hopes they’ll live for another thousand.
A half-mile-long walking trail snakes through a carpet of native wallflowers, lupines, and young dogwoods. But visitors here look up, straight up, at the 300-foot-tall giants, the wind rustling their leaves. It’s the first day the grove is open after a long environmental restoration. Beatty can barely contain her excitement. “Oh, I love it,” she gushes.
But just three years ago, Mariposa Grove was an entirely different place. The big trees of course were here, but all around them used to be asphalt. “This used to be a parking lot, a 110-car parking lot,” she says. “Basically, people were parking right on the sequoias.”
At that time, the grove was noisy and smelled like diesel fuel and exhaust. Thousands of square feet of asphalt diverted water away from the trees’ roots. And an old tram road that used to weave through the trees was so narrow, Beatty says paint from the trams would rub off on the bark.
Eventually, park officials said enough was enough. They launched a massive restoration project to dial back the grove’s human infrastructure. The grove closed to the public in July 2015 and reopened last Friday.
And while an extreme solution could have been to shut people out entirely, the park spent millions to delicately reduce the impacts of humans while still granting them access. It’s a balancing act that Beatty says parks across the country are being forced to do. “It's becoming more and more common, because the population of our country keeps growing,” she says.
Around four million people visited Yosemite in 2017. Park spokesman Scott Gediman estimates the grove is the second most popular destination in the park, after Yosemite Valley. The goal of the project was to keep those millions of visitors coming—only without their cars, a gift shop or a diesel fueling station to stifle the trees’ roots. “Like everything we do here in the park and so much in national parks across the country, it's all about balance and it's about providing the access and protecting the environment,” Gediman says. “We feel that this project really exemplifies that.”
The project cost $40 million. Half came from the Yosemite Conservancy, a philanthropic organization that funds conservation within the park. Conservancy president Frank Dean says it was important to honor the history of the grove. President Abraham Lincoln set the land aside in 1864 as part of the Yosemite Grant Act. Lawmakers at the time referred to the giants as “distinguished strangers” and called the grove “the wonder of the world.” The Yosemite Grant Act was the first ever federal act of land preservation, predating national parks by years. “And so it was really the beginning of conservation in the United States, and the world, for that matter,” says Dean.
But with that came the need for balance. And we haven’t always hit the mark. Neal Desai of the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association says it wasn’t that long ago that even in Yosemite, human access came with far too many liberties. “Decades ago, the park service was entertaining visitors by feeding bears from dumpsters, while the public viewed the spectacle,” Desai says. “Similarly in the valley, there would be a large bonfire built on of Glacier Point and the park service would push those embers off the cliff to entertain the visitors at the valley floor.”
Today, Desai says conservation projects aimed at balancing access and impacts are happening all across the country—like in Point Reyes National Seashore, where motorboats were banned from a marine wilderness and visitors instead kayak and snorkel. Arrangements similar to what’s at Mariposa Grove appear in Glacier National Park and the Grand Canyon, where visitors park in a central lot and then bus to where they want to go.
Now, after years of honking horns and slamming doors, the grove is quiet. Eerily quiet. But restoration ecologist Sue Beatty delights in that silence. “It brings a feeling of awe to me,” she says—“that kind of a sacred feeling that I'm someplace really special.”