One Hundred Hikes in Yosemite

Humans in Yosemite—Creating a National Park

While Yosemite Valley was being subjected to the detrimental effects of tourism, the surrounding countryside fared no better. Although this land was supposedly protected under Federal jurisdiction, its meadows were subjected to overgrazing by sheep (and to a lesser extent by cattle) and its forests to depletion by loggers. This rape of the landscape was first noted by a young Scotsman, John Muir, who visited Yosemite Valley in 1868 and decided to stay. His exploration of the High Sierra, first while working as a shepherd, convinced him of the damage being done by humans and their animals. In the mid 1870s he criticized both shepherds and loggers, but to no avail. Lumber was needed to build California's growing communities, and wool export had become big business, with more than 20 million pounds produced annually.

Muir's protestations generally fell on deaf ears until 1889, when he met Robert Underwood Johnson, who was editor of the very influential Century Magazine. Muir took Johnson on a tour of Yosemite's highlands, including Tuolumne Meadows, and showed him the damage done by "the hooved locusts" as well as by loggers. About camping at Soda Springs in these meadows, Johnson later wrote:

"One conversation that we had beside the campfire at Soda Springs had an important sequel, for it was here that I proposed to Muir that we should set on foot the project of the Yosemite National Park. Our camp on the Tuolumne was outside the limitations of the Yosemite Valley reservation. It did not by any means include the headwaters of the streams which fed the three great falls, the Yosemite, the Nevada, and the Bridalveil. On account of the denudation by sheep the winter snows, having no underbrush to hold them, melted in torrents early in the spring, so that there was comparatively little supply for the waterfalls during the summer months. This was all explained to me by Muir, whereupon I said to him, 'Obviously the thing to do was to make a Yosemite National Park around the Valley on the plan of the Yellowstone.'" [National Park, created in 1872]

As any seasoned Yosemite visitor knows, Yosemite's falls greatly diminish in summer, sheep or no sheep. This is because the Sierra's post-glacial soils are young, sparse, thin, and gravelly, and so hold little ground water. Furthermore, the Tuolumne River never dries up but, as Johnson himself says, it does not feed the falls! The falls are fed by drainages that received very little grazing. But back then (as today) accurate environmental assessments were not performed; rather, the public needed to be motivated by whatever means it took (and, some argue, the ends justify the means). Therefore, that Muir was wrong was not important. What mattered was that his sheep argument was convincing, and he wrote some articles for the Century Magazine, which coincided, conveniently, with a Park bill introduced in Congress. The Yosemite Act of October 1, 1890, easily passed without opposition, for communications in those days were still poor—the sheep and lumbermen out west probably knew little, if anything, about the Act. But even if they had known, they wouldn't have been able to organize a lobby against it, for the Act was passed too quickly. This Act withdrew lands from "settlement, occupancy, or sale" and protected "all timber, mineral deposits [none in Yosemite], natural curiosities or wonders, and their retention in their natural condition." This included protection against "wanton destruction of the fish and game and their capture or destruction for purposes of merchandise or profit."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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