Yosemite National Park: Can’t see the forest for the missing trees

Yosemite National Park ©Michael E. Gordon

I mentioned being injured in my last blog post on June 17. That comment did not go unnoticed, and I’d like to thank everyone for their concern, well wishes, and generosity. I am indeed on the disabled list, and I will address this in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there’s something more pressing that I need to get off my chest…

Approximately 5-6 years ago while traipsing cross-country through Yosemite National Park’s incredibly beautiful Tuolumne Meadows – within eyesight of Highway 120/Tioga Pass Road – I discovered scores of young pines that had been cut and removed from the meadows. All that remained of the trees were very short and slender stumps. It had to be the National Park Service (NPS) that cut the trees, and that they were most likely cut to preserve the views for those driving Hwy 120 in the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows. In late 2008, I learned that the large pines that had grown in front of Yosemite’s famous Tunnel View also got the chop, all in the innocuous-sounding name of viewshed restoration. I was upset. Finally, just this week, Yosemite National Park approved its Scenic Vista Management Plan, and word has gotten out (Mercury News article; L.A. Times article).

In short, the NPS says that the Scenic Vista Management Plan “…is needed to reestablish and maintain Yosemite National Park’s iconic views, vistas, and discrete lines of sight that are obscured by vegetation growth.” The question is WHY? Trees grow, vegetation grows, and natural processes occur. I know you know this, yet I have to wonder if the NPS does. It is not and should not be NPS policy to interfere with natural processes in the name of viewshed restoration, yet that’s exactly what they plan to start doing. I encourage you to have a look at the NPS Mission Statement. Even if broadly interpreted, I cannot see how this action is within the bounds of the NPS’s mission.

The public is at odds with the NPS regarding this issue, and it is vitally important to note that most of the thinning will take place alongside roads, turnouts, and at scenic viewpoints. It should be noted that I support tree thinning and controlled burns to control wildfire – Yosemite NP engages in both every year. But by its name alone, it should be evident that this Plan was primarily enacted to restore scenic views that have become obscured by trees and brush.

For some historical and geologic perspective, let’s have a look at Yosemite Valley’s famous Mirror Lake. Once upon a time, Mirror Lake was much larger and lake-like – you can see this in early Ansel Adams photographs. Mirror Lake is today partially filled with sediment, and is slowly becoming a meadow. Years from now, Mirror Lake and Mirror Meadow will be no more, and the area will be recognized as a forest. This is the standard geological process in the Sierra Nevada. We can’t stop it, we cannot change it. Once upon a time, Tuolumne Meadows was also a lot wetter than it is today, but like Mirror Lake, the expansive meadows are filling with trees and obscuring roadside views – much as forests do. Even the NPS acknowledges Mirror Lake’s meadow conversion on their website (Mirror Lake/Meadow).

It’s a done deal and there’s little we can do about it (the public comment period ended long ago), yet All photographers have a vested interest in this discussion. My concern is that trees and other biota are not killed so that opportunity is created for tourists and photographers. This is not why we created Yosemite National Park and the National Park System. This is not America’s best idea!

I appreciate your comments and contributions on this subject.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.


16 thoughts on “Yosemite National Park: Can’t see the forest for the missing trees

  1. I agree that it seems rather paradoxical for an organization–who is tasked with preserving our open spaces–to be destroying it. However, the National Park System is a man-made creation, and one that came as a result of compromise. If the slogan for NPS is “Experience Your America,” then I think they have a vested interested in preserving that experience.

  2. Why draw the line at views dating back a few decades? Maybe the NPS can try to reverse Plate Tectonics and flatten the Sierra to restore its Triassic viewshed?
    Change is the only constant in nature and if Americans, or anyone else, is to experience the park’s NATURAL beauty, they must also accept that it is ever changing.
    What a silly and frivolous waste of tax payer money when the NPS has so many more important things it could spend its limited budget on.


  3. The only reason why these are called iconic views is because Ansel Adams and other popularized them. I would imagine that 70 years before “Clearing Winter Storm” that the Tunnel View probably looked different as well much less 500 years before that. Like Guy says, where do you draw the line?

    I say let Yosemite take it’s natural process and let the photographers figure out how to make their own iconic images with what is there. This is not a manicured amusement park and nor should it be.

  4. A park by it’s very nature exists for hunan use, these measures are needed to maintain the general city dwelling public’s interest in the outdoors. A park is not a wilderness.

  5. The National Park is a human concept/ organisation. Its inception was to maintain areas of natural significance. This was to protect these areas from development to preserve the flora and fauna, human use should be a by-product. However this use needs to be acknowledged and its financial assistance to the running costs and political pressure for extra resources.

  6. I posted both articles on my Facebook page: The Retired Photographer and got one response from the Mercury News article and more responses from the LA Times article. As a photographer I can photograph just fine the way things are as that is nature, always changing. As a visitor I can see why the NPS is doing this to raise additional monies by bettering the view for the people. This will probably backfire as the tree cutting will bring in more visitors clogging more roadways and facilities. What will this mean, enlarging the parking areas to accommodated increased traffic and build more facilities to accommodated increase visitor-ship? When will it end and what happened to that grand scheme the NPS had to move visitors around in the park a few decades ago?

  7. Whilst I can see both sides of the argument – Yosemite ceased to be a wilderness when they built roads and started charging for entrance – I do wonder if such an idea might backfire.

    People in general love the idea of wilderness just so long as they don’t have to interact with it. They are perfectly happy to drive up to an overlook, wonder at the beauty of wild nature and then drive on to the next pull-in in their own private air-conditioned ecosystem. They see no contradiction in this. However, if they look out over the ‘pristine’ wilderness and see instead neatly cut tree-stumps then the illusion of wild nature is broken. What they came a long way to see has been tainted and they will not be happy about it.

  8. Never underestimate the laziness of the car-dwelling American tourist. Once, while photographing in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I listened to a guy rant to a park ranger about the fact that there was no bridge to cross the Little Missouri River. He found it ludicrous that he was expected to cross the 2-foot-deep river ON FOOT, then WALK to the petrified forest.

    This guy is, sadly, in the majority. He wants to see the sights, but only through his bug-splattered windshield in air-conditioned comfort. No effort, no sacrifice. I can only imagine the similar tourist complaints that were made at the Yosemite office: “I can’t see the forest for the trees” or “I had to get out of my car to see the vista, and it was so hot outside”.

    The park service’s mission is supposed to be the preservation of our natural resources. The Yosemite leadership, however, has apparently acquiesced to the car-dwelling hoards, and decided that PRESERVATION should take a back seat to PRESENTATION.

    BTW, welcome back!

  9. I have some great positive news for those interested in this topic!! They don’t cut the trees at the Snake River overlook in Grand Teton National Park but the photographers still shoot it anyway. They should all take a walk and find a new view point down the hillside??? Hmmmm. . .

    I love Yosemite but it’s a giant ditch where most people drive around in circles of TRAFFIC.

  10. Compared to the amount of trees that exist within the forests and the park itself, trimming a few tall trees that obscure great views is small beans. This is exactly what the NPS is supposed to do,… manage the park. I am all the more happy for the greater chances to see great views unobscured by tall trees, in my ‘all too brief’ times there in Yosemite. I say Bravo. The amount of trees cut is miniscule, and the NPS is very ethical and very good at what they do.

    Trust they will do a good job, folks….they have so far.

  11. From what I remember my father talking about it, there has always been great controversy regarding the purpose of the National Park Service. It is not necessarily so clear, as some have indicated above, that the purpose of the park service is to improve the parks for daily tourism and photography. I believe much of the written material refers to the purpose of the park service being to preserve the parks to pass them along to future generations. This does not include maintaining them in the same exact condition as in previous generations, especially when the condition changes due to natural processes as Michael points out.

  12. I can only read this and chuckle in my disbelief. Stories like this are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, not reality (see link below for a good laugh…).

    I suppose that–because today–we’re driven easily from viewpoint to viewpoint and essentially told what’s worth stopping for, the NPS might see this in their best interest. But, I think its robbing us of the opportunity to discover something new in our national parks.

    Great post. I’m a little late to the party here, but I hope you’re feeling better…



    • THANKS for the comment, Greg and all!

      The sad fact is that the great majority of NPS visitors have only fleeting connections with and experiences in nature. With limited time in our parks, most visitors are content being ushered to existing roadside “scenic vistas” and then to the concessions to get their “I hiked/I climbed/I saw” t-shirts. Because the consumerist culture also pervades our parks, we put greater emphasis on cheap thrills and concessions than we do on things like saving roadside trees and creating stewards and ambassadors of our parks.

      We came, we saw, we conquered?

  13. Pingback: The Dome Fire – Mojave National Preserve – MICHAEL E. GORDON PHOTOGRAPHY

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