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.