On-line Book

Book Cover
Presenting Nature








Design Ethic Origins

Design Policy & Process

Western Field Office

Park Planning

Decade of Expansion

State Parks

Appendix A

Appendix B


Presenting Nature:
The Historic Landscape Design of the National Park Service, 1916-1942
NPS Arrowhead logo



While Vint's ideas on landscape naturalization were taking shape, an expert committee was conferring on the long-term questions of protecting the landscape of Yosemite Valley. Their concerns were not far removed from those of Punchard a decade earlier, and their philosophical, if not their practical, message seems to have had a far-reaching impact on the park landscape work of the 1930s. That the concerns and the issues are still viable today indicates the universal character of the thought and wisdom of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and the other members.

In a 1930 report, Yosemite's expert committee set forth its observations on the "nibbling" process through which Yosemite Valley was gradually being eroded. They perceived their duty and that of the National Park Service to be to approach the problem from two directions. The first was to envision a long-term ideal that could be achieved barring any adverse conditions and obstacles. The second was to meet the immediate practical needs of increasing visitation while striving to advance the more distant objectives of the first approach. [146]

Overall, the committee agreed that the manmade improvements in the valley were superficial, temporary, and relatively inconsequential when compared with the geologic forces that had created the valley. Nature would outlast any manmade changes. The committee believed, however, that removing "certain effects caused by human use of the Valley" would accelerate the process of returning to natural conditions and largely increase the public's enjoyment of the valley's scenic qualities. The report, written by Olmsted, stated,

Looking ahead in terms of those coming centuries of human resort to the Yosemite Valley it is only by constant repair and renewal that the changes thus far made by man in the Valley could be indefinitely be perpetuated, and by far smaller exertion of energy it is possible to accelerate very greatly nature's obliteration of such of them as are recognized to have upon the whole an adverse effect on human enjoyment of the Valley. [147]

Concerned by the cumulative effect of manmade changes, the committee identified several areas that could be returned to a more natural condition. One of these was the meadows, which were considered vital elements of scenery because they created open foregrounds from which the enclosing walls for which the Valley was famous could be viewed. The committee commented,

This injury has been effected in places by the encroachment of new tree growth, encouraged by prevention offices and in other ways; in others by the establishment of orchards and other artificial plantings, and at innumerable places by the construction of roads, ditches, fences, and other artificial constructions, far more conspicuously artificial and distracting where they intrude into and interrupt the simplicity of the meadows than under almost any other conditions in the Valley. [148]

Of particular concern was Leidig Meadow, where an oval racetrack had been branded by use of the meadow for Indian Field Day events. Also illustrative of the "nibble" principle was Stoneman Meadow, where embankments, roadways, and parking areas for Camp Curry were built.

The committee applauded the service's efforts to move back the limits of the camping areas from the edges of the meadows and river. They saw the beginning of a systematic obliteration of the scars of abandoned roads, borrow pits, and dump heaps as "hopeful signs of an effort to reverse the nibbling process of encroachment and artificialization." [149]

More controversial, however, was the construction of a cableway connecting the valley with Glacier Point, which offered one of the most spectacular views of the valley. The committee strongly opposed the construction of a cableway from the valley floor to the point in 1930, stating,

The first point is that the cableway . . . would be visible throughout most of its length, under many conditions of lighting and background and from important points of view, as a consciously artificial element, vast in scale of length and height even though very tenuous in transverse dimensions, adding a new kind of evidence to the many now existing that the scenery is in process of progressive and cumulative alteration away from its original natural condition toward more and more conspicuously man-handled, more and more expressive of subordination to human conveniences and whims, with no limit to that process yet apparent. The second point is that the great landscape in which the proposed cableway would be situated is precisely that part of the entire Park which is its most distinctive, most famous, and most precious natural feature—t he very heart of the Yosemite Valley proper, extending from El Capitan to the Half Dome. [150]

Although the committee was seriously concerned with providing better access between the valley and the rim, they recognized that some problems must remain unsolved and that restraint was necessary where irreversible harm might occur. The committee stated,

If we of today have not the skill enough to solve to our practical satisfaction the utilitarian problems of transportation and so forth, involved in the resort of great numbers of people to the Yosemite, without continuing indefinitely the process begun by our predecessors of progressively weakening and nibbling away the natural impressiveness and natural beauty of this great central unit of the Valley, it were better to admit our limitations and leave some of these problems unsolved pending the discovery of solutions clearly and certainly free from this fundamental objection. [151]

The committee recommended that a landscape map of the valley be prepared, recording the existing areas occupied by each of several distinctive types and subtypes of landscape conditions, such as forest woodland, chaparral, and meadow; the distribution of these and other natural landscape types in the past as far as was ascertainable from photographs and records; and observations on the apparent relation of these differing units of landscape to the impressiveness and beauty of the valley as enjoyed by visitors to it. The committee recommended that a member of the Landscape Division be assigned to coordinate this study and develop a systematic plan for controlling and guiding the continuing human influences on the landscape. To some extent, a study of the landscape conditions and some of committee's ideas were incorporated into the master plans for the valley and areas on the valley rim, such as Glacier Point. [152]

The work that ensued in the 1930s was a measurable result of both the committee's recommendations and the park service's expanding program of landscape naturalization. Envisioning the great benefit of this work to future visitors, Director Albright reported in 1931,

The encroachment of forests into El Capitan Meadow and a few other areas was partially corrected by cutting out pine and oak trees under 6 inches in diameter. Many denuded areas on the valley floor which had needed treatment for years were restored by plowing, harrowing, fertilizing and the planting of native grass and flower seed. Areas from which several houses were removed were treated similarly. A general program along these lines is continuously underway in all areas. [153]

Beginning in 1933 and continuing for several years, the Civilian Conservation Corps carried out a number of projects that removed obsolete structures and returned parts of the valley and meadows to a more natural appearance. Borrow pits and dumps were eliminated, trees were planted to screen campgrounds from the road, and numerous improvements were made that made artificial intrusions inconspicuous, giving the meadows a more naturalistic appearance. Most traces of the old village were removed. Extensive work was undertaken to beautify the new village by planting native trees, shrubbery, and wild flowers; maintaining the existing vegetation; and replacing curbs and walks.

Continued >>>

top of page Top

Last Modified: Mon, Oct 31, 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

National Park Service's ParkNet Home