The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Four:
National Park

A growing awareness of the beauties of the High Sierra, coupled with the appropriation of Yosemite Valley during the 1880s for meeting the needs of tourists, inevitably led to discussion about the desirability of expanding the park of 1864. By itself, however, scenic preservation was not an inducement powerful enough to overcome regional opposition to the plan. Indeed, the opportunity to establish a park entirely in government ownership had been lost even before it was recognized. Motivation sufficient to induce Congress to seriously consider park expansion awaited sources other than preservation interests, most notably the Southern Pacific Railroad and irrigationists in the San Joaquin Valley. Much as irrigators finally were alerted to the problems of protecting major sources of fresh water in the mountains, so the Southern Pacific Railroad had come to recognize the profits that might be realized by promoting tourism throughout the Sierra Nevada. The result of this agitation was not the expansion of the Yosemite Grant of 1864 itself, but rather the establishment of an entirely new preserve surrounding the valley yet retained in federal ownership. Such were the origins of Yosemite National Park, originally set aside by Congress on October 1, 1890, as "reserved forest lands." [1]

The phrase "reserved forest lands" reflected the importance of the original argument that Yosemite National Park was crucial for protecting vulnerable watersheds of the High Sierra. In this manner preservationists wrapped their own esthetic aims around an all-embracing utilitarian cause, one with special appeal to California water, civic, and agricultural groups. The Yosemite Park Commission itself endorsed the proposal in 1881 not only for "the protection of the valley and its rim, the preservation of the water-flow" supplying "a chief element of its grandeur," but also for sustaining "the mines in the foothills, and the great San Joaquin Valley below." Accordingly, at a full meeting of the commission held on March 22, 1881, and subsequently in its biennial reports of 1882 and 1884, the group went on record in full support of the enlargement of the Yosemite Grant to encompass, at a minimum, all of the watersheds feeding into Yosemite Valley proper. [2]

It is therefore not surprising that William Hammond Hall underscored the importance of Yosemite Valley's watersheds in his own report to the commissioners of 1882. He asked, "What is necessary to preserve the Yosemite Valley property from deterioration?" and answered, "First—The control of the mountain watershed tributary to the valley streams, to prevent the destruction of timber and vegetation generally thereon." Of the 229,000 acres estimated to compose the Merced River watershed, only 30,500 acres were included in that portion of the grant surrounding Yosemite Valley. This left "198,500 acres which drain into the valley" vulnerable to private ownership, particularly "for purposes of sheep and cattle grazing and lumbering. Even now," he noted, "some considerable tracts have been bought up, and the public land surveys are being advanced over the remainder." [3]

At a minimum, Hall recommended expanding the grant to encompass the entire Merced River drainage. Only acquisition of this territory would ensure "efficient preservation of the charms and attractions of the valley itself." If the watersheds above the falls were ever stripped of their timber, "the supply of water, to say the least, will fail much earlier in the season than it now does." The utilitarian benefits of protecting those watersheds were no less important to consider. Specifically, much had been recently published "concerning the effect of deforestation on mountain lands, and the scarcely less disastrous consequences resulting from unregulated sheep grazing over such tracts." Indeed, it would "only require the construction of a railroad up into this region to start the axe in motion at a lively rate." Meanwhile, thousands of sheep were already devastating "the mountain sides every year." Obviously the issue was not merely one of esthetics; in addition, California's economic interests were best served by preserving the state's vulnerable watersheds. Eventually the timber protected in the high country above Yosemite Valley could be carefully harvested and sold by the commission itself, "in place of a few persons being enriched by skimming the cream off from the virgin mountains in their occupation as lumber dealers or wool growers." In this manner, Hall concluded, the commissioners could simultaneously obtain necessary funds for park management while securing "a protective battlement to your valley below." [4]

Hall may not have used the term, but his approach to park expansion was superficially ecological. Had he not repeatedly amended his statements by calling simultaneously for the manipulation of Yosemite Valley and timber cutting in the mountains, his argument would have paralleled that commonly used by modern-day environmentalists. Park boundaries sympathetic to watersheds and animal migration routes, rather than arbitrary squares or rectangles drawn principally around scenic features, have often been the goal of environmental campaigns since the 1960s. Meanwhile, Hall had registered some very persuasive points. Although local opposition to park expansion killed the first congressional bills to address the subject in the early 1880s, [5] support was building among those interests whose concerns were more convincing, especially California irrigators and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In John Muir, the individual most associated with Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra, preservation was to find its indefatigable publicist and champion. [6] Politically, Muir joined the preservation movement already in progress. He first saw Yosemite Valley in 1868, four years after it had been set aside by the act of June 30, 1864, and three years after Frederick Law Olmsted had delivered his provocative address to the Yosemite Park Commission. While Muir tended sheep and rambled throughout the backcountry, Congress further debated, and rejected, the outstanding land claims of James Lamon and James Mason Hutchings. Muir was still drawn to the high country rather than politics in 1872, when the United States Supreme Court upheld the Yosemite Park Act by dismissing the liens of valley residents against the grant's property. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that Muir had any influence on the bill establishing Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. No less than Theodore Roosevelt, who often has been credited with founding the conservation movement itself, John Muir in truth came on the scene when the issue was well advanced. More than a founder of conservation and a committed political activist, Muir helped sustain the movement through his work as a gifted writer, spokesman, and dedicated idealist.

In a similar vein, his first major contribution to Yosemite was one of science rather than of preservation. Conventional geological wisdom, particularly as expressed by Josiah Dwight Whitney of the California Geological Survey, held that the floor of Yosemite Valley had subsided during a series of cataclysmic events. Muir's own investigations in the high country and along Yosemite's rim had definitely convinced him otherwise. Contrary to Whitney's view that Yosemite Valley had dropped away during violent convulsions of the earth's crust, Muir found deposits of glacial silt, striations etched into granite formations, and other evidence suggesting that the valley had been shaped and scoured by successive waves of glaciation. When Clinton L. Merriam, a congressman from New York State who was interested in the same subject, visited Yosemite Valley in 1871, he urged the young naturalist to publish his findings. The encouragement led to Muir's first article, "Yosemite Glaciers," published on December 5, 1871, in the New York Tribune. [7]

As was the case when Horace Greeley, the paper's publisher, visited Yosemite Valley in 1859, the New York Tribune was still the leading newspaper of its day. For landing his first article in such a prestigious journal Muir could thank Representative Merriam, who submitted the piece on the young man's behalf. Other articles came slowly from his pen; meanwhile, he tramped and botanized the length and breadth of the Sierra Nevada, scaling the heights and picking his way through the canyons he would write about with greater discipline when youth no longer propelled him forward. [8]

Like Horace Greeley, Samuel Bowles, and others who had preceded him, Muir was initially struck by the monumental features of Yosemite Valley, its "noble walls—sculptured into endless variety of domes and gables, spires and battlements and plain mural precipices—all a-tremble with the thunder tones of the falling water." [9] But as a resident of Yosemite Valley between 1869 and 1873, Muir quickly came to appreciate, as had Frederick Law Olmsted, the beauty of its vegetation, apart from its landmarks. Gradually, as a result, his tolerance for the changes made in the valley on behalf of tourism diminished in proportion to their effect. Similarly, he condemned damage to the high country surrounding the park as the work of shepherds and their flocks of "hoofed locusts." [10] Obviously his support for park expansion was building; his first years in Yosemite Valley were simply consumed with personal discovery rather than with politics.

Finally, by the early 1880s the High Sierra was at last being surveyed and thrown open to legal settlement. With the survey of the mountains came the prospect that development would both intensify and diversify as sheepmen were followed, in turn, by settlers and speculators. At least the shepherds had been transients with little interest in owning the high country. The new wave of pioneers not only claimed the land outright but also seemed bent on mining, logging, stream diversion, and similar types of exploitation potentially more threatening to the Yosemite Grant.

Only Congress had the authority to restrict the disposal of the high country, thus serving the best interest of the park; instead, as early as 1881 the Interior Department began offering territory on the perimeter of the Yosemite Grant for sale and settlement. The majority of claims filed were for lumbering and mining; in this fashion tens of thousands of acres of prime timberland fell into private hands between 1881 and the establishment of the national park in October 1890. The national park itself contained approximately sixty thousand acres of inholdings, many in the sugar pine forests bordering the western boundary of the preserve. Thus local opposition to preservation, fueled by speculators and real estate promoters, had successfully stalled park expansion long enough to allow some of the best timber and grazing lands to be designated for exploitation despite inclusion within the park. [11] Prior to 1880 Congress might have established a Yosemite National Park largely free of any outstanding claims to its natural resources. With the opening of those lands to private entry, that possibility had vanished forever.

The passage of the lands surrounding the Yosemite Grant into private ownership occasioned only limited notice among the American people at large. The objects of greatest public concern were still the valley and the big trees. Year by year the valley especially seemed victimized by increased abuse and neglect. Many of its returning visitors, most notably those who had first seen the valley prior to 1870, complained that some of the most breathtaking views of its cliffs and waterfalls had been lost behind screens of encroaching vegetation. In other instances meadows that had previously served as foregrounds for popular vistas had been marred by fencing, grazing, and haphazard construction. The most outspoken critics accused the Yosemite Park Commission of turning Yosemite Valley into a poorly run farm instead of a well-managed public park. [12] Yet none of this controversy focused on the loss of lands previously recommended for inclusion in the preserve. Again the issue was esthetic, and as such its nucleus remained the valley itself.

Meanwhile, the Yosemite Park Commission had been wracked by bitter controversy. In 1880 William Ashburner challenged the right of Governor George C. Perkins to appoint a new slate of commissioners; a new law further limited a commissioner's term of office to only four years. As an original member of the Yosemite Park Commission, Ashburner had no intention of giving up his post. Accordingly, for the second time in less than a decade, a case involving Yosemite made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In the interim Ashburner refused to surrender the books of the commission; he relinquished them only when ordered to do so by the Court, which found against him in October 1880. [13]

The commission, for obvious reasons, lost prestige and public confidence. About the only positive outcome of Ashburner's suit was the Supreme Court's reaffirmation of its decision in 1872 that the Yosemite Grant must in fact be managed as a national trust. If ever the park was "in any respect diverted from this use," the Court restated, the federal government might be obligated either "to enforce the performance of the conditions contained in the Act of Congress or to vacate the grant. So long as the State keeps the property," the Court concluded, underscoring the point, "it must abide by the stipulation, on the faith of which the transfer of title was made." [14]

As a result of Ashburner's suit, two sets of commissioners and two guardians oversaw the valley between September 1880 and March 1881. Given such an inauspicious start, the new commission struggled to establish its own authority and public confidence. The results were disappointing. By the end of the decade hard feelings against the commission once more ended in heated controversy. In 1885 the commission had granted Charles D. Robinson, a seasonal artist, permission to erect and lease a small studio in the valley. Shortly afterward the privilege was revoked and, Robinson charged, his studio forcibly entered and vandalized by the guardian. Thoroughly outraged, the artist brought twenty-two charges of misconduct against the commissioners, including the destruction of private property, the misappropriation of public funds, and, in general, the violation of the management principles of the Yosemite Park Act of 1864. [15]

In February 1889 the California legislature held hearings on Robinson's accusations. Although majority reports of the senate and assembly exonerated the commissioners, the hearings did suggest that the management of the Yosemite Grant was beset by serious differences of opinion. For example, criticism was particularly sharp against plowing and fencing off the meadows in the valley. Similarly, Robinson and his supporters charged the commission with indiscriminantly cutting and destroying timber. [16]

In retrospect, both charges were convenient subterfuges for people bent on discrediting the commissioners for other reasons, especially for having disallowed special privileges and desired business permits. Charles F. Leidig, for example, the proprietor of Leidig's Hotel, complained that he and his wife had been driven out of business in 1888 by the completion of the Stoneman House, a state-supported hotel capitalized at forty thousand dollars. Furthermore, he charged, the commissioners had denied him and his wife a new five-year lease. Without it, he maintained, he lacked either the security or the inducement necessary to make improvements to his property, improvements that might have enabled him to compete with the new luxury accommodations. [17]

Ultimately, the legislature agreed with the commissioners that the decision either to grant or to withhold leases did not necessarily reflect a mismanagement of the park. More serious were allegations that cutting trees and plowing the meadows had, in Charles D. Robinson's words, done "irreparable damage to the natural beauties of the valley." In defense of the commission, William H. Mills, one of its leading members, reminded the legislature that history and precedent supported both practices. The invasion of trees and underbrush was a matter of public record. Mills had "been astonished," he reported, "to see how rapidly the undergrowth will encroach, where it is not resisted. Left to itself," he concluded, "in my judgment the valley would soon be a very unsightly wilderness." Much the same consideration explained the decision to allow grazing. "We had to have some horses for conveyances; cows had to be there," he stated. "Nobody could get milk unless there were cows." The presence of the animals further explained the need for their restraint. If the fences were removed, the stock would drift throughout the valley, "and you would very soon have your roads injured and made unsightly." Fencing also protected unwary visitors "against stock roaming at large." In short, the issue was not simply one of esthetics; rather the safety and convenience of travelers required that some of the meadows be farmed and be protected by "a good fence." Hay, for example, might cost one hundred dollars per ton if not provided in the valley, where the going rate was between thirty and sixty dollars per ton. "If you had to haul hay a long distance," Mills concluded, justifying his figures, transportation costs alone would "be very high." [18]

Mills's testimony, in retrospect, had a twofold significance. Above all, he deflected Robinson's charges that the commission had acted capriciously and often in haste. Mills painted instead an image of rational planning and foresight. All the more effective, as a result, was his testimony that Native Americans not only had cleared Yosemite Valley historically but also had done so through the use of fire. In his opinion, burning "was a very good method of management." In this manner, by suggesting that the manipulation of Yosemite Valley by the commission derived directly from Native American techniques, Mills effectively built the commission's case for management legitimacy. Equally significant, he argued successfully that visitor conveniences were in fact "needs," requirements no less compelling as justifications for environmental change. Valley modifications necessary to accommodate tourists by lowering costs and increasing comfort might not always be esthetically pleasing; they were nonetheless mandatory to ensure visitation. "I would be very glad if there were no blacksmith's shop in the valley," he confessed, referring to another obvious point of contention. "I would be glad if people could go in on wings." The point was that only stages and carriages offered practical means of transportation. In that case the blacksmith shop, although undeniably "a place of industry," was nonetheless "a necessary evil," something "entirely indispensable" to tourists throughout the valley. "You couldn't get along without it," Mills concluded, reemphasizing his point. "Stages cannot carry people in there and be out of repair." [19]

Sympathy for his point of view suggested how far his argument might be taken. Whenever the comfort or convenience of tourists won acceptance as "needs," it followed that another level of development would be imposed on the park. Originally, tourists had entered Yosemite Valley by foot or on horseback and had camped in the meadows. Gradually the first hotels had been built and opened to the public. As was to be expected, visitors grew in number and filled the new accommodations, leading to further arguments for hotel expansion and development. By 1889 the list of structures in Yosemite Valley was already quite long, including a luxury hotel, the Stoneman House, and a wide variety of other hotels, cabins, stores, studios, and visitor services. [20]

In defense of these and other modifications to the valley, the Yosemite Park Commission generously estimated the floor to be 9,000 acres, of which only 745 acres were meadow or treeless lands formed by overflows of the Merced River. The point again was to deflect the criticism that the best of Yosemite Valley had been appropriated for farming and commercial development. The commission dismissed the charge as nothing but a lie concocted by a "few truthless rascals" bent on destroying public "interest in the Yosemite." In fact, the commission argued, cultivation had "never been tried on more than two hundred acres of the entire floor." The statement ignored the extent of grazing and the effect of valley structures; here too the objective was to silence harsh critical opinion. When John Muir, for example, added his voice to the chorus of criticism, the commissioners' retort was extremely biased and unforgiving. In their view, "the only organized destruction of the valley's forests" had been "attempted many years ago, when the State's primacy was disputed by squatters and John Muir helped run a sawmill." The commission further accused Muir of logging "for commercial purposes," until the mill and its distinguished operator finally had to be "suppressed by the State." [21]

The history of this famous mill had already been well publicized. Constructed and operated by Muir near the base of Yosemite Falls, it had provided the young naturalist with employment beginning in the autumn of 1869. His employer, James Mason Hutchings, needed the finished timber to renovate his buildings and hotel. Muir insisted, however, that fallen trees rather than live ones should be cut. This stipulation had been known throughout the valley. By attacking Muir, the commission simply hoped to undermine his credibility and thereby deflect his charges that the park had been mismanaged. [22] Similarly, Muir's hand had been obvious in publicizing the issue nationwide. In June 1889 Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of Century Magazine, accompanied Muir on a two-week camping trip to Yosemite and the High Sierra. Muir hoped to enlist Johnson's support in the campaign for the establishment of a national park; the editor, in turn, convinced the naturalist to write articles for Century Magazine. Further aroused by the conditions he observed while in Yosemite Valley, Johnson opened the pages of his journal to letters highly critical of the commissioners. [23]

In retrospect, the commissioners did indeed have a case; much of the criticism against felling trees obviously ignored the fact that Yosemite Valley historically had not been thickly forested. Many visitors in 1889 actually complained that too many trees obscured the best views. But the damage had been done; the Yosemite Park Commission had been discredited in the national media. By striking out at Muir, Johnson, and Century Magazine, the commissioners did little but contribute to the credibility of their opponents. [24]

In part the establishment of Yosemite National Park was an outgrowth of this controversy. Although the Yosemite Park Commission itself had endorsed every proposal to protect the valley's watersheds, the recent mismanagement charges against the commissioners had cost them public confidence. The objective of preservationists was to retain under federal jurisdiction any new unit surrounding the valley and, if possible, to include the valley and the Mariposa Grove themselves within the larger preserve. However, leaders of the movement, among them John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, soon realized that any call for the recession of Yosemite Valley in 1890 would only fuel California's resentment and thereby jeopardize the larger project. Recession could wait for a more opportune political climate. The challenge immediately at hand was to extend protection to vulnerable forests and watersheds above the valley's rim. [25]

Although the full story may never be known, the Southern Pacific Railroad undoubtedly contributed immeasurably to the effort. Yellowstone National Park, promoted since 1883 by the Northern Pacific Railroad, already evinced both the prestige and the passenger traffic awaiting corporate sponsors of national park projects. Railroad officials responsible for land development, especially for the establishment of irrigated farms in California's Central Valley, further grasped the importance of protecting Sierra watersheds. In short, the Southern Pacific Railroad had every reason to be an ally of park and conservation interests. Accordingly, John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, facing powerful opposition to their proposal in California and Washington, D.C., logically presented their case for a Yosemite national park to Southern Pacific executives. [26]

On March 18, 1890, Representative William Vandever of Los Angeles, either at the request of the Southern Pacific Railroad or with its blessing, introduced a bill in Congress for the establishment of a national park surrounding Yosemite Valley. The park that was envisioned, however, was not what Muir and Johnson wanted. To the north, for example, both the Tuolumne River watershed and Tenaya Lake had been excluded entirely, in addition to other critical portions of the Merced River drainage itself. All told, the projected park encompassed only 288 square miles. Moreover, the state grant had already been included in the total, meaning that new lands to be protected actually amounted to little more than 230 square miles. [27]

Muir especially was deeply disappointed. "As I have urged over and over again," he wrote Johnson the following May, "the Yosemite Reservation ought to include all the Yosemite fountains." Johnson agreed, appearing on June 2 before the House Committee on Public Lands to argue Muir's case. But neither Muir nor Johnson held the key to prod Congress. Although Muir wrote articles for Century extolling the virtues of his plan, he spent much of the summer touring in Alaska. By then the measure seemed dead until the next session of Congress. Yet on September 29 and 30, a substitute bill inspired by Daniel K. Zumwalt, a land agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad and a personal friend of Representative Vandever's, passed the House and Senate with virtually no discussion. More significant, the substitute bill authorized a preserve five times larger than the original, 1,512 square miles of territory exclusive of the existing Yosemite grant. Almost immediately, on October 1, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the measure into law. [28]

The turnabout in Yosemite's fortunes can be laid to several factors. Above all, Southern Pacific officials themselves were committed to a far larger preserve, one sufficient to protect agricultural interests dependent on its watersheds. To be sure, the company strongly endorsed similar programs for many years afterward. Meanwhile, opponents of the project undoubtedly were thrown off guard by phraseology in the bill designating the Yosemite reservation as "reserved forest lands." Here again, the wording was in keeping with the argument that watershed protection, rather than scenic preservation, was in truth the primary motive for establishing a national park. Finally, the bill's introduction during the tumultuous close of the congressional session aided Vandever and his supporters in stifling debate. Regardless, the fortunes of preservation had been very well served. "Even the soulless Southern Pacific R.R. Co.," Muir later confessed, "never counted on for anything good, helped nobly in pushing the bill for this park through Congress." The point was that Yosemite had not been called a national park at the time of its establishment. The discrepancy either confused park opponents or, equally probable, convinced them that the project did indeed have some commercial merit after all. [29]

Ostensibly the high country had now been fully protected. In truth, the Yosemite reservation had some crippling inconsistencies, most notably more than sixty thousand acres of mining, timber, and agricultural claims. Indeed, as preservationists would quickly discover, each claim was a built-in rationale for adjusting the park boundary. On paper, at least, the park was truly impressive. In keeping with John Muir's fondest wish, for example, it included not only the Merced River drainage but also the headwaters of the Tuolumne River watershed in its entirety. Thus the effort begun in 1864 to protect the superlative scenery of Yosemite Valley had expanded to encompass the region as a whole. Granted, the term ecology had not been used and indeed was scarcely known. But in the act of October 1, 1890, were the rudiments of future ecological awareness. The challenge now facing preservationists was to keep what they had won. For the future of both park scenery and park biological resources, it was vital that preservationists succeed.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap4.htm — 17-Mar-2004