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Yosemite National Park is located along the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Falling under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Yosemite spans over 1,158 square miles (3,000 square kilometers) and ranges in elevation from 2,000 to over 13,000 feet (610 to 3,962 meters) above sea level. Though Yosemite is a land of superlatives-containing sheer 3,500-foot (1,067-meter) cliffs, the highest waterfall in North America (Yosemite Falls), and the largest living tree species in the world (the giant sequoia)it is perhaps most notable for being an icon of the U.S. environmental movement.
In 1864 Abraham Lincoln passed a landmark bill called the Yosemite Grant, which ceded Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Sequoia Grove to California as a state park. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yosemite National Park became ground zero for a monumental debate between preservationists and conservationists over how to plan for the park’s future. During the late 1800s John Muir helped draw the public’s attention to Yosemite through his influential writings and environmental activism-including the formation of the Sierra Club.
In response to heavy sheep grazing and the logging of giant sequoia, John Muir and other preservationists advocated for the preservation of Yosemite in its natural state by granting the area federal protection. In 1890 his efforts were rewarded when Yosemite was declared a national park. Meanwhile, Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the National Forest Service and an important political figure in the conservation movement, had been lobbying to manage Yosemite’s natural resources scientifically for productive purposes.
Today, Yosemite can be viewed as a mosaic of compromises between preservationists and conservationists. For example, though a national park, Yosemite contains within its park boundaries a large dam and reservoir in Hetch Hetchy Valley. A conservationist achievement, the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy quenched the water needs of the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. The preservationist movement also had notable achievements. With its designation as a national park, approximately 89 percent of the park is designated wilderness area. Yosemite is also home to the headwaters for two designated wild and scenic rivers-the Merced and Tuolumne.
In 1984, the park’s federal status expanded when Yosemite was named a world heritage site because of its perceived contribution to California’s cultural heritage including the California Gold rush; the broader U.S. National Park movement; and the cultural legacy of over 8,000 years of Native American settlement in the Yosemite region, including by the Miwok and Paiute tribes.
Annual visitation rates in Yosemite exceed three million, with the vast majority of these guests visiting Yosemite Valley. As a result, the Park Service has seen a number of environmental challenges arise. These challenges include: (1) air pollution in the Yosemite Valley from high levels of car and tour bus congestion; (2) the interruption of natural fire regimes and forest regeneration due to heavy fire suppression practices; (3) persistent interaction between black bears and humans as bears began to rely on human food, causing damage to visitor property and ultimately costing the lives of black bears; (4) the introduction of invasive species bringing significant changes to Yosemite’s fragile alpine ecosystems; and (5) habitat fragmentation, especially along the valley floor as roads and buildings are built to accommodate millions of Yosemite sightseers every year.
In 2000, the Yosemite Valley Plan was produced under the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act to supplement and modify the goals and proposed strategies found in the 1980 General Management Plan for Yosemite. Aimed at preserving the natural and cultural resources of Yosemite Valley for the use and enjoyment of visitors, the Yosemite Plan is a management response to the park’s paradoxical position as a sanctuary for unique wildlife species and fragile habitats and as an overwhelmingly popular tourist destination.
- John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Houghton Mifflin, 1998);
- Alfred Runte, Yosemite the Embattled Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press, 1990);
- U.S. Department of the Interior, Yosemite National Park, https://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm.