Frederick Law Olmsted and Yosemite Valley

Excerpted from The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

In June of 1864, with the Civil War raging and re-election uncertain, President Abraham Lincoln signed a relatively minor bill transferring Yosemite Valley to California to be held “inalienable” for “public use, resort, and recreation.” Governor Low provisionally accepted the grant shortly thereafter and named a commission to oversee the new park. He chose as the head of the commission Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect already known for work on New York’s Central Park but then acting as manager for the Las Mariposas estate in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Olmsted attempted to describe Yosemite for others (especially the lawmakers who had not visited it but would soon vote on accepting the park and funding it). First noting the great cliffs, the waterfalls, the broad meadows, and the qualities of the light and climate, he came to the essence of Yosemite:

There are falls of water elsewhere finer, there are more stupendous rocks, more beetling cliffs, there are deeper and more awful chasms, there may be as beautiful streams, as lovely meadows, there are larger trees. It is in no scene or scenes the charm consists, but in the miles of scenery where cliffs of awful height and rocks of vast magnitude and of varied and exquisite coloring, are banked and fringed and draped and shadowed by the tender foliage of noble and lovely trees and bushes, reflected from the most placid pools, and associated with the most tranquil meadows, the most playful streams, and every variety of soft and peaceful pastoral beauty.

The union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in one part or one scene or another, not in any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the Yosemite the greatest glory of nature.

The essence of the physical landscape was the juxtaposition of the steep cliffs with the flat valley floor. In numerous areas, the flat floor of the valley comes right to the base of the soaring cliffs, and through this valley the Merced River lazes its way along in view of the majestic falls. As Olmsted noted, other places had the same ingredients; Yosemite stood apart in the assembly of the parts.

If we ask what geologic process made Yosemite unique, the answer would have to be glaciers acting on very heterogeneous granitic rocks. Yosemite’s special nature relies on the far greater depth the glaciers cut compared with the other “yosemites,” (the other deep glacial canyons of the Sierra) and this was made possible by the vulnerabilities of its complex geology. While California’s state geologist Josiah Whitney was therefore unquestionably wrong in arguing that Yosemite was created by faulting and John Muir, despite exaggeration, correct in identifying glaciers as the valley’s sculptors, neither fully traced back Yosemite’s origin to its roots. The awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley existed—and could serve as the template for the most extensive national park system in the world—because of the accident of many chemically different bodies of granitic rock coinciding with the right elevation in the Sierra Nevada where glaciers could carve a massive, steep-walled valley.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and prominent earth-science journals, and he is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics. He blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.


A Yosemite National Park Reading List

On this day in 1864 President Lincoln signed a law leading to the protection of what we know today as Yosemite National Park. Dive deeper into the history of this iconic landscape with these books.

Yosemite: Art of an American Icon edited by Amy Scott

This lavishly illustrated volume offers a stunning new view of Yosemite’s visual history by presenting two hundred works of art together with provocative essays that explore the rich intersections between art and nature in this incomparable Sierra Nevada wilderness. Integrating the work of Native peoples, it provides the first inclusive view of the artists who helped create an icon of the American wilderness by featuring painting, photography, basketry, and other artworks from both well-known and little-studied artists from the nineteenth century to the present.

 

Glaciers of California: Modern Glaciers, Ice Age Glaciers, the Origen of Yosemite Valley, and a Glacier Tour in the Sierra Nevada by Bill Guyton

Bill Guyton summarizes the history of the discovery of Ice Age glaciation and modern-day glaciers in California, as well as the development of modern ideas about the state’s glacial history. He describes the controversy about the origin of Yosemite Valley and quotes from the colorful accounts of early mountain explorers such as John Muir, Josiah Whitney, and François Matthes.

 

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West by Rebecca Solnit

In this foundational book of landscape theory and environmental thinking, Rebecca Solnit explores our national Eden and Armageddon and offers a pathbreaking history of the west, focusing on the relationship between culture and its implementation as politics. In a new preface, she considers the continuities and changes of these invisible wars in the context of our current climate change crisis, and reveals how the long arm of these histories continue to inspire her writing and hope.

The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

This book combines geology with history to show how the particular forces and conditions that created the Sierra Nevada have effected broad outcomes and influenced daily life in the United States in the past and how they continue to do so today. Drawing connections between events in historical geology and contemporary society, Craig H. Jones makes geological science accessible and shows the vast impact this mountain range has had on the American West.

 

Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks by William C. Tweed

Tweed, who worked among the Sierra Nevada’s big peaks and big trees for more than thirty years, has now hiked more than 200 miles along California’s John Muir Trail in a personal search for answers: How do we address the climate change we are seeing even now—in melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, changing rainy seasons on Mt Rainer, and more fire in the West’s iconic parks. Should we intervene where we can to preserve biodiversity? Should the parks merely become ecosystem museums that exhibit famous landscapes and species? Asking how we can make these magnificent parks relevant for the next generation, Tweed, through his journey, ultimately shows why we must do just that.


A Right-Now Battle for the Future of America’s Public Lands

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.

The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.

But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.

With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.

Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…


Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond


White People Like Hiking? Some Implications of NPS Narratives of Relevance and Diversity

By Laura Schiavo, contributing author featured in The Public Historian 38.4 

This guest post is published in advance of a forthcoming special issue on the National Park Service published by The Public Historian. The full article will appear in TPH 38.4 (November 2016). Sign up here for an email alert when the special issue becomes available.

Photo Courtesy of Ranger Doug's Enterprises
Illustration Courtesy Ranger Doug’s Enterprises

Last summer, an opinion piece in The New York Times asked, “Why Are Our Parks So White?” The lede introduced readers to a 58-year-old African American woman living in Seattle, in view of Mt. Rainier, who steers clear of the associated park for fear of what she knows she will find: “mosquitoes, which she hates, and bears, cougars and wolves, which she fears.” This is, of course, far from the first time the title question has been asked. For decades now, external critics, and the Park Service itself, have expressed repeated, and repetitive, concerns about the lack of diversity among visitors to Park Service units. This statistic, first noted in a 1962 congressional report about Americans’ engagement with outdoor recreation, has experienced a resurgence of attention in the media fueled by Park Service surveys conducted in 2000 and then again in 2009. The more recent survey found that those US residents who could name a unit of the National Park Service they had visited in the two years prior to the survey, “were disproportionately white and non-Hispanic.” As the National Park Service (NPS) approached its 2016 Centennial, articles lamented the failure of the Park Service to engage a diverse public, even given the outreach to communities of color associated with the anniversary. (See here.) This failure to connect with “nonwhite communities” is figured, in a similar article, as a threat to the Park Service’s “own long-term sustainability.”

My article, forthcoming in the November issue of The Public Historian (38.4), explores this prevailing narrative – that people of color do not visit parks “enough”– and argues that it is both reductive in its implications about what it means to visit the parks, and in its construction of race, including whiteness. The desire for a visiting population that better reflects the nation’s racial demographics is surely driven in large part by the admirable value that everyone benefit equally the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” conserved by the directives of the Organic Act of 1916 that established the National Park Service. However, there are consequences to this logic that have not been carefully scrutinized. My paper looks at the argument’s embedded narratives, including the reduction of an appreciation for nature with park visitation and the implication that people of color do not share a concern for the environment. It analyzes the presumed link between park visitation and national belonging, and thus a threatened democracy in the face of unequal attendance. “A democracy can’t flourish without the participation of all of our citizens, yet some people from diverse backgrounds may not feel welcome in the parks,” according to a July 2015 Houston Chronicle article.

Illustration Courtesy Library of Congress
Illustration Courtesy Library of Congress

Such a logic harkens back to Frederick Jackson Turner’s attribution of the “vital forces” that fed the American character to an engagement with the “wilderness.”   Indeed, in 1916, when the Park Service was founded, it had been less than twenty-five years since Turner had delivered his frontier thesis. The Park Service retroactively incorporated national parks and monuments (including Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier) already cherished for their majesty and beauty and already integrated into the national imaginary. Certainly, the conventional understanding of the relationship between landscape and the forging of an American identity was foremost in the minds of the men who created a model for setting aside the most pristine places not only for protection but for communion and rejuvenation. In many ways, then, the cultural logic that defined the National Park Service a century ago was a product of its historical moment, when white men became Americans at civilization’s edge.

One hundred years later, our understanding of the relationship between nature, history, and nation is arguably more complicated. Decades of scholarship have documented the variety of encounters and events significant to the nation’s history. The environmental movement of the twenty first century includes a significant global (expanded from a purely national) orientation. Demographically, we are less homogenous and more urban, and scientists and social scientists are more engaged with the urban landscape and with a widened scope of environmental protection and sustainable practices (that might not include a cross-country car ride to Yosemite!) And yet to hear some who speak for the National Park Service tell it, Turner’s thesis is alive and well: “we” are all inherently products of a “frontier experience,” and the park provides “an opportunity to go home.” My paper suggests that we look more carefully at arguments about race, inclusion, and diversity in the park system, so that rather than relying on the tropes of a century past we might engage with an altered landscape and a new century in ways more attune to all we know about race, identity, access, history, land, and national belonging.


Laura Schiavo teaches museum history and theory and collections management in the Museum Studies Program at The George Washington University. Her two current research projects look at the historic roots of U.S. museums and civic engagement, and the concept of inclusivity and diversity in the National Park Service. Schiavo has years of experience as a curator at the National Building Museum, City Museum of Washington, DC, and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.


A New Vision for National Parks

California coastal redwoods. Photo: US National Park Service.

When the National Park Service (NPS) was founded in 1916, its mission was to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to…leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Nearly 100 years later, William C. Tweed, author of Uncertain Path, finds that it’s time to update this mission so it is relevant to the challenges of the 21st century.

In this National Parks Traveler article, Tweed discusses the crisis facing America’s national parks and weighs possible alternatives for their future. Times have changed since 1916, and human activities are impacting biodiversity everywhere, even deep in the national parks. Some argue that we should preserve as much as possible, while allowing for inevitable change. This position, which Tweed calls “managing for change”, says that “[r]ather than moving forward under the 1916 assumption that everything can and must be saved, managers would act within a mindset that tells them that everything is at risk and that much will likely be lost”, he writes.

William C. Tweed. Photo: Frances Tweed

Tweed notes that this proposal goes against the hands-off approach currently taken by the NPS, and would mean a major departure from the dominant strategy of the past century. It also raises the argument that interference in ecosystems could cause more harm than good. Finding a good solution will be a challenge, but national parks must adapt to survive, writes Tweed. He proposes a possible new vision to protects wildness and biodiversity while accepting change and maintaining public respect and celebration of these precious landscapes.

Read William C. Tweed’s article, An Idea in Trouble: Thoughts about the Future of Traditional National Parks in the United States, at National Parks Traveler.