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By Kerry Klein
At one of Yosemite’s most majestic destinations, kids are enjoying a talk from a park ranger. But most of the visitors are looking up — straight up — at 300-foot-tall giants.
Sue Beatty is a restoration ecologist with the park, and she’s standing in Mariposa Grove, where these big trees can live up to 2,000 years. “This is the largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park,” she said, adding that the bigger ones are now middle-aged.
“They’ve got another 1,000 years ahead of them,” Beatty said.
Between the trees, a half-mile long walking trail snakes through a carpet of native wallflowers, lupines and dogwoods. Visitors get to this location by parking near Yosemite’s south gate, and shuttling two miles on hybrid buses.
But just three years ago, Mariposa Grove was an entirely different place.
“This used to be a parking lot. A 110-car parking lot,” Beatty said. “People were parking right on the sequoias.”
The grove was also noisy, and smelled like exhaust. Not enough water got to the trees’ roots. And an old tram road that weaved through the sequoias was so narrow, Beatty says paint from them would rub off on the bark.
Eventually, park officials said enough was enough. They launched a massive restoration project that closed the grove for three years. It finally reopened last month, without a tram, gift shop, or giant parking lot. Beatty called it “quite a transformation.”
After Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Grove is the second-most-popular destination for the park’s millions of visitors each year. The goal of the restoration project was to keep those millions coming while minimizing their impacts on the trees. It’s a balancing act Beatty says parks across the country are being forced to perform.
The project cost $40 million. While the National Park Service supplied half, the other part came from the Yosemite Conservancy, a philanthropic nonprofit that funds conservation projects in the park.
Its president, Frank Dean, says funds from the federal government aren’t sufficient. “I think that philanthropy can provide the margin of excellence,” he said. “The park service does get a budget each year from Washington, D.C., but it doesn't cover enough, or it doesn't get to the standard, or the world-class standard that this grove deserves.”
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman agrees that philanthropy is changing the face of the park. He says without the Conservancy, this project would have happened, but without some memorable finishing touches — like glossy signs and viewing platforms.
“I see their role just increasing over the years as parks don't have a lot of funding,” Gediman said.
He also called the new Mariposa Grove a shining example of that balancing act between tourism and ecology.
“Like everything we do here in the park, and so much in national parks across the country, it's all about balance, and it's about providing the access and protecting the environment and we feel that this project really exemplifies that,” Gediman said. Other environmental stakeholders interviewed for this story agree.
Next, the park and the conservancy will team up for a smaller but similar project at the base of Bridalveil Fall, another popular destination in Yosemite Valley.
YosemiteLand is all about exploring how the region’s identity is changing as tourism, technology, fire and traffic alter the landscape. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, or visit CapRadio.org/YosemiteLand.