“These darn trees are in the way of my view of nature,” joked one of my guides on a trip to British Columbia a few years back. We had stopped during a hike on a forested esker and were trying to look through the woods to a lake far below. We couldn’t see it through the dense foliage. Of course, his comment made us all laugh. Little did we know then that such an absurd idea would years later — this fall, in fact — become a reality in Yosemite National Park.
Starting later this year, thousands of trees will be cut down in Yosemite to provide better views of the famous granite faces, such as El Capitán and Half Dome, and the breathtaking waterfalls, such as Bridalveil or Yosemite Falls, that ring the valley. But the sounds of lumberjacks and the sights of downed trees — felled only for the purpose of providing better photo ops — are somehow discomfiting in a national park, prompting some to ask, “Why must so many succumb to the saw?”
Obstructing views by protecting them
Part of the reason Yosemite was set aside in 1864 as a national park was because of the awe-inspiring panoramas afforded by its open meadows. During the past 147 years under federal protection, however, many of the park’s trees have grown to staggering heights. And that’s the problem: Park officials say that they are now so tall that they are obstructing the grand, iconic views. To solve the problem, the “Scenic Vista Management Plan” was adopted, which, essentially, gives the park the right to chop them down. They will then be scrapped for firewood and wood chips.
The park today, say proponents of the plan, is not the one early visitors, such as John Muir and Ansel Adams, rhapsodized about when they first saw it in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, the region’s wide vistas were open to the jutting, massive slabs of rock and spilling waterfalls. In those days, natural fires sparked by lightning and fires set by Native Americans cleared encroaching stands of trees. Livestock once grazed in the valley, also pushing back saplings to the edges of the meadows. But the livestock is now long gone, and wildfires are immediately extinguished in the interest of visitor safety. Some of the trees that have since made their way in are more than 100 feet in height.
In accordance with the “Scenic Vista Management Plan,” the majority of the cutting — mostly of Ponderosa pines and cedar trees — will take place along roads, overlooks and turnouts in seven square miles of the most heavily visited sections of the valley. Only trees younger than 130 years old will be cut, and no giant sequoias will be included in the culling. The work may go on for as long as 10 years, since cutting will only be allowed during the months of September and October in order to avoid disturbing bats and birds.
There is a precedent for such a “trimming”: Yosemite officials report that they’ve thinned trees before — without complaints. In fact, several large trees that obscured the park’s famous Tunnel View were taken down three years ago.
Clear-cutting for clarity
But three years ago, as some point out, only 20 Ponderosa pines and other trees were cut. This new plan calls for thousands of trees to fall to the axe.
Many who love the park feel that there is something abhorrent about cutting down so many trees just for the sake of providing visitors with a perfect view. And, anyway, who decided that the valley should look the way it did when the Ahwahnechee, who used low-intensity fire to promote the growth of oak trees for acorns and grasses for grazing, were “managing” the area? Perhaps the best thing for a protected landscape is for humans to leave it alone and let nature take its course — and that includes a period of succession. Perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to “stage” the natural world to coincide with current fashions of how we think it should look.
The question comes down to: What does “protection” for a landscape mean? Are you in favor of cutting down those pesky trees that get in the way of your views of nature, or would you allow them to march forward, along their natural path?
Feature photo: Yosemite’s once-open meadows are now being colonized by trees. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews