YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — In an otherworldly grove of giant sequoias, workers in June will jackhammer an old mistake: a road and parking lot that impinge on the hallowed forest.
The $36 million project, which includes dismantling a gift shop, removing a tourist tram and adding elevated walkways in the grove, will improve visitors’ experiences while better protecting some of the oldest, largest and most beautiful organisms on earth, said Dean Shenk, a supervisory ranger at Yosemite National Park.
The National Park Service will contribute about $8 million to the project, and the Federal Highway Administration will spend another $8 million for an improved road to the grove and an expanded parking lot at Yosemite’s southern entrance. The bulk of the cost, $20 million, will be covered by the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco.
Philanthropic organizations known for lending a hand are funneling millions of dollars into the nation’s major national parks, making infrastructure improvements, building trails and providing volunteers who sometimes perform jobs previously done by park rangers.
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Park budgets dwindling
The National Park Service’s 2014 budget of $2.98 billion is smaller than in any in the past five years, and the agency must absorb federal employees’ raises and rising utility and other costs, said Jonathan B. Jarvis, director of the service.
“Because our budget is in decline, we’ve not been able to do the things we feel we should be doing,” he said.
The agency oversees 401 national parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites and other areas, 17 of them added under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Meanwhile, the number of park rangers is declining: Last year there were 4,929 nationwide, down from 5,139 in 2005.
Yosemite National Park, which is 180 miles east of the San Francisco Bay Area in the Sierra Nevada, consists of 1,200 square miles of skip-a-heartbeat terrain, including, near its southern entrance, Mariposa Grove, one of the few natural forests of giant sequoia in the world.
Don Neubacher, Yosemite superintendent, calls its condition “an embarrassment.”
“We just made a lot of mistakes there,” he said. “We didn’t know better.”
For generations these towering trees — Sequoiadendron giganteum can grow to more than 250 feet — have endured man’s folly. In the 1800s they were chopped for shingles, posts, pencils and souvenirs. Tunnels were carved through others for tourist amusement. For 100 years, Yosemite rangers doused fires, before learning that these redwoods — with fire-resistant bark — need fire to punch holes in the forest canopies, clear soil and spread seeds the size of oat flakes.
Also harmful, Yosemite added a 115-car parking lot and a road, not recognizing that pavement interferes with the hydrology of the nearly 2,000-year-old trees.
“There is the possibility of slow death of some of the trees,” Neubacher said.
Giant sequoias can be planted and thrive elsewhere, but it is only along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, with its elevation and snowpack, that they naturally regenerate. For nearly 50 years, officials have wanted to return the grove to a more natural state.
“If we believe Mariposa Grove is important to save, then we’ve got to look at outside sources,” Neubacher said.
Funding the park
Yosemite National Park and the Yosemite Conservancy have a particularly close relationship. Mike Tollefson became president of the conservancy in 2009, after retiring as Yosemite superintendent. His organization contributes $5 million to $10 million a year to Yosemite.
“We are concerned about these trees if the climate is going to be changing dramatically,” said Sue Beatty, a Yosemite restoration ecologist and deputy project manager, adding that the planned improvements would make the trees more “resilient.”
By rerouting walkways, tourists will no longer trample 200-foot shallow roots, and by removing the road, the diversion of water from the trees will come to a halt.
Some giant sequoias each require an impressive 1,000 gallons of water a day, said Nathan Stephenson, research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The newly designed grove, as envisioned by landscape architects paid by the Yosemite Conservancy, is expected to be a quieter and more spiritual place.
“We want it to be like you’re entering a cathedral, so you have respect for the trees,” Beatty said. The problem, she said, “We didn’t have the money to do it.”
Yosemite’s budget, which includes federal appropriations, charitable contributions and 80 percent of entrance fees, is $80 million to $90 million annually, down from $100 million in 2009, said Kari Cobb, Yosemite public affairs specialist.
Yosemite has adapted to the new fiscal reality. Bathroom cleaning and garbage pickup are done once a day instead of twice, said Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesman. Volunteers, supervised by park rangers, remove invasive species, a job formerly done by rangers. At Mariposa Grove, nature walks led by park rangers — which five years ago operated five months a year — are given only for 2 1/2 months.
Shenk, the park ranger who supervises Mariposa Grove’s interpretive guides, said he teaches visitors about “the great size, great age of these trees,” adding, “and yet they’re surprisingly fragile. It’s difficult for them to naturally produce.”
Once the pavement is gone, he said, people will see “the majesty of the grove.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns, who produced a series of national park documentaries and a short film about Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley, paid for by the Yosemite Conservancy, said, “This is one of my favorite spots in my favorite place on Earth.”
The grove presents a paradox, he said: “You can feel small next to the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, and yet you’re inspirited.”
Burns blamed “an anti-government movement” for interfering with the mission of the national parks.
“People believe government should do just about nothing,” he said. “We think national parks are America’s best idea.”
On June 30, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation preserving Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley for public use “inalienable for all time.”
Photographs of the ancient trees — more than of Yosemite Valley — persuaded the president and members of Congress, none of whom had visited Yosemite, to support the legislation, said Dayton Duncan, co-producer with Burns of the national park documentaries and the author a book about Yosemite, “Seed of the Future,” paid for by Yosemite Conservancy. The Yosemite legislation is considered the birth certificate of the national parks concept, which began in the United States and spread worldwide.
Not everyone approves of the current public-private partnership.
“We’re dodging our national responsibility,” said Alfred Runte, a national parks historian, the author of “Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness,” and a former Yosemite ranger.
“In no way were these friends groups supposed to substitute for uniformed rangers or congressional appropriations,” Runte said.
Well-intentioned volunteers, he said, “are taking away park ranger jobs from educated young men and women.”
At other national parks, friends groups also are playing an enlarged role. The Grand Canyon Association restores backcountry trails and renovated the trailhead at Bright Angel Trail, the well-trod path to the canyon, with new bathrooms, seating, shade structure, parking and stone masonry walls. The most successful of these groups, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, has donated $300 million to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1981.
“Philanthropy has been there from the beginning,” said Greg Moore, executive director of the Golden Gate conservancy. “It seems more important as the system has grown and federal dollars are not growing.”