Behind the Story: The Plan to Save Yosemite by Cutting Down Trees


In the 1860s, photos of Yosemite Valley taken by Carleton Watkins helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to declare the land a protected public trust, a prelude to it becoming a national park.

The images showed the sheer face of Half Dome, Vernal Falls cascading over rocks, and the glassy and inviting Merced River.

Today, Garrett Dickman, a forest ecologist at Yosemite National Park, uses the same photographs for a very different purpose: determining which trees in the park should be felled.

“I will quite literally take the photo and look at where I think the view is and mark the trees that I think need to be removed to restore the vista,” Dickman told The New York Times.

My colleagues Thomas Fuller and Livia Albeck-Ripka wrote an article that published today about an effort to save Yosemite, one of America’s oldest national parks, from devastating fires by using chain saws. Rangers have been pruning trees in the park for as long as it has had roads, but these latest tree-cutting projects are of a much larger scale and scope, they report.

Recent megafires in California have made clear that our forests are overloaded with vegetation and primed to burn in a very hot and damaging way. Prescribed burns aren’t enough to thin forests anymore, Yosemite officials say, especially as the park seems perennially under siege by fire and smoke.

When Thomas traveled to the park last week to report this story, the Washburn fire was smoldering. Two days after he left, the Oak fire erupted. “Every time I go up there some part of the forest seems to be on fire,” Thomas told me.

But Yosemite’s plan is not without pushback. A judge this month temporarily halted the park’s tree-cutting efforts in response to a lawsuit filed by an environmental group based in Berkeley. The suit argues that the park did not properly review the impacts of that tree thinning.

The debate raises philosophical questions about what preservation really means, and how much humans should intervene. For thousands of years, forests were “preserved” through the regular use of fire by Native American tribes: Trees were spaced out, meadows were kept clear, water flowed more freely and underbrush was tamed, Thomas told me.

“The experts we spoke to say that the fire suppression of this past century has been a sharp departure — an aberration in terms of the timeline of human interaction with California forests,” he said. “Today’s park managers at Yosemite argue that they want to bring the forests back to the state they were under Native stewardship.”

The parks are being affected by not just decades of fire suppression, but also the impacts of global warming and of urban areas increasingly encroaching on undeveloped land, Livia added. The national parks are being greatly influenced by a number of human-driven forces, even if they’re unintentional.

Nate Stephenson, a scientist emeritus in forest ecology for the United States Geological Survey, told Livia, “The question becomes: Can we or should we do intentional interventions to counteract them?”

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Today’s tip comes from Elizabeth Naleway:

“My favorite place in the world, let alone California, is the Monterey Bay Area. I feel that my adoration for Monterey and Carmel was born before I was. My dad was stationed at Ford Ord and saw Jimi Hendrix among others play live at the Monterey Pop Festival during the Vietnam War. My family has visited this beautiful treasured place many times throughout the years and my attachment and appreciation for the area continues to grow. We lost my dad to cancer in November of 2021 and I like to think of his soul traveling as a bird over the Big Sur coastline. I will never leave California and am grateful every day for being born and raised here and for how many awesome places we have to visit and live.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Of the 13 authors nominated on Tuesday for this year’s Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, six are from the United States.

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