Yosemite spends $40 million to protect 500 giant sequoias

mariposa grove
© Christophe Testi

The restoration of Mariposa Grove, which harbors 1,800-year-old trees, included replacing asphalt with walking paths and removing commercial activities from the grove.

In 1864, when land must have seemed plentiful and trees didn't generate the advocacy they do today, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, protecting an ancient grove of giant sequoias and Yosemite Valley in general. Even before the establishment of the national park system, this act was the first in the nation’s history created to ensure that "public use, resort, and recreation" of this natural wonder could endure.

The collection of trees that inspired it all is the iconic Mariposa Grove. Located in the southern part of Yosemite, this exquisite spot plays home to 500 ancient giant sequoias.

And giant sequoias, Sequoiadendron giganteum, are some of the most remarkable organisms in the world. They can live up to 3,000 years – and while they are not the tallest trees known, they are the largest by cubic volume. One old-timer in Sequoia National Park, the General Sherman, is not only the largest living tree, but the largest living organism, by volume, on the planet. At 2,100 years old, it weighs 2.7 million pounds, is 275 feet tall and has a 102-foot circumference at the ground. It has branches that are almost 7 feet in diameter.

Unfortunately for the grove, its popularity drew tourists from the world over. In the earliest days of tree tourism, to attract visitors holes were tunneled through giant tree trunks for cars to drive through. Nowadays, more than 7,000 cars can infest Yosemite on the busiest summer days, many of them carrying people intent on reveling in the wonder of the giants. Which means roads were built, gift shops were inserted, and exhaust-spewing trams were sent scuttling through the trees. The shallow root systems were feeling the strain of all that asphalt; they were having trouble getting the water they needed. Seriously, there's only so much assault a several-thousand-year-old tree can take.

Enter the Mariposa Grove Restoration Project. The Mariposa Grove Restoration Project Final Environmental Impact Statement helped lay the formal plans in 2013; work began in 2015. The goals were to improve giant sequoia habitat and improve visitor experience. After $40 million dollars and years of work, the Mariposa Grove reopened on June 15, 2018.

“As the largest protection, restoration and improvement project in park history, this milestone reflects the unbridled passion so many people have to care for Yosemite so that future generations can experience majestic places like Mariposa Grove,” said Yosemite National Park Superintendent Michael Reynolds in a statement from the park. “These trees sowed the seeds of the national park idea in the 1800s and because of this incredible project it will remain one of the world’s most significant natural and cultural resources.”

National Park Service describes some of the project highlights:

• Restoring giant sequoia and associated wetland habitat
• Realigning roads and trails that were located in sensitive sequoia habitat
• Constructing a welcome plaza near South Entrance, which allowed for the relocation of the parking area from Mariposa Grove
• Adding a shuttle service between the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and Mariposa Grove Arrival Area
• Building accessible trails to allow for improved access without impacting sequoias and other sensitive areas
• Restoring natural hydrology
• Improving orientation and wayfinding
• Removing commercial activities from the Grove such as the gift shop and tram tours

And what a heartening thing it is to see. We have been utterly wretched in our treatment of trees. Take the coast redwoods – the giant sequoia's siblings and the tallest trees in the world. Before the 1850s, coast redwoods lived amongst 2 million acres of California’s coast. After the Gold Rush and unabated lumber lust, now only 5 percent of the original old-growth coast redwood forest remains, fewer than 100,000 acres dotted along the coast.

All of these ancient giants have stood ground for thousands of years and will live long after we do ... as long as don't kill them first. Hats off to the Yosemite Conservancy and everyone who made this restoration project happen.

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