Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Yosemite—Protected Wilderness

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View at Midday, 2013; photo by David Iliff, Creative Commons License
On October 1, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing the country’s third national park at Yosemite. Congress had recognized Yosemite as worthy of protection since 1864, when in the midst of the Civil War it granted the magnificent and awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley and “the Land embracing the Mariposa Big Tree Grove” to the State of California “inalienable for all time.”

Passage of the 1890 act had followed persistent lobbying by conservationists, including the legendary naturalist John Muir and the magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson. They successfully campaigned to protect about two million acres of the High Sierra. But protection proved difficult alongside the demands of commercial interests, and campaigns for increased safeguarding became an ongoing focus.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Falls (River View), c.  1861; California Historical Society
Watkins’ artistic vision captured Yosemite’s sublimity and helped establish landscape photography
as an art form. His Yosemite images also provided the visual evidence that led to
preservation with passage of the 1864 Yosemite Grant Act.

Since 1895, John Muir had advocated receding the Valley to the federal government. While the government struggled to provide policies and protocols in Yosemite Park, the State of California had neglected the lands under its protection since 1864. Finally, in 1905 the state re-granted the land to the federal government, which formally accepted its management the following year. A decade later, when the National Park Service was established in 1916, Yosemite—“at the heart of America’s nascent national parks movement,” as the National Geographic has observed—was formally protected under a national park policy of preservation.

Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur’s 1931 statement holds true today: “One hundred years from now, as people look back on our use of this continent, we shall not be praised for our reckless use of its oil, nor the weakening of our watershed values through overgrazing, nor the loss of our forests; we shall be heartily damned for all these things. But we may take comfort in the knowledge that we shall certainly be thanked for the national parks.” 

President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and preservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club,
on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, 1903; courtesy of Library of Congress
Muir guided Roosevelt into the Yosemite wilderness and helped convince him to sign the 1906 legislation
that joined together the 1864 state grant lands and the 1890 national park lands.
Preservation and Landscape Architecture: Lawrence Halprin in Yosemite

One of the Valley’s major attractions is Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall. Descending over 2,000 feet from the Valley’s rim, its significance is evident in the human history of Yosemite: the Ahwahneechee, one of Yosemite’s native populations, inhabited a village near the base of the falls.

J. T. Boysen, Susie McGowan, of the Paiute tribe, with Daughter Sadie in Cradleboard
in Yosemite Valley, c. 1901; courtesy of National Park Service/Yosemite National Park/Yosemite Research Library
An iconic image of early Yosemite Native American life, this photograph of a mother and child
from the Paiute tribe features Yosemite Upper and Lower Falls in the background.
By the early 1990s, as in other areas of Yosemite, overcrowding, cracked pathways, and an overrun, noisy parking lot characterized deterioration and detracted from the area’s beauty.  In 2002, the National Park Service commissioned the celebrated landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009) to redesign the approach to Yosemite Falls from the Valley floor.

Renowned for his reinventions of public space, with a focus on how people move through them, Halprin’s works drew heavily from the natural environment.We have emerged from nature and we are her children,” he wrote.

A member of the Sierra Club, Halprin had strong personal and professional connections with Yosemite, bringing his children there for a month every summer when they were young. During these forays, he recalled in an oral history interview, “I learned more and more each time about this theory that nature makes itself into forms that nobody would have been able to think about. And that I needed to think about form making through energy in my designs.”

Lawrence Halprin, Yosemite Studies, 1970, watercolor over photocopy on paper;
courtesy of the Halprin Family Archive and Edward Cella Art + Architecture
“Studying the granite formations, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls [of Yosemite] and their evolution
has formed the basis of my design philosophy.” Lawrence Halprin
Though it is not always apparent, landscape architecture can play a significant role in wilderness preservation. Halprin’s renovation, the Yosemite Conservancy has noted, was “designed to enhance the wilderness experience and conceal the hand of design.”

For his Yosemite project, Halprin decided “to carry some of the qualities that I think about all the time, and that is that people should feel shifts in hiking, to sometimes sit, sometimes modify, sometimes see sun, sometimes see shade, sometimes walk around, and walk through a meadow, and to make this an experiential equivalency of what you really want to feel in a design. And so, all the way through, we took this not as one jammed walkway or hiking trail, but a trail which was almost like a symphony, stopping, moving, looking, listening, so on.” 

Halprin conducted workshops at Yosemite to learn how best to serve visitors’ needs. As he explained: “One of the things that I make a big point of how design should be, how designers should get at things . . . is to do workshops with the people who are going to inhabit these kinds of places. And a workshop is not a way of having people learn how to design. It’s how to learn how to do things that are going to be accomplished . . . but it’s their voice, because all of us are in charge of the environment, every single one of us in this world.”

Halprin’s redesign of the approach to Yosemite Falls; courtesy of yosemitehikes.com
Since 2005, visitors are greeted by Halprin’s trail system and visitors’ facilities.
Today, about four million people a year visit the iconic landscape of Yosemite National Park.
(Left) Halprin’s granite-and-log bus-stop shelter in Yosemite Falls; photo Greg Blazer. (Right) Halprin at left with Bob Hansen, then-president of the Yosemite Fund, c. 2005; courtesy of The Yosemite Fund.
“It was important that I achieve a contextual ‘rightness’ and design a combination that felt like the
work of nature rather than man.”—Lawrence Halprin
The resulting environmentally sensitive redesign and renovation—a three-year, $13.5 million project—included new trails, walls, bridges, benches, a shuttle stop, restroom, and the removal of the parking lot. Covering 52 acres, the project also featured restoration of native plants, braided streams, disability access, and interpretive displays about Yosemite’s history and Native American culture. As the Yosemite Conservancy has observed, Halprin, along with the National Park Service and the Conservancy, embarked “on an ambitious campaign to not only restore this area, but to set a new standard in landscape design and the visitor experience.” 

Learn more about Lawrence Halprin and his projects in CHS's forthcoming exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971, opening on January 21, 2016.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Cultural Landscape Foundation® Pioneers of American Landscape Design® Oral History Series: Lawrence Halprin Interview Transcript © 2009 The Cultural Landscape Foundation; https://tclf.org/sites/default/files/pioneers/oralhistory/Halprin-Transcript.pdf

John Isne, Our National Park Policy: A Critical History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press for Resources for the Future, 1961)

Leslie McGuire, ed., “In His Own Words; Profile: Lawrence Halprin FASLA, 1916 to 2009, from
Lawrence Halprin, Notebooks 1959–1971” (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1972); http://www.landscapeonline.com/research/article/12990

National Park Service, “Yosemite: Enabling Legislation,” http://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/management/enabling_leg.htm

Erik Skindrud, Yosemite Falls: Where Nature Meets the Crowd, http://www.landscapeonline.com/research/article/5409

National Geographic, “U.S. National Parks—In the Beginning,” http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/national-parks/early-history/

Yosemite Conservancy, “The Campaign for Yosemite Falls 2005,” http://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/visitor-enrichment/campaign-yosemite-falls-2005


On October 1, Yosemite National Park celebrates its 125th anniversary with a series of events, including a large public ceremony in Yosemite Valley: http://www.nps.gov/featurecontent/yose/anniversary/events/125th-anniversary-yosemite-national-park/index.html

Cover art by Thomas Killion

Winner of the Digital Book Award’s Best Cover Design
50% off Yosemite: A Storied Landscape, an innovative multimedia eBook created by Kerry Tremain and co-published by the California Historical Society and the award-winning digital publisher 36 Views. Published in conjunction with CHS’s exhibition Yosemite: A Storied Landscape (June 29, 2014–January 25, 2015) and the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act, the landmark preservation legislation that created the park, Yosemite: A Storied Landscape tells stories of Yosemite in words, pictures, videos, and interactive graphics and games that restore freshness, energy, fun, and intimacy to one of the most beloved places on earth.

20% of your purchase goes to support the Yosemite Conservancy’s work in the park.
Free for CHS members: email info@calhist.org and write “FREE EBOOK” in the subject line. www.californiahistoricalsociety.org

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