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Year in Yosemite: A Walk with Giants

The California Tunnel Tree. Tunnel was carved through the tree in 1895 as a way to promote the grove. Originally, it could accommodate a car. Since that time, the bark has been growing inward in an attempt to close its wound.

Things move slowly around here. On October 13, 2010 the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County finally opened its doors. It took 17 years to plan and build. The museum celebrates the era when massive wooly mammoths, saber tooth cats and dire wolves roamed the region. Last Thursday, I joined two friends and spent the day wandering among the last living relics of that time.

Located just up the hill from our home in Yosemite National Park, the giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove represent just a tiny slice of the massive forests of sequoias that scientists believe once stretched across this part of California. Their growth is even slower than that of the Fossil Discovery Center. Stretching up and out at a rate of just inches a year, it has taken some of these beauties almost 3,000 years to reach their present girth and height. It was worth the wait. As their heartfelt guardian Galen Clark wrote more than 100 years ago, "Here it seems one is standing in a great temple, silent, restful, with the air seemingly filled with eternal peace."

The Grizzly. The first branch on the right has grown vertically. Its diameter is larger than the trunk of any non sequoia in the grove.

Not everyone saw it that way. Just a couple of miles away, in an area now called the Nelder Grove, the Madera Flume and Trading Company tried logging these giants. The results were disastrous. The trunks were so massive that it took days and several men with massive saws to cut down a single tree. When the sequoia fell, the ground shook with the intensity of an earthquake, shattering the tree into thousands of pieces -- useful for making only shingles, pencils and matchsticks.

Before speculators like the Madera Flume and Trading Company bought the land, the native peoples of the Sierra Nevada had respected the sequoia groves as sacred ground. Galen Clark saw them that way too. Exploring the Mariposa Grove for the first time in 1857, he became fairly obsessed with saving it. The idea was radical and new. No one in the history of the world had ever set aside land simply to protect and preserve it for all people, for all time. Yet, just seven years after Clark first laid eyes on the Mariposa Grove, Abraham Lincoln signed a land grant protecting it and Yosemite Valley from development.

Trio of Sequoias on the right dwarf neighboring trees. All photos by Jon Jay.

Ever since, people have been debating exactly what that means. Where does the balance between preservation, public enjoyment, and taking care of visitors' needs lie? What is it that has value? Access or true wilderness?

Wandering through the sequoia groves on a warm autumn day, I did not think of any of this. Like Mr. Clark, I stood "filled with a sense of awe and veneration, as if treading on hallowed ground." But while I felt blessed to be walking among these ancient giants, the pragmatic side of me realized that, like the saber tooth cats and the wooly mammoth, the Madera Flume and Trading Company is extinct. Mariposa County (which encompasses a great deal of Yosemite National Park) has seen logging companies, gold rush prospectors, and cattle ranchers all move on. Without the park, it would be as bereft of funds as the counties that surround it. It is almost completely dependent for its economic survival on the tourists that Yosemite National Park attracts. Which begs the question, was Galen Clark an enlightened preservationist or an economic genius?

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

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