As Yosemite Park Turns 150, Charms And Challenges Endure In 1864, Abraham Lincoln set aside the nation's first federally-protected wilderness areas. Visitors have enjoyed Yosemite's wonders ever since — sometimes to the point of endangering them.
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As Yosemite Park Turns 150, Charms And Challenges Endure

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As Yosemite Park Turns 150, Charms And Challenges Endure

As Yosemite Park Turns 150, Charms And Challenges Endure

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now to a kind of heritage site here in the U.S. Yosemite National Park is celebrating a 150th anniversary of the law that preserved it. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, which planted the seeds for the National Park system.

For the last century and a half, visitors have been enjoying the natural wonders of the Yosemite and California's Sierra Nevada, from Half Dome to the giant sequoia grove. But 4 million visitors a year have made preservation difficult. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED has this report from Yosemite.

SASHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: It's nearing midnight and the full moon is bathing North America's tallest waterfall in its milky glow.

A few photographers have timed their visit to Yosemite so they can catch a glimpse of a rare phenomenon that's only visible when the moonlight catches the mist at the base of Yosemite Falls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That is really good. Oh, that's great.

MARK ZBOROWSKI: We're here taking the moonbow, which is basically a rainbow at night.

KHOKHA: Photographer Mark Zborowski explains that the naked eye just sees a thin, silvery band of moonbow, but a long exposure with a camera can capture the color.

ZBOROWSKI: Just a spectacular view, you know, you look up and you can see the ridges up high and the stars. It fills your eyes, you know, it gives you a lot to feed off of.

KHOKHA: Photography, in fact, has been key to Yosemite's allure. Historians think it may have helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to preserve a place he'd never visited.

DEAN SHENK: The first photographer who came to the Mariposa Grove in 1859 took a picture of the Grizzly Giant from the angle that we're looking at today.

KHOKHA: Ranger and park historian Dean Shenk walks towards one of Yosemite's most famous trees.

SHENK: The Grizzly Giant is in the neighborhood of the size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

KHOKHA: This grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite's iconic valley became the first federally protected wilderness areas when Lincoln signed the grant on June 30th, 1864.

SHENK: In the midst of our country's civil war, with all the bloodshed, all of the battle, all the anxiety, many of us would like to think that he took a moment and perhaps shook his head, or smiled, in just perhaps a sigh of pleasure.

KHOKHA: Shenk compares the idea of protecting these lands to the seed of a giant sequoia, which is as tiny as an oat flake.

SHENK: And so that seed planted by Lincoln's signature has expanded to the National Park system throughout America.

KHOKHA: But, Shenk points out, even those who urge Congress and Lincoln to preserve Yosemite warned that tourism had to be managed carefully.

That includes Fredrick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect who helped design New York's Central Park and helped oversee the Yosemite land-grant.

SHENK: Not only did he predict the millions of people in the future, but he also said, and so we must be aware of the capricious damage that one visitor might make, and then multiply it by the millions.

HELEN HOGAN COATS: I live right here on the highway that goes to Yosemite. So I see these buses go and go.

KHOKHA: Helen Hogan Coats was born in Yosemite in 1927. She's one of the oldest surviving Native Americans to grow up in the park.

COATS: And I tell my husband, there they go again. They're tromping down my ground again. They're just tromping her down. I said, why don't they give her a rest? They're making it into a Disneyland.

KHOKHA: Coats worked in the hotel laundry, washing sheets and as a babysitter for the children of Ansel Adams, the famed Yosemite photographer. She says she hopes visitors coming to commemorate Yosemite's history will stop for a while to think about what this place was like before white settlers arrived a century and a half ago.

COATS: I mean, don't just come in there and have a good time, you know, celebrating. You got to have a little spiritual way at looking at the rocks and the trees.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All aboard. All aboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

KHOKHA: Soon, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias will be a little less like Disneyland. The trams that snake through the trees on paved roads and the parking lots, built right on top of some of the Sequoia's delicate roots, will soon be removed. So will the gift shop.

National Park officials plan to restore the Grove as part of the anniversary celebration. Tourists will have to walk through the trees, much as the first visitors to Yosemite did 150 years ago.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

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