FRESNO -- Yosemite Valley visitors don't generally gaze at El Capitan from the spot where Carleton E. Watkins took a photo of the soaring cliff in 1868 -- you can't see much now through a tangle of trees.
It's one of many iconic vistas in Yosemite National Park blocked by trees and brush. Officials say there are only a few places left with a view of both upper and lower Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfalls in North America.
Park officials plan to restore historic views of Yosemite landmarks over the next several years by cutting trees and burning brush.
Yosemite and many Sierra Nevada locations are overgrown, largely because the government did not understand how fire naturally thinned the forest decades ago. For many years, most fires were doused quickly, allowing heavy growth of incense cedar and white fir.
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Aside from providing more places to gawk, the clearing of vegetation might make roads safer by spreading out crowds over additional vista points, though that's not among the foremost goals of the project.
"It might help, because these sites are along well-traveled roads, like Tioga, Big Oak Flat, Glacier Point and the Valley Loop," said David Humphrey, Yosemite branch chief of history, architecture and landscapes.
The National Park Service has completed an environmental assessment of the plan to clear 181 historic vistas. The public can read it and comment online until Sept. 17. An open house is scheduled Aug. 25 in Yosemite Valley to discuss the scenic vista cleanup and other park plans.
It will take years to complete the work, officials said. Cost estimates will be established on a case-by-case basis, so officials don't yet know the price. But it could be many millions of dollars.
Thus far, there has not been much public opposition, though conservation groups are following the process. The plan's approach to restoring the vistas seems reasonable, said John Buckley of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, northwest of Yosemite.
Officials used old photos, artwork and documents to determine which sites were the most important. They won't cut down ancient trees, which can be several centuries old.
Buckley said his group won't take an official position until he has fully reviewed the 297-page plan. One possible issue is whether large trees of more recent vintage will be cut down to improve a view.
"For many Park visitors, trees 130 years old and 30 inches in diameter are impressive enough that they provide a scenic value by themselves," Buckley wrote in an e-mail. "Other people, including park staff, may feel that trees only 100 to 130 years old aren't really unique, so cutting them down to give a better view into the distance makes sense."
Two years ago, Yosemite officials chopped down three large pine trees to open up a jaw-dropping overlook of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. Visitors no longer must stand in tight groups peering between trees at the panorama, framed by El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall.
Tunnel View is where motorists emerge on Wawona Road after passing through the 4,230-foot Wawona Tunnel. The vista has been a favorite stopping place for many famous visitors, including John F. Kennedy in 1962 and Queen Elizabeth II of England in 1983.
"People were very pleased with the work done at Tunnel View," Humphrey said.
In Yosemite Valley, where photographer Watkins took his famous shot of El Capitan, the restored vista might become a new visitor favorite, officials said. The shot was featured on the one-cent stamp in the 1930s.
Another new favorite might be along Big Oak Flat Road, which runs through the park's northwest entrance. The road has a stunning view of Yosemite's granite high country, but the vista is obscured by more than 600 trees.
"The vista was called the North Country View many years ago, but you can't see it now," Humphrey said. "Views like these are part of the reason this park was established in the first place."