Project turns back time for Yosemite’s ancient trees

11/10/2013 10:00 PM

11/10/2013 10:33 PM

Pavement runs right up to the cinnamon-colored foot of a massive tree that claimed this spot more than 1,000 years ago.

The road is so close that this giant sequoia sometimes goes unnoticed by hikers, who are dodging trams loaded with tourists in Yosemite National Park’s largest grove of the big trees. It’s not working for tourists or nature.

“The tree is among a lovely grouping of five giants in the little wetland next to the tram road,” Yosemite botanist Lisa Acree said. “The trees send out thousands of seeds each year, but a lot of them land on asphalt.”

The National Park Service has a $24 million idea to move the pavement off the toes of the big trees on the southern part of the Mariposa Grove. The road will disappear, and so will parking lots and the gift store.

Welcome to the Mariposa Grove restoration project, turning back time by backing off cars, buildings and pavement at a place where 500 mature giants have lived for centuries.

The project will move most parking and traffic two miles away to Yosemite’s South Entrance at Highway 41. During the busy summer season, shuttle bus service will run between the South Entrance and the Mariposa Grove.

Though most parking will be relocated to the South Entrance, a limited number of parking spaces will be provided in the grove area and at the picnic area for use when the shuttle is not in operation.

Boardwalks will be built to let people pass through sensitive areas without harming the ecosystem beneath.

This isn’t a tree-hugging restoration. This is a plan to protect part of American history. The Mariposa Grove is one of two places in Yosemite where the nation’s idea of national parks took root.

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant, protecting both the grove and Yosemite Valley. The Park Service intends to kick off the Mariposa Grove project June 30, the 150th anniversary of the signing.

“This is such a beautiful and important place,” said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. “The restoration project will protect it for future generations.”

Much of the funding for the project depends on a familiar park supporter — the Yosemite Conservancy, based in San Francisco. The conservancy and its predecessor, the Yosemite Fund, have chipped in millions of dollars for major face-lifts all over the park, including Yosemite Falls, Tunnel View and Olmsted Point.

The conservancy is expected to kick off a campaign next year to raise $20 million. The remaining $4 million for the project will come from the federal government.

Conservancy President Michael Tollefson, who was once superintendent of Yosemite, said the Mariposa Grove project will be a major accomplishment for nature and visitors.

“People are going to love it,” he said.

The public has been involved in the planning for the past two years. A draft of the plan was released Nov. 1. It is expected to be accepted as the final plan by December. Work would begin next summer, and completion is anticipated in two to three years.

When it’s finished, the Mariposa Grove – which is among the world’s 65 remaining natural groves of giant sequoia – will be far more natural. The restoration should unravel decades of diverted and unnatural water flow created by roads, parking lots and culverts.

Giant sequoias thrive in a damp, narrow slice of the western Sierra Nevada, generally between 4,500 and 7,000 feet, relying on meadows to support their extensive and shallow roots.

They grow into the largest trees in the world, as well as being among the oldest. The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest tree in the world with a circumference of 102.6 feet at ground level. The Sherman is estimated to be more than 2,000 years old, but there are giant sequoias that are more than 3,000 years old.

The Sherman is in Giant Forest, where the Park Service removed pavement and buildings in the 1990s. Doing so was a good idea, said giant sequoia expert Nathan Stephenson of the U.S. Geological Survey’s field station in Three Rivers.

Stephenson, a research ecologist, said pavement tends to warm up the ground below and accelerate the growth of giant sequoias. But it also sets the stage for root rot.

“One of the main killers of sequoias is root rot, which can weaken a sequoia’s root system until the sequoia finally falls,” he said.

At the same time, any tree that lives for thousands of years is amazingly resilient, said Yosemite botanist Acree, who has worked for many months on the restoration plan.

Walking through the Mariposa Grove last week, she pointed out the thick, red bark on the Grizzly Giant in the south grove. The Grizzly has a massive fire scar, probably from a burning tree that fell at its base many years ago, she said. But the Grizzly tree survived.

Even when giant sequoias fall over and die, they remain in the ecosystem for centuries, providing shelter to insects, birds and a host of animals.

As Acree walked in the grove, someone pointed out a a pileated woodpecker hammering on a white fir among the giant sequoias in a meadow. She said such sightings are part of the lure for visitors.

“The restoration here will give people a chance to focus more on these natural processes,” Acree said. “Just look at the diversity. It’s a fascinating place.”

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