Giant sequoia in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner

I visited Yosemite National Park recently. I was dismayed to see the logging of large trees in the valley. According to the Park Superintendent, the justification for logging is “to use every tool at our disposal to save the forests and to save the park and to restore a healthy ecosystem and to keep people safe.”

The proposed logging has been temporarily halted by a lawsuit from the John Muir Project.

Log piles and logging road below El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley. Photo George Wuerthner 

The National Park Service (NPS) also says they are “restoring a historical view” as if the fact that trees have grown up obscuring the vista is somehow part of the NPS mandate. (Maybe we should restore the “historic” view of grizzly bears feeding at the dumps in Yellowstone too.)

The NPS justifies some logging to “restore” the view of El Capitan. Those pesky trees get in the way. Photo George Wuerthner 

Indeed, much of the justification for logging is to “restore” the forest to its “historic” condition created by Indian burning. However, there are numerous problems with this goal.

Debris (read carbon storage) left after commercial logging in the Yosemite Valley. Photo George Wuerthner 

Proponents of logging and prescribed burning suggest they are recreating historical forest conditions and assert that today’s forest stands are overly dense and, thus, more susceptible to mortality from fire, drought, and insects.

However, some ecologists question those assumptions and claim that the common assertion that forests were more open and park-like is an exaggeration and misinterpretation of early forest surveys.

The Park Service has no idea which trees are genetically adapted to survive fire, insects or drought. Photo George Wuerthner 

Natural evolutionary processes like drought, insects, and wildfire tend to “thin” the forests and are much better at picking the specific individuals with or without adaptations to survive under the new climatic conditions.

Some of the trees cut are large, fire resistant trees. Photo George Wuerthner 

The fundamental issue is whether the Park Service should be a gardener or a guardian. The logging of forests to “restore” them is like the gardener weeding a vegetable patch. It may be appropriate where humans are trying to favor certain plants over others, but is this the mission of the NPS?

Rationalizing logging and burning because Indians once manipulated the Yosemite landscape is a dangerous premise. Why just Indians? Ranchers also grazed Yosemite’s meadows. Shouldn’t we “restore” the meadows with sheep?

Logging and even prescribed burning are human manipulations of the forest. The underlying premise behind such activities is that forests can’t survive without human interference –a very arrogant assumption. Photo George Wuerthner 

All these kinds of justifications for human manipulation assume that forests cannot possibly survive without human interference.

However, humans only colonized North America perhaps 15,000 years ago, but the forests in the Sierra Nevada existed for millions of years without any human manipulation. They did just fine without human interference.

Furthermore, there is a lot of debate about the actual influence of Indian burning on the landscape, both in Yosemite and elsewhere.

For example, Vachula et al. reviewed the fire history of what is now Yosemite National Park, where, historically, large Indigenous communities resided. Their research found a direct correlation between climate and the amount of burning on the landscape.

While Indian burning near settlements in the Yosemite Valley likely influenced fire regimes, the climate still largely influenced fire at local and regional scales. Photo George Wuerthner

“We analyzed charcoal preserved in lake sediments from Yosemite National Park and spanning the last 1400 years to reconstruct local and regional areas burned. Warm and dry climates promoted burning at both local and regional scales….”

The researchers say, ” Regional area burned peaked during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and declined during the last millennium, as the climate became cooler and wetter and Native American burning declined.”

They concluded with: “Our record indicates that (1) climate changes influenced burning at all spatial scales, (2) Native American influences appear to have been limited to local scales, but (3) high Miwok populations resulted in fire even during periods of climate conditions unfavorable to fires. However, at the regional scale (< 150 km from the lake), fire was generally controlled by the top-down influence of climate.”

Earlier, geographer Thomas Vale came to similar conclusions.

The question is whether our national parks are supposed to be “museum pieces” or places where evolutionary and ecological processes prevail.

If it is the latter, then “saving” forests from wildfire by logging contradicts this goal.

For one thing, the NPS, like the Forest Service, has no idea which trees have evolutionary and genetic adaptations to wildfire, insects, drought, and other sources of mortality. Random removal of trees could eliminate rare genetic alleles and degrade the resilience of the forest ecosystem.

Down wood and snags continue to store carbon for decades if not centuries. Photo George Wuerthner 

Furthermore, it is essential to note that evolutionary and natural processes like wildfire produces substantial amounts of snags and down logs which are critical to ecosystem health. The idea that dead trees represent “unhealthy” conditions is an Industrial Forestry perspective and has no place in a national park.

In addition, both live and dead trees store carbon. Logging has been shown to increase carbon emissions, and most studies that proclaim to “save” trees never consider the loss of trees (and carbon storage) that is a consequence of thinning/logging projects.

Large logs removed as part of “thinning” operations. Photo George Wuerthner

I understand why Park administrators may be nervous about wildfires in Yosemite Valley. However, if a blaze were to start under extreme fire conditions with high winds, low humidity, and high temperatures, it might be impossible to get people safely out of the valley.

All the Yosemite entrances involve driving on twisty mountain roads. All it would take to stop traffic is for one or two cars to run out of gas and be abandoned on the road. In addition, people fleeing a wildfire are likely to drive exceptionally fast, increasing the possibility of accidents or even the car and passengers flying off the side of a cliff.

However, unless you log all the trees and pave the valley, there will always be the risk of a major conflagration. Research has shown that logging not only does not preclude large blazes but can favor them, with protected areas typically having less severe fires than previously logged areas.

The more significant danger I see with the Yosemite logging program is its threat to the National Park mandate to preserve ecological function and evolutionary processes. Wildfire is one of those processes. The drought conditions now dominating the West create favorable conditions for massive wildfires. Wildfires and other sources of mortality represent the landscape “adapting” to the new climate realities.

Where the 237,000 acre Rim Fire of 2013 burned into the Tuolume Sequoia Grove in Yosemite NP. Photo George Wuerthner 

I understand the desire to preserve sequoia groves through prescribed burning, setting up sprinklers, and doing whatever it takes to protect these giants. There are only 75 sequoia groves in the entire Sierra Nevada. Perhaps in those rare situations, such manipulation might be justified (depending on precisely what is proposed) just as we might want to preserve the last condors by captive breeding.

However, most of Yosemite’s forests do not consist of relatively rare trees like a sequoia.

The red areas of this map which includes Yosemite NP shows that much of the West is experiencing the worse drought in over 1200 years. And climate change, not fuels, is responsible for large blazes. 

Rather than manipulate the forests, Yosemite National Park should stand back and let natural processes determine the density of trees, which species are best suited to the new realities, and watch the results.

Ultimately, we cannot manipulate (by logging or burning) our way out of the current climate warming scenario. Our best alternative is to preserve natural processes, not museum pieces.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

10 Responses to Yosemite and Logging in the Park

  1. Ed Loosli says:

    Thanks for continuing to educate us…. I am totally surprised that Yosemite National Park has never been designated as a Wilderness Area under the Wilderness Act. It should be official Wilderness, which would preclude logging and other human manipulations of nature.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      Yellowstone National Park too has never been designated wilderness. Many years ago I was part of a wilderness strategy meeting where leaders in four or five groups participated. It was argued in the meeting that while designating the undeveloped parts of the Park as official legal wilderness was an idea worth supporting, at the time it was more important to use the Act to get protection for other undeveloped public lands — “roadless areas” — that were more immediately threatened by development (usually logging). I don’t recall if this kind of prioritization in the matter worked, but we all know that wilderness in Yellowstone Park was never even taken up by Congress.

      • Graig Britten says:

        Current climate change is a massive human manipulation of the environment. As was over a century of surprising fired. And settlers blowing a gap in the moraine by El Cap also enhanced the loss of Meadows in The Valley.
        And yes The Park Service does have evidence of which trees survive fire better than others.
        And the authors logic would say that yes we should have continued to feed bears in Yosemite and Yellowstone because current human behaviors should just be treated as something the rest of nature should adapt to.

    • Michael Kellett says:

      Actually, 94% of Yosemite National Park is designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act. That includes most of the park outside Yosemite Valley and road corridors. https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/yosemitewilderness.htm

      • Chris Zinda says:

        But, that Wilderness violates the Act because it’s trammelled (i.e. no carrying capacity for day use not to mention the cherry stemmed High Sierra Camps that should be eliminated).

        I see you run a group that wants to increase the number of parks. Curious your stance on carrying capacities, including advocating that the NPS adhere to the mandate to institute them as per the General Authorities Act of 1970 and reiterated through the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978.

  2. Thanks for this interesting article.

    Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, the National Park Service published a natural resources report that announced a radical departure from traditional conservation strategy that was based on an assumption that nature is static and evolution a historical event. “Resist-Accept-Direct—A framework for the 21st century resource manager” acknowledged that the rapidly changing climate requires a new approach based on the knowledge that nature is dynamic and evolution is a current and continuous event. Many other federal agencies participated in the preparation of the report, which implies that other federal agencies may adopt the new conservation strategy.

    Here’s the article on my website about this new policy: https://wp.me/pT04m-31m.
    Unfortunately, NPS and other federal agencies are so decentralized that the new policy doesn’t seem to influence what is still being done in national parks.

  3. Chris Zinda says:

    GW again conflates conservation and preservation.

    The NPS has a legislative mandate of conservation, not preservation. They ARE practicing conservation of the resource, largely for visitor use – another legislative mandate of which GW freely and with little restraint enjoys.

    GW not only conflates mandates that do not exist, but also continues to dicker over who is a better conservationist. Well, a better conservationist isn’t one at all. It’s better to be a preservationist – as GW only believes he is.

    • Michael Kellett says:

      Chris,

      You are free to define the terms “conservation” and “preservation” as you please. But the National Park Service Management Guidelines, which are what the agency follows, say (on pp. 10-11:
      https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1548/upload/ManagementPolicies2006.pdf

      “The fundamental purpose of the national park system, established by the Organic Act and reaffirmed by the General Authorities Act, as amended, begins with a mandate to conserve park resources and values. This mandate is independent of the separate prohibition on impairment and applies all the time with respect to all park resources and values, even when there is no risk that any park resources or values may be impaired. NPS managers must always seek ways to avoid, or to minimize to the greatest extent practicable, adverse impacts on park resources and values….

      “Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant. This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act.”

  4. Chris Zinda says:

    And, how do we disagree?

    I worked for the NPS including the Office of the Superintendent at YOSE. I trained hundreds of people in the NPS regarding it’s laws and mission.

    Conserve unimpaired and to provide for visitor use and enjoyment are the 1916 dual missions.

    So, as I said, there is no preservation mandate.

    My continued beef with GW – perhaps you, too, among others – is he implies and explicitly conflates conservation as preservation, that the NPS mission includes preservation. He continues to dicker or claim conservation as though the NPS isn’t doing just that.

    I believe NPS and Wilderness needs real preservation ethic. The Wilderness Act DOES include the word preservation in the Act; however, for the NPS legislation is needed to omit conservation and replace it with preservation. For the NPS today, that can be accomplished with carrying capacities as there are two existing legislative mandates and a number of judicial decrees – that the NPS continues to ignore (along with advocates like GW).

  5. Jeff Hoffman says:

    So now they’re killing trees in a National Park to preserve views for humans? What about the views of birds they eliminate by removing the trees? The human attitude toward the natural world and the life there, in this case trees, could not be more disgusting.

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