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This Week in History: the establishment of Yosemite National Part on 1 October 1890

ByWalter Kemp Bruce

Oct 11, 2019

A year ago the world was gripped by the nerve-racking rock-climbing film Free Solo (filmed on El Capitan in Yosemite). Another popular climbing film, Dawn Wall drew our attention to the same enormous rock face. Travis Scott even released a single titled ‘Yosemite’ supporting his number one album ‘Astroworld’. While the planet is torched with forest fires, and populations are wracked with fears about the effects of climate change on the natural environment, the relevance of Yosemite National Park is truly apparent. 

1 October marks the anniversary of the United States Congress’ decision to preserve 1,500 square miles of beautiful Californian scenery as a national park. In the making of this decision, John Muir, a pioneering conservationist from Dunbar, had lobbied Congress for a year.

In order to do this, Muir had exercised his influence intelligently. In 1989, he took Robert Underwood Johnston (the associate editor of the The Century Magazine) camping in Tuolumne Meadows. The purpose of this trip appears to have been that Muir wished to show Johnson the damage that sheep, or ‘hoofed locusts’ as he liked to call them, had done to the natural landscape.

Johnson was so affected by this trip that he committed to publish every article Muir wrote on the dangers of domesticated livestock to the conservation of the beautiful scenery of Sierra high country (in a bit of not-so-delightful irony Sierra High Country is now the name of a massive gas guzzling American 4×4). 

Under Muir’s influence, Johnson also committed to present a bill to Congress that would create Yosemite National Park. Recommendations made in Muir’s articles for The Century even ended up providing the framework for the bill that Congress passed in 1890. 

So For over a hundred years, the wonders of Yosemite have been protected by the state and enjoyed by its visitors; who now number over 3 million a year. Yosemite houses the Giant Sequoias, the largest trees on the planet. It is also home to Yosemite Falls, which at 2,425 feet is one of the tallest waterfalls on earth. And not least, its most famous sites, El Capitan and Half Dome: two monolithic granite walls which have served the world’s best rock climbers for decades. Alex Honnold’s terrifying free solo ascent of El Capitan may have put the fear of god in you, but the Oscar-winning film that documented it put the image of Yosemite in the minds of millions. 

At the same time, the rest of the natural world has languished in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, and the climate has been destabilising rapidly. Glaciers have shrunk more than we can comprehend. We are losing 20,000 square miles of the Amazon every year, and nearly a quarter of it is already gone. The projected impact of 1.5°C of global warming (only .5°C above current warming) puts 20-30 per cent of species at risk of extinction. Global sea levels have risen eight inches since 1880, and are projected another four feet by 2100. That is enough to swallow the Maldives. It is absurd to try to summarise the devastation of the planet since Congress passed this bill on Yosemite, the impact is just too great. 

With our knowledge of this history, we can recognise the magnificence of Muir’s impact on the world, and appreciate the tragic relevance of his fears. How amazing is it that the triumph of one man’s sheep-hating efforts, 128 years ago this Tuesday, could have had such an impact on the world. 

Today, Yosemite National Park is a beacon of hope in our complex relationship with nature, not just a landmark for sports like rock-climbing but a success story in the conservation and the protection of the natural world. Perhaps we should think about what we can learn from this moment in history, and about how we can emulate the great John Muir, who will rightfully be remembered as a great steward of our beautiful planet. 


Image: AngMoKio via Wikimedia

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