Monday, May 17, 2021

Yosemite Valley This Week: A Moment of Spring Richness and an Uncertain Future

 

I admit it. I fear what lies ahead. That's not the usual opening statement in a photo-essay of Yosemite Valley at its best moments. But that's the problem. I was there last week, when the heaviest snowmelt should have been weeks in the future. And the valley was at its best, a lovely escape from the summer-like heat of the Great Valley downstream.
But the peak runoff is not weeks in the future. It is probably already past. This year's snowpack was an unmitigated disaster. The few storms that did come dropped a bit of snow, enough in some years to get by, but very warm and dry conditions during April dropped the snowpack to around 5-10% of normal, or what passes for normal in these uncertain times. The snowpack would usually keep the famous waterfalls busy until mid-June or even July, but many of them may be dry within a few short weeks. And then the fires will come. I don't know what lies ahead for this most beautiful of valleys, but a disastrous fire has to be considered as a possibility.
The natural condition of the floor of Yosemite Valley has always been controlled by wildfire. Lightning strikes have caused fires for thousands of years, leaving the valley floor as a patchwork of open meadows with a few mature oaks and ponderosa capable of surviving the occasional grass fires. When humans first discovered the valley thousands of years ago, they continued the practice of burning the valley floor every few years. They had their motives of course; the acorns of the fire-resistant Black Oaks provided much of their diet, and the hunting of game was easier when the prey was in an open meadow rather than a deep forest.
When the valley was "saved" by turning it first into a state park in 1864 and later into a national park in 1890, fire suppression became the governing philosophy. The park's original 745 acres of meadows were invaded by young saplings and the 65 acres of meadows today represents only 7% or so of their original extent. It didn't help that drainage outlet of one of the wetland areas was dynamited to keep down the mosquito population.
Much of the valley floor has become a thicket of young and unhealthy conifer trees, a fire hazard of the highest order. The park service has come around to accept the need for fires in the management of the valley, but their success has been spotty and controversial. Prescribed fires have been done in some areas of the park, but more than one has gotten out of control and damaged structures. And prescribed fires are done when soil and fuel conditions are on the wet side. That is not the case at Yosemite this year.

An alternate practice was begun around a decade ago, and it too has been controversial. Instead of burning, the park service has been allowing tree-cutting to be done in some areas to remove the unhealthy trees. The buzz of chainsaws does not seem compatible with the general notion of "preserving" natural lands, but it may be a necessary evil. It led to an unexpected change for me as we visited the park last week.

Everyone always seems to be in a hurry as they scurry through the park looking for parking spots. The traffic was a problem because the free park shuttles weren't running due to the pandemic. So to see the many features of the valley, one had to park and hike quite some distance, or else drive from parking lot to parking lot looking for a good view. I was letting traffic pass by pulling into roadsides that normally don't offer much in the ways of views. But this time was different.
A lot of trees had been cleared from a pullout that I knew had never had much of a view before. No one else was there, but as I got out I could see something was different. The rocks above were, well, unexpected. I've struggled at times to get an interesting angle on the Cathedral Spires (above), but they were easily visible. And as I turned, I realized the Three Brothers were also in the open (below). 
And as I turned yet again, I had a full-on view of El Capitan that showed the full expanse of the cliff from the "Nose" to Horsetail Falls. The sawn-down trees in the foreground were perhaps a sad mess (that will be cured in time by natural forces of decay), but the view of the cliffs was dramatic and quite unexpected. We sat in the pull-out and enjoyed a quiet lunch.
The Pacific Dogwoods were in full bloom. The trees are a somewhat nondescript part of the understory for much of the year, but during the spring the flowers are dramatic (and for the biologists among you, I know that the big white petals are actually modified leaves or bracts, and that the true flowers are in the "button" in the middle). 
Our journey through the valley was our first in nearly a year. It included a stop at one of the most congested spots, but as is always true, there was a reason for its popularity. The Tunnel View is close to the spot where European colonizers first viewed the valley in 1851. The party, a militia trying to chase down a group of Ahwahnechee people, was largely unimpressed with the valley. But their medic, Lafayette Bunnell, was deeply moved by the sight, and later interviewed Chief Tenaya and others to learn what he could of the valley. He is credited with the names of many of the features, including the name of the valley itself. Yosemite seems to have been a derivative of the Miwok name for Grizzly Bear. Their actual name for the valley was "Ah-wah-nee".
So a hot and dry summer season looms. I hope for the best.

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