Wildfire menaces giant ancient tree of Yosemite

Years ago, some people in the then fledgling United States thought that sequoias were artificial; This plant was only a fantasy.

Then came a dramatic encounter during California’s gold rush, followed by exhibitions and extensive writing and art sent across the country to convince bark disbelievers that giant trees were real—and that their conservation should be vocally addressed.

Standing hundreds of feet tall and living for thousands of years, sequoias are over a century old national symbol. But now, fire is threatening more than 500 giant sequoias encircling Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove. Firefighters reported progress in containing the blaze Saturday, and Mariposa Grove has so far escaped serious damage.

The home of the famous “Grizzly Giant” is the largest in the park. At Monday’s community meeting, Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon called Mariposa Grove “a cornerstone of the entire national park system.”

It was closed on July 7 after visitors reported seeing smoke in the Washburn Trail area of ​​the park.

The Washburn fire is the latest in a series of wildfires in the western United States as climate change causes them to burn longer and hotter.

Last year, the KNP Complex and wind fires in the Sierra Nevada killed or burned thousands of giant sequoias and are expected to die in the coming years, according to the National Park Service. Sequoias are once again vulnerable to humans and lightning storms.

“It’s somewhat untouchable to see a sequoia that we think visitors come from all over the world without a magical icon,” said Sharon Miyako, Acting Branch Chief of Field Interpretation Operations at Yosemite.

After the area was sealed off, firefighters placed sprinklers around Grizzly Giant and Mariposa Grove Cabins, a grove protector and promoter appointed 100 years ago by Glenn Clark, Yosemite’s first custodian.

But the American Indian tribes saw the sequoias before Clark and other whites did.

There are seven tribes with ancestral ties to Yosemite who were stewards of the Mariposa grove before the ancient sequoias took root there, Miyako said.

“The tribals continue to play an ongoing role in using, tending and protecting the bush,” she said.

Clark first saw Mariposa Grove in 1855, traveling as part of a tourist party to California.

In the year Although there are some accounts of settlers seeing the sequoias as early as 1833, the gold rush that began in 1848 was the impetus for further discoveries, says historian Degan Miller, author of “This Wild Land: A Natural History of American Resistance.”

In the year In the early 1850s, Augustus Dowd, a hunter who helped feed gold miners, was chasing a grizzly bear when he discovered the sequoias in what is now Calaveras North Grove. At first, people did not believe that the trees he saw could be as tall as he observed.

All the early tales of the great size of the trees were considered exaggerations, and when discussing many feet the listener assumed they meant inches. Giant Sequoias of California.

Attempts to prove the existence of sequoias have led to calls for their preservation, and people around the world have been fascinated by them.

Dubbed the “Discovery Tree,” the tallest tree Dowd found was cut down and the bark shipped to New York City for exhibition. But the settlers in the east were not convinced.

A discovery tree stump that was once used as a dance floor can be seen today at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. As news of California’s big trees continued, a separate sequoia bark was removed and sent to New York for another exhibit, this one titled “Garden Wonders of the Golden Regions.”

Known as the “Mother of the Forest,” the tree has attracted considerable attention and public opposition to its destruction for display, prompting efforts to protect California’s sequoias.

“This was strong physical evidence that these things existed,” Miller said. “So we’ve got the evidence, but people are like, ‘Oh my God, why are we cutting these things?’

In the years that followed, many people, including Clark, became involved in conservation work.

The National Park Service says: “Within five years, Clark was instrumental in the development of what would later become Yosemite National Park.”

In the year In 1864, decades before Yosemite National Park and the National Park Service were established, President Abraham Lincoln signed a deed deeding Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California for “public use, recreation, and recreation.”

The Grove has gained popularity as a destination for tourists, environmentalists, painters and photographers. The grizzly giant won the admiration of many, including Theodore Roosevelt, who camped under the tree in 1903.

“That’s when he came up with a lot of his ideas to give us some of the conservation-minded laws that he passed,” said John Wollman, an interpretive park ranger for the Park Service in Yosemite.

Wollman, who has worked at the park since 2009, said the Grizzly Giant stands out even among the other giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove.

The tree, estimated to be about 3,000 years old, is 209 feet tall and has branches six feet in diameter. It is the second largest tree in Yosemite.

“The character it gives off is so different from any tree I’ve ever seen,” Wollman said. “It’s part of it.”

For decades, rangers like Wollman and Miyako have been guiding visitors through the grove, bending their heads in search of treetops.

On the tour, the rangers’ stories always had a common theme when it came to sequoias and fire — resilience. Miyako says how fire helps the trees release seeds more easily, and how they have survived multiple lightning strikes over thousands of years.

But those stories now include a more interesting fact. Some estimates show that wildfires killed nearly a fifth of the world’s sequoias last year. They begin to question that resilience, something Miyako never thought would happen.

“When I first started here, the idea of ​​seeing the sequoias scared me, the idea that we were telling people we were going to close the group to fire and that we had to put in some protection for the sequoias, that was unthinkable,” she said. And now it has become something we see every year.

And what is the cause of these intensified threats? People. It’s a point Woolman tries to make on every tour he gives now.

“Decisions we make miles, sometimes hundreds, thousands of miles away from these magnificent trees ultimately have an impact,” he said.

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