Yosemite National Park / by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

First placed under protection in 1864, Yosemite National Park is one of the oldest

National Parks in existence, and its 747,956 acres encompass a vastly different ecosystem

than the Mojave Desert of Joshua Tree: the High Sierra. At its western entrance,

Yosemite is around 5000’ above sea level. At the eastern end, it’s nearly 10,000’ above

sea level. Traveling along the Tioga Road, which runs along the side of the mountains

above the Yosemite Valley and spans the width of the park, you can make the 5000’

climb, and witness the Sierra ecosystem’s transition from the ninety degree valleys of the

west to the year round snow capped mountains of the east. Along this fifty-six mile

stretch of road, you would be able to see environments similar to the ones you would see

if you travelled through the western coastal states from Mexico to Canada.

When Alexis and I first entered the park I was concerned; the road leading into

Yosemite was lined with the bare white skeletons of dead pine trees whose trunks

stretched skywards, but whose bare wilted branches reached down towards the earth like

so many clawed hands. Once inside the park, the first two miles of road were

accompanied by the charred trunks of trees and piles of blackened cinders bore testament

to the fires that burn in Yosemite throughout the summer months.

I soon found out there was no need to be concerned over the fire damage, as

wildfires play an essential role in the Yosemite ecosystem. The dying pine trees,

however, are a result of California’s fifth consecutive year of severe drought. Normally,

the drought itself wouldn’t be enough to kill off such large numbers of evergreens—over

29 million by conservative 2015 estimates—but the drought weakens the trees enough for

bark beetles to fatally infect them. The beetles bore into the bark of the pines and lay

their eggs, which hatch into larva that eat the cambium layer of the tree: the system that

transports vital nutrients throughout the entire plant.

The bark beetles are a natural part of California’s environment, and have been

around for centuries. Healthy trees are able to repel the beetles by producing pitch that

forces the beetles out of the holes they dig in the bark. Drought starved trees, however,

cannot produce this essential defense mechanism, and lose the battle to the bark beetle

every time. The bark beetle epidemic is not just affecting the evergreens of Yosemite, of

course, but those of the entire state of California. The beetle problem also appears as

though it will only get worse, as the drought shows no signs of ending, and with each

passing season the trees grow weaker.

Yosemite, which is about the size of Rhode Island, is home to over 400 species of

animals—some newly discovered and thought only to exist in the Yosemite

ecosystem—and over 1000 plant species. Unfortunately, some of these plant species are

being put at risk—by other plants. “On a global basis…the two great destroyers of

biodiversity are, first habitat destruction and, second, invasion by exotic species,” wrote

E. O. Wilson, a Harvard ecologist. His assertion rings true in Yosemite. Invasive plant

species are one of the largest threats to Yosemite’s biodiversity, and they arrive in the

park hidden on the socks, shoelaces, tires, and pet fur of the more than four million

visitors that make the pilgrimage to Yosemite annually.

The introduction of new plant life that aggressively replaces indigenous plant

life—the yellow star thistle is a prime example—has the potential to disrupt entire

ecosystems. Many insect species are highly specialized in their choice of food and

habitat, and if a spikey yellow flower overruns their particular food source or habitat we

could potentially be saying goodbye to an entire species of insect.

The Himalayan blackberry is another example of a plant that has run rampant

through the forests of Yosemite. The bush itself grows in thick, spikey brambles that can

obscure natural animal paths and choke out ground plants. Not everything in Yosemite

dislikes the bush however; black bears and park visitors alike are attracted to the

succulent berries that grow on the branches. Unfortunately, the blackberry’s preferred

habitat is the Yosemite Valley: the central hub of human activity in the park. This vastly

increases human and bear interaction, which puts both the bears and the park visitors at

risk.

Invasive plant species can also alter one of Yosemite’s most spontaneous and

essential environmental regulators: fire. Aggressively invasive species can cover vast

tracts of terrain, and can alter the pace, frequency, and intensity of the wildfires that bring

fresh slates of land to Yosemite. Fires play an integral role in the park’s ecosystem. The

giant sequoias in particular depend on the wildfires to clear out the organic litter on the

forest floor in order for their seeds to germinate. The giant sequoias grow in three

secluded groves in Yosemite and are only found in groves scattered along the western

slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The largest living things on earth by volume, the

giant sequoias once shared the earth with the dinosaurs. Now, they can be found in less

than seventy sparsely populated groves along the western coast of the United States.

To combat the problem of invasive plant species, Yosemite has its own Invasive

Plant Management Program that follows the tested principles of integrated pest

management. They work to prevent new invasions, eradicate existing infestations,

preserve native plant species, and implement the most appropriate control techniques for

each invasive plant species. The program has come a long way from civilian volunteers

who pulled bull thistle and Klamath weed by hand out of the endless fields of

wildflowers that stretch across Yosemite’s valley.

On a brisk Sunday morning in the middle of our stay at Yosemite, Alexis and I

rose at 3:30 in the morning to set out for Tunnel View to witness a sunrise in

Yosemite. When we arrived around 5:00am, more than half a dozen photographers

had already set their cameras up on their tripods and had staked out their spot for

the morning glory. By 5:45am, when beams of sunlight began to streak over the

crests of the mountains that surround the valley, there were more than two dozen

people pressed against the wall that kept them from falling down the mountain.

They watched silently as the cameras around them whirred and clicked, capturing

the Ultralight Beam that lit up the clouds—which crept slowly over the

mountaintops—in spectacular shades of gold.

As the light from the sun grew brighter, Alexis and I descended into the

valley amidst the gentle, far off roaring of the three major waterfalls that cascaded

down the mountainsides and fed the valley’s river. In midday the valley is packed

with visitors, but at this early hour of dawn Alexis and I could have been the only

people who had ever been there. Walking through a dew-laden field, we spotted

two stags calmly grazing on the tall wet grass. Their antlers were still covered in

velvet, which glowed softly in the morning light. Naturally, as curiosity and

anticipation will always drive us to do, we slowly inched closer as Alexis clicked

away on her camera catching their every move. To our surprise, the deer didn’t

seem to mind our approach at all. They occasionally regarded us with inquisitive

looks, but contentedly continued to munch on their breakfast. Careful not to

frighten them, Alexis and I mouthed exaggerated phrases to each other such as “Oh

my God!” and “This is amazing!” or “I can’t believe this!” We walked through the

field with the pair of deer for half an hour as the sun slowly rose and brightened

Yosemite Valley, sometimes coming close enough to touch them—but never doing

so.

It was perhaps a once in a lifetime moment, to be so close to something so

natural and wild, and experiencing it was breathtaking. These are the kind of

experiences that our National Parks provide their visitors every single day. Our

parks deepen our appreciation for nature and give us a chance to experience the

world as it once was: untouched by man. The National Parks are precious resources

that once lost, can never be replaced. It is our responsibility, as a national and

global community, to preserve these natural sanctuaries for the generations to

come, so that they too may experience a radiant unpolluted sunrise, or sit breathless

as they watch a normally skittish wild animal simply live its life just feet away from

them.