(Photo credit: Yosemite, courtesy Andrea Mann, Flickr Creative Commons)
It was on this day in 1890 that Yosemite National Park was created—26 years before a National Park Service even existed to protect and maintain it. Yosemite, along with Yellowstone, is often considered among the crown jewels of the national park system, and it’s one of the few parks that most Americans have likely heard of. It’s also one of the oldest, behind only Yellowstone, which was created in 1872.
The story of Yosemite has been told many, many times: the initial creation of the Yosemite Grant under Abraham Lincoln in 1864; the Supreme Court decisions in the 1880s that validated the removal of homesteaders, setting valuable land-use precedents that would apply to future public lands; the takeover of much of the present-day park by the federal government in 1890; the role of the U.S. Army’s 4th Cavalry in protecting the park in its early days; the efforts by Scottish-born naturalist John Muir to both popularize and protect the area’s natural beauty and biodiversity; the famous 1903 camping trip by Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt, which led to TR taking control of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove away from the state of California and placing them directly under federal protection; the bitter controversy over the Hetch Hetchy dam in the early 1900s; the huge expansion of visitation to the park as the park service built more roads to allow easier public access (itself a move that has sparked ongoing controversy and criticism).
In many ways Yosemite’s story is the story of the national parks. It’s also the story of the opening up of the American West, and the eventual protection of at least part of that vast area. In the process the Yosemite Valley has become one of the most iconic images of the grandeur of the American landscape, and it’s great that it had been preserved for the enjoyment of millions. One hundred and twenty three years after its national park designation, the park maintains its spell over the American spirit, attracting legions of visitors each year.
It’s just a shame that, thanks to today’s federal government shutdown, nobody can go visit the park and celebrate its birthday today.