The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin River.So begins's Eric Michael Johnson's post, "Fire Over Ahwahnee: John Muir and the Decline of Yosemite", at his Primate Diaries blog at Scientific American. On said date American militia carried out a massacre of Ahwahneechee Indians who lived in the Yosemite Valley.
One month later, on January 13, 1851, by order of California Governor John McDougall and through a special act of the U.S. Congress, the Savage militia received federal and state support to “punish the offending tribes” in the region later to be renamed the Yosemite Valley. For the leadership of California’s newly established government the approach for dealing with the native population had become a “war of extermination.” For more than a decade afterwards the land between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers remained under permanent military occupation and eventually became a national park by order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
In his famous nineteenth-century travel writings in the Sierra Nevada Mountains Muir described Yosemite not just as a picturesque marvel of nature, but as something divine that was beyond human frailties. The landscape of the “Sierra Cathedral Mountains” was a “temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” he wrote. It was a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of man is visible upon it.”
It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels. He did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley its park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the U.S. and even the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.
It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855. “At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”
|David Iliff, Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley|
(License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)
However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later Clark found that Yosemite’s open meadowland had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.
These fires may also have played an important role in promoting biodiversity. In 1996 Anderson wrote the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s final report to U.S. Congress, co-authored with Californa State University, Fresno, archaeologist Michael Moratto. In their report the authors state that most plants useful to the tribes of the Sierra Nevada were shade-intolerant varieties that required regular burning in order to thrive. These species included deer grass for use in basketry, edible native grasses, as well as a variety bulb, corm, and tuber species. By setting intentional fires throughout the forest “gaps or grassy openings were created, maintained, or enlarged within diverse plant communities,” the authors wrote. “The result was that plant diversity was maximized.”
However, for Muir, as it was for many conservationists in the nineteenth century, these fires were “the great master-scourge of forests” and extinguishing their fury would be his divine mission. “Only fire,” he wrote in 1869, “threatens the existence of these noblest of God’s trees.” It wasn’t enough to simply keep loggers and shepherds from degrading the forest. They needed strict and unyielding protection. To that end Muir would advocate federal forest protection and fire suppression measures with every politician and government official who might listen.
In contrast to Muir’s advocacy of exclusion and suppression, Yosemite Park officials praised the logic of regular controlled burns “when the Indians were Commissioners” and stated that “absolute prevention of fires in these mountains will eventually lead to disastrous results.” But, for Muir, “the best service in forest protection—almost the only efficient service—is that rendered by the military.” Without enforcing the power to seal off protected forests from encroachment Muir feared that his ultimate goal of preservation would fail.
“One soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun,” he wrote, “would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices.”
In the end Muir’s position won out, supported as it was by such figures as then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, General William Jackson Palmer, and Captain George Anderson, the military official recently charged with protecting Yellowstone National Park.
Despite John Muir’s passionate desire to protect Yosemite’s magnificent trees, after 100 years of conservation the overall density among the 14 most abundant large-diameter species has declined by 30 percent. For Muir and his nineteenth century contemporaries, conservation meant “government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains.” This approach continues to be the standard model for conservation around the world. However, as in Yosemite, the global conservation effort has focused their attention on the idea of pristine wilderness to the exclusion of all other concerns, including those of the people who have lived there for centuries.
Just as there could have been for the Ahwahneechee in 1851, there is also an alternative today. Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, along with her colleague Tanya Hayes at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, conducted a study in 2007 that compared vegetation patterns throughout 84 forests in 15 separate countries, only half of which were under national protection. In a direct rebuff to the claims of contemporary conservationists, they found no significant differences in vegetation density between forests that were protected and those that were not. However, there was one criteria that made a difference: the direct involvement of local and indigenous populations. Those regions where local groups were able to define the rules for how their forest was managed had significantly higher vegetation densities than those that didn’t, regardless of their protection status.