Yosemite Sesquicentennial Celebration
Yosemite National Park
June 30, 2014
I want to thank all of you who have worked so long and hard to make this sesquicentennial celebration of the original Yosemite Grant Act so moving.
The earliest description of this valley comes to us from Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion that pursued a band of Ahwaneechies into the valley in 1851.
He wrote, “Domes, peaks, spires, and cliffs were capped with fresh snow, their walls and slopes dappled with it, marking in strong relief the various sculptured forms. Some were veiled in wisps of cloud, others seemed to rise from a deep blue haze, giving the whole a drifting unreal quality, like a vision…on every side astonished by the size of the cliffs and the number and heights of the waterfalls, which constantly challenged our attention and admiration.”
Word for word that description remains as accurate today as it did then, because of the Yosemite Grant Act that we celebrate today.
Amidst all the destruction and ugliness and horror of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln paused for a moment to sign an act that set aside something so wonderful and beautiful and serene.
He did this “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation (and) shall be inalienable for all time.”
The afternoon of the day he died, Lincoln told Mary that he wanted to see California when the term ended four years later. There can be no doubt the fabled Yosemite Valley was on his mind.
Four years later, John Muir came to see Yosemite Valley for himself, and there he had his own awakening, resolved for the rest of his life to evangelize for Yosemite. “Heaven knows,” he wrote, “that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I am to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.”
Two years after Muir’s death, the National Park Service was created and Yosemite was entrusted to its care. I want to recognize the Yosemite Park Rangers who have ever since welcomed and encouraged succeeding generations of Americans who come to Yosemite.
I have seen the commitment they make on a daily basis to the people who come here to visit. They always stop what they are doing in order to answer questions or help guide a tourist in need of directions. They are the gracious hosts of the grandeur that is Yosemite.
The Organic Act of 1916 that created the National Park Service further underscored that its purpose was not to shut off and close these natural wonders – but rather to open them for the use and enjoyment of the general public, in the words of the act: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same.”
In the view of these visionaries, preserving these resources for future generations did not mean closing them to the current generation.
On the contrary, Muir wanted people to come here to enjoy themselves, knowing that they would go away with fond memories, happy experiences, resolved to return again and again – drawn by the beauty of the valley and their own pleasant time in it -- and resolved to preserve it so that their children and their children’s children could share that experience.
“We saw another party of tourists today.” John Muir wrote in his diary. “Somehow most of these travelers seem to care but little for the glorious objects around them, though enough to spend time and money and endure long rides to see the famous Valley. And when they are fairly within the mighty walls of the temple and hear the psalms of the falls, they will forget themselves and become devout. Blessed indeed would be every pilgrim in these holy mountains…The valley is full of people, but they do not annoy me.”
The Yosemite Grant Act established Yosemite as a public trust, which was itself revolutionary. The Norman and Plantagenet kings of old set aside vast tracts of land as their exclusive province, in which only a select few with their blessing could enjoy.
The Yosemite Grant was the very opposite of that – it set aside the most beautiful land in the nation entirely for the people.
Author Peter Hoss noted Lincoln’s maxim “of the people, by the people and for the people” completely describes the philosophy behind the founding of this park.
And whenever there is question of its meaning, we can turn to the words of the Yosemite Grant Act and the early advocates of public access and preservation who set in motion the events we honor, celebrate, and rejoice in 150 years later.
This anniversary is not being celebrated just here in the park, but in many of the communities that surround it, a reminder of the very important role that tourism plays in this entire region of California.
All these communities and the local businesses that support them, are vital elements of the never-ending campaign to promote the park, and they are the most passionate advocates for preserving the Yosemite experience. Their voices, too, must be heard.
A half century from now, another assemblage will gather here to celebrate Yosemite’s bi-centennial. Much in the world will have changed by then, but the tumbling rivers, soaring trees and granite walls will look as they do today. A new generation that has reveled and recreated in its beauty will gather here then to renew the promise of “public use, resort and recreation…inalienable…for all time.
One thinks of the millions of treasured photos, some sepia-toned with age, others bright new digital images, that occupy an honored space in family scrapbooks throughout the world. Even more treasured are the tales told of epic vacations, horseback rides, biking trips, rafting adventures, family hikes up misty waterfalls, pleasant stays in local lodges or rustic camping trips under the stars. That is the vital connection between the human experience and the natural one – a connection that renews the former and preserves the latter.
The world comes to tell old stories and create new ones. The world comes to extoll the story of Yosemite.