The redwoods, which stand hundreds of feet tall and live for thousands of years, have been a national landmark for more than a century. But now a fire threatens more than 500 giant sequoias as it encircles Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove.
Home to the famous “Grizzly Giant”, the grove is the largest in the park. At a community meeting on Monday, Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon called Mariposa Grove “the root of the entire national park system.”
It closed July 7 after visitors reported seeing smoke near the park’s Washburn Trail.
The Washburn Fire is the latest in a series of fires across the western United States as climate change has allowed them to burn longer and hotter.
Last year, the KNP complex and the Windy Fire in the Sierra Nevada killed or burned thousands of giant sequoias so badly that they are expected to die in years to come, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Redwoods that have withstood humanity and storms are vulnerable again as the Washburn Fire continues to burn.
“Our visitors come from all over the world to see a magical icon like the redwood that we thought was, to some degree, untouchable,” said Sharon Miyako, acting chief of interpretive field operations at Yosemite.
Last week, firefighters placed sprinklers around the Grizzly Giant and Mariposa Grove cabin, built more than 100 years ago by Galen Clark, a grove protector and promoter who was named Yosemite’s first caretaker.
But Native American tribes in the area had spotted redwoods long before Clark and other white people.
There are seven Native American tribes with ancestral ties to Yosemite who were stewards of Mariposa Grove before the oldest redwood trees took root there, Miyako said.
“The tribes continue to play an ongoing role in the use, management and protection of the grove,” she said.
Clark first saw Mariposa Grove in 1855, when he traveled to California as part of a tourist party.
Although there are reports of white people spotting redwoods as early as 1833, the gold rush, which began in 1848, provided the impetus for new discoveries, said Daegan Miller, historian and author of “This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent.”
In the early 1850s, Augustus Dowd, a hunter who helped feed gold miners, was chasing a grizzly bear when he encountered redwoods in what is now Calaveras North Grove. At first, people didn’t believe that the trees he saw could really be as tall as he observed them.
“All early accounts of the great size of trees were considered exaggerations, and whenever tens of feet were discussed the listener thought they were inches,” wrote Lawrence Cook, then chief of NPS forests, in a 1955 book”The giant redwoods of California.”
Attempts to prove the existence of redwoods have led to calls for their preservation and for people around the world to marvel at them.
The tallest tree Dowd found, named the “Discovery Tree”, was felled and its bark shipped to New York for display. But the eastern settlers were not convinced.
The stump of the Discovery Tree, which served as a dance floor at the time, can be seen today at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. As news of California’s tall trees continued, the bark of a different redwood tree was stripped and sent to another exhibit in New York, this one titled “Plant Wonders of the Golden Regions.”
Known as the “Mother of the Forest”, the tree attracted immense attention – as well as public outcry that it had been destroyed for display, which helped California redwood conservation efforts.
“It was like hard physical evidence that these things existed,” Miller said. “So we had the evidence, but then people were like, ‘Oh my God, why are we shooting these things down? ”
In the years that followed, many whites became involved in preservation, including Clark.
The National Park Service states, “Over five years, Clark played a vital role in the development of what would become Yosemite National Park.”
In 1864 – decades before the establishment of Yosemite National Park and the National Park Service – President Abraham Lincoln signed an invoice who gave Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the State of California “for public use, resort, and recreation.”
The grove has grown in importance as a destination for tourists, conservationists, painters and photographers. The Grizzly Giant in particular was admired by many, including Theodore Roosevelt, who camped under the tree in 1903.
“It was during this time that he formed a lot of his ideas to give us some of the most conservation-minded laws he came up with,” said John Woolman, an NPS interpretive ranger stationed at Yosemite.
Woolman, who has worked at the park since 2009, said even among the other giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, the Grizzly Giant stands out.
Estimated to be around 3,000 years old, the tree stands 209 feet tall, with branches over six feet in diameter. It is the second tallest tree in Yosemite.
“The character it gives off is so unlike any other tree I’ve actually seen,” Woolman said. “It’s its own entity.”
For decades, rangers such as Woolman and Miyako have guided tour parties through the grove, visitors crane their necks in search of the treetops.
Throughout the tours, the rangers’ stories have always had a common theme when it comes to redwoods and fire: resilience. Miyako said they would talk about how fire actually helps trees release seeds more easily, how they have survived many lightning fires for thousands of years.
But those stories now include a sobering fact – last year wildfires killed nearly a fifth of the world’s redwoods, by some estimates. They began to question that resilience, something Miyako never thought would happen.
“When I started here, the idea of seeing redwood trees under threat, the idea that people would be told that we were closing the grove to fire and that we would have to put in protections for the redwood trees, it was unthinkable,” she said. “And now it’s become something we see every year.”
And the driving force behind these heightened threats? Humans. It’s a point Woolman tries to make on every tour he gives now.
“The decisions we make miles, sometimes hundreds, thousands of miles, away from these magnificent trees ultimately impact them,” he said.