A $40 million, three-year project to try to restore and better protect the historic, popular, over-developed Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park is nearing completion, and the grove is expected to reopen June 15.

Access to the Mariposa Grove has been limited since July 2015 with park staff telling visitors flatly that it’s closed.

In October, Yosemite Conservancy President Frank Dean described the Mariposa Grove project as “the largest protection, restoration and improvement project in park history.” The donor-supported conservancy has partnered with the National Park Service on the restoration project.

According to the Park Service, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias supports about 500 mature giant sequoia trees, including the 1,800-year-old Grizzly Giant, and it contains 86 percent of the park’s mapped adult giant sequoias.

Before the July 2015 closure, park staff estimated the Mariposa Grove received more than 1 million visitors annually.

Loving the grove to death

Closing was necessary because people have been loving the Mariposa Grove to death since the 1850s, when non-natives first visited.

Human intrusions and over-development of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias speeded up in the 1860s as the state and private entrepreneurs built trails and facilities in and near the grove of ancient trees.

Promotion and marketing of the grove led Abraham Lincoln to sign an Act of Congress in June 1864 ceding the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley to the state of California. Outcry over exploitation and mismanagement of public lands in Yosemite led to the state returning the grove to federal control with establishment of Yosemite National Park in October 1890.

People cut a tunnel through the famous Wawona Tree in the nineteenth century, wide enough for horse-drawn carriages and automobiles to drive through. Weakened by the opening, the tree fell in a storm in 1969.

In the early and mid 20th century, federal custodians of the park built more visitor facilities including parking lots, fire hydrants, comfort stations, a lodge, and a campground. By 2010, buildings and infrastructure in the Mariposa Grove included tour bus and visitor parking areas, a shuttle stop, a concessioner-operated gift shop, a commercial tram, the Mariposa Grove Museum, comfort stations and an associated septic system/leach field in the upper Grove area, several pedestrian/hiking trails, paved roadways; drainage control structures such as roadside ditches and culverts, a water storage, treatment, and distribution system that serves the Mariposa Grove and South Entrance to the park, and communications equipment at Wawona Point.

Infrastructure like paved roadway, a 115-space parking lot, a commercial tram staging area, a tram ticket booth, generators, a comfort station, and a gift shop, concentrated in the lower portion of the grove, encroached on individual giant sequoias and their roots, and reduced habitat for giant sequoia reproduction.

What to expect

The Big Trees Tram Tour, which used to include recorded audio in English, French, Spanish, Japanese and German, was shut down permanently in 2014.

A Yosemite Hikes webpage for the Mariposa Grove still notes that people can expect “jowl-to-jowl” crowds in the lower grove in summer, medium crowds in the upper grove, and light crowds at Wawona Point and on the Outer Loop Trail.

A campground, a lodge and a commercial tram refueling station have been removed. So have a parking lot and gift shop.

According to National Park Service and Yosemite Conservancy staff, the finished restoration project will include “improved natural hydrology,” a new American Disabilities Act-accessible boardwalk, a new welcome plaza, and a new 300-vehicle parking area at the South Entrance.

For now, the Mariposa Grove remains closed due to ongoing construction work, Yosemite National Park staff said this week.

CSERC applauds the effort

John Buckley and other staff with the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center have monitored efforts to restore and better protect the Mariposa Grove since before public scoping of planning documents began in August 2011.

“We recognize how precious this old forest habitat is for the Pacific fisher, pileated woodpecker, northern goshawk, and other vulnerable wildlife species that make use of habitat in Yosemite,” CSERC biologist Lindsey Myers said in November 2013. “The park has a strong obligation to do all possible to protect these rare or declining species.”

Buckley told The Union Democrat more than four years ago that having pavement on the roots of giant sequoias was clearly not desirable. Moving most peak use parking to the South Entrance and using a shuttle system will make it more convenient to visit the Mariposa Grove.

Equally important, removing noise and disturbance created by the commercial tram operation will allow Mariposa Grove visitors to experience the upper and lower grove areas in more natural conditions, Buckley said in November 2013. This week he recalled how bad overcrowding and over-development used to be.

“People used to get out in the midst of a paved parking lot and there were bathrooms there with a tremendous odor problem,” Buckley said Thursday in a phone interview. “It came from them being fancy outhouse septic type restrooms. They were so limited people would line up 10 to 15 at a time, lined up in the smell, with the cars going past, the traffic jams. Overall this negatively impacted visitors’ experience in what is a natural cathedral of spectacular trees, one of what is truly among the most spectacular groves on earth.”

Today, Buckley says, in a number of ways what the Park Service has done at the Mariposa Grove could be a visionary example for how to manage other iconic destination sites in Yosemite.

Where there used to be circling lines of gridlocked cars jockeying for spots to park in the midst of the giant trees, now there will be free shuttle service and a far more natural visitor experience, once people get to the grove.

Buckley added that past park superintendent Don Neubacher deserves credit for approving the Mariposa Grove project and partnering with the Yosemite Conservancy to restore the intensely visited, world famous attraction.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.