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Congress considers expanding Yosemite by 1,600 acres

by Alice Daniel, The California Report | Take Two®

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Congress is considering legislation to expand Yosemite National Park by about 1,600 acres. Molly Peterson/KPCC

Congress is considering legislation to expand Yosemite National Park by about 1,600 acres. The area — on the western edge of Yosemite — includes rolling foothills and a view that takes in the great Central Valley and even the Coast Range. The California Report's Alice Daniel has the story

Laurie Wayburn walks briskly along an old logging road she hopes one day soon will become a trail in Yosemite National Park.

Congress is considering legislation to expand the national park by about 1,600 acres. The area  -- on the western edge of Yosemite -- includes rolling foothills and a view that takes in the great Central Valley and even the Coast Range.

As Wayburn walks through a lush forest on the land up for consideration, she sees some trees in the distance. “We’re about to approach some beautiful dogwoods in full bloom,” she says. “Those white blossoms just hanging in the air there are the dogwood.” 

Wayburn is co-founder of the Pacific Forest Trust, which owns a big chunk of the 1,600 acres. A group of private landholders owns the rest and also supports the acquisition.

“As we’ve been walking along this trail, we can see many other creatures use this trail too,” she says. “You can see deer tracks. There was some bear scat back there.”

The legislation, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Costa, could result in a timely tribute to the park, Wayburn says. 

The year “2014 is the 150th anniversary of the original Yosemite Grant by President Lincoln,” she says. “Abraham Lincoln was planning to come out West to visit Yosemite when he was assassinated. But this harkens back to the extraordinary value of Yosemite. In the midst of the Civil War, he signed the legislation for the Yosemite Grant.”

In fact, the land Wayburn is on was originally included in the Yosemite Grant but Congress removed it and thousands more acres, conceding to timber interests in 1906 when Yosemite became a national park. The nearby Yosemite West housing development, a cluster of about 100 homes, grew out of that concession. There are concerns that more land could be developed if it doesn’t go to the park.  

At the top of a high ridge that looks out over the foothills, Wayburn says the expansion would prevent further development, protect the Merced River watershed and preserve a vital migration corridor for deer. 

“That deer migration corridor is really critical for that herd, but it’s also for all the things that eat deer,” she says. “Mountain lion come up through here following the deer.”

Costa, a Democrat who introduced the bill in Congress, says he hopes the legislation will be included in a larger package of bills poised to move fast.

“There’s a good bipartisan support of legislators both in Sacramento and Washington who support the effort,” he says.

He, too, thinks 2014 is an important year.

“It’s one that I’m very mindful of,” he says. “It’s kind of fitting and appropriate as we look at the 150th anniversary.”

There’s widespread enthusiasm for the addition, he says, but at least one legislator is still undecided. That’s Republican Rep.Tom McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite. His office didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but McClintock has said in the past that he wants to be sure this isn’t just another federal land grab.

The state assemblyman for the district, Republican Frank Bigelow, co-authored a resolution unanimously passed by the state Senate to support the expansion. He says he’s not a big fan of having more land in the public trust, but this addition is a no-brainer because regulations don’t make development easy.

“So it makes sense to incorporate this land within the boundaries of Yosemite and allow people to enjoy it as a whole, as part of Yosemite’s bountiful wonders,” says Bigelow.

Wayburn of the Pacific Forest Trust revels in those wonders. She gingerly steps along the edge of a marsh, a feeding ground for wildlife.

“And these are actually giant sequoias right here, young giant sequoias,” she says. “And over here is the flowering currant.” 

Wayburn says the Pacific Forest Trust would donate some of this land to the National Park Service. The National Park Service would buy the rest with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The land here, she says, offers some stunning views. “People can come up and see the topography going down into the great Central Valley,” she says. “You can really get a sense of why Muir wanted this to be part of the park.”

She’s talking about John Muir, of course -- the naturalist who had included this land in his vision of Yosemite National Park. Frank Helling, who has portrayed John Muir in schools and national parks for 30 years, shares one of Muir’s journals that describes Yosemite.

“Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary nervous wasting work of the lowlands,” Helling says, reading from a page in the journal. “Government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains.”

Whether government protection is thrown around these 1,600 acres is a question that its supporters hope will be answered with a yes -- soon. 

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