Caring for Giants
To Preserve One of the World's Largest Natural Sequoia Groves, a Team Balanced the Needs of Tourists and Trees
BY ASHLEY BISHEL
The project was as pressing as it was daunting. Mariposa Grove's 500-plus mature sequoia trees—one of the largest species on the planet—stretch more than 250 feet (76 meters) in the sky, with some trunks topping 30 feet (9.1 meters) in diameter. The oldest are estimated to be nearly 2,000 years old, with a life span of 3,000-plus years. And, each year, more than 3 million tourists flock from all over the world to Yosemite National Park, California, USA, to crane their necks at the cinnamon-colored skyscrapers.
Yet the aging infrastructure that made those tourist visits possible—a paved parking lot, road, tram trail and gift shop—threatened the trees' longevity. “The sequoias were growing right up to the edge of the asphalt road, and the tram tours were having a hard time getting around the trees,” says Sue Beatty, deputy project manager and restoration ecologist on the project who recently retired from the National Park Service, Mariposa, California, USA. Asphalt interfered with the grove's natural hydrology, and so much vehicular traffic was causing severe soil compaction and erosion.
To ensure the sequoias had a fighting chance at surviving another 1,000 years, in 2012 the Yosemite National Park service launched a US$40 million project to relocate the parking lot, remove the tourist tram and gift shop, and add elevated walkways in the grove. The Mariposa Restoration project needed to meet two targets to be a success: improve the visitors' experience while also protecting some of the oldest and largest organisms on earth for centuries to come.
“At every stage of the project, the team was always asking: Is this in the best interest of the trees?” says Schuyler Greenleaf, project director, Yosemite Conservancy, El Portal, California, USA. “We had to consider the visitor experience, but there's no experience without the trees. It made our priorities clear.”
—Schuyler Greenleaf, Yosemite Conservancy, El Portal, California, USA
When the grove reopened in June 2018—after being closed for three years of construction—the public reception was rousing. “It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects where everything aligned: interest, need and significance,” says Kimball Koch, Mariposa Grove Restoration design project manager, National Park Service, Midpines, California, USA. “All these things came together generating tremendous support for restoring the health of the grove. And when you have a dedicated team and commitment from management, can you ask for a better project?”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Rather than unveil a proposed rendering—and risk backlash from visitors, ecologists and nearby residents—the project team opted to gather stakeholder input before the rendering artist even put pen to paper. “When you do your homework early, you can plan for issues in advance and not be surprised later,” says Mr. Koch. “So the goal was to make sure the public had input early on.”
—Kimball Koch, National Park Service, Midpines, California, USA
The team completed an environmental impact statement over six months, detailing the state of the grove, the proposed projects to restore it and the environmental impact of each of the possible alternatives. To get the report in front of as many people as possible, the team published it online; held public meetings with local business owners, nature enthusiasts and ecologists; and made hard copies available at park locations. Every email, letter and comment during a public meeting was recorded and categorized, so it could be analyzed in conjunction with the proposed plan.
“There was concern about the tram's removal, but it was fascinating and gratifying that the public was overwhelmingly in support of removing the parking lot and gift shops from the grove itself,” says Scott Gediman, public affairs officer, Yosemite National Park. Mr. Gediman was involved with the project from inception to planning the grove's reopening celebration. “I think people really loved the idea of restoring the natural quiet of the grove.” So the team took a cue from that feedback and emphasized that message in its communications surrounding the project.
—Scott Gediman, Yosemite National Park, Midpines, California, USA
The project team also made a concerted effort to meet with members of the seven Native American tribes from the Yosemite area that have a close, cultural relationship to the site. Along with regular phone meetings, the project managers and tribe representatives also made several trips to the grove itself.
“The field visits were most memorable, as it was a realization to see that the grove's environment was in such dire straits,” says Reba Fuller, governmental affairs specialist and appointed tribal liaison for Yosemite National Park who lives on the Tuolumne Rancheria for the Tuolumne band of Me-Wuk Indians, Tuolumne, California, USA. By meeting regularly, the team gleaned input that proved instrumental. For instance, black oak is an important traditional food source to several local tribes. So the site of the project's new parking lot was carefully selected to avoid the black oak. And, when it came to the educational signs that would be posted throughout, the tribes were asked to take an active hand in shaping those messages. “The educational aspect was an opportunity of a lifetime to us,” says Ms. Fuller. And the process was both more meaningful and more productive because the feedback had been garnered from the start, rather than as a tacked-on task once the project was underway.
One stakeholder concern that cut across all demographics was the grove's closure during project execution. Mariposa Grove is one of Yosemite National Park's main attractions, and some feared that a lengthy closure would lead to disgruntled or disappointed tourists. “You really feel for the people that have traveled from abroad and maybe won't have an opportunity to see these trees for some time,” says Ms. Greenleaf.
To mitigate the impact of the closure, the park's outreach team, spearheaded by Mr. Gediman, allotted generous time in the project plan for promoting and disseminating information, both about the reasons for the grove's closure and how to take advantage of the other, smaller sequoia groves within Yosemite. The team fast-tracked its communication plan to get the word out early, including to local communities who rely on the grove's tourism for their economy and to the California Tourism Board.
“Folks will plan their trip a year in advance,” he says. “We gave them a good lead time, and some people decided to delay their trip. It really brought home how treasured and important these trees are.”
PHOTO BY FRED VAN WIJK / ALAMY STOCK
PARTNERS IN TIME
From the start, the Mariposa Restoration project was structured as a joint partnership between Yosemite National Park (a government organization) and the Yosemite Conservancy (a nonprofit). That shared sponsorship, Mr. Gediman says, proved vital to the success of the project. “We would not have been able to do this project without the Conservancy.”
Much of that support came in the form of funding. The Conservancy regularly raises money for the park that is distributed through grants, but the Mariposa Restoration project merited a separate capital campaign that was independent of the nonprofit's fundraising cycle and ultimately raised US$20 million for the project. To bolster the project budget as much as possible, the Conservancy team got granular with its fundraising tactics—highlighting specific project elements with individual donors.
That was the case for the stone walls at Wawona Point, a peak that towers above Mariposa Grove. The point's walls were originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work-relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942. But after decades of neglect, the stone walls had fallen into disrepair. Though the 7-mile (11-kilometer) hike from the grove to the peak is both scenic and historic, far fewer visitors make it to the point than visit the lower grove, and so the project team deprioritized the wall's repair during project budgeting.
“We had this long, detailed list of project elements in order of priority, and running down the list we had a red line of what's available for funding,” says Ms. Greenleaf. But a private donor connected with the significance of the stone walls and pledged the project funds. The stone walls were moved above the red line.
The Conservancy also took a hands-on approach during the execution phase when it came to project labor. In the United States, federal hiring is a complex and sometimes time-intensive process. When another civil engineer was needed on the project, navigating that request through government channels might have stalled the schedule significantly or forced a reallocation of project funds. Instead, the Conservancy stepped in and directly hired the engineer for the project—an unorthodox solution that kept progress moving.
Schuyler Greenleaf, project director, Yosemite Conservancy
Location: El Portal, California, USA
Experience: 10 years
Why did this project have special meaning to you? How often do we get to work to restore habitat for beings more than 1,000 years old? These stately trees gave the project such gravitas, such rich purpose and context. The collaboration in service of a higher good was palpable throughout the entire project.
How did you relieve project stress? Rough week? Time for a site visit.
What career lesson did you learn on this project? I learned again—for I seem to have to relearn this over and over—that construction drawings are a good start, but truly much of the design work has just begun.
What's your next project? The rehabilitation of Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite National Park. This is smaller in scope and complexity than the Mariposa Grove project but just as iconic and exciting.
One of the largest—and riskiest—project tasks was removing the asphalt road that cut through the grove. The team needed to complete the work without damaging the trees' roots, some of which had grown so close to the road that they ruptured the pavement.
To do so, a team of contractors, led by Ms. Beatty along with Yosemite civil engineer and project manager Michael Pieper, devised a novel work process: A pair of biologists walked in front of the asphalt grinder, carefully monitoring the ground for any roots that might be too close to the construction machinery's path. If they spotted or suspected large roots ahead, the team would divert the grinder. Then, using a pneumatic tool called an Air Spade, the team would blast compressed air to clear away dirt and debris before finally removing the asphalt by hand.
“It was a slow process,” says Mr. Pieper, Mariposa, California, USA. “With a typical road project, you can set the depth and just go up the road and stop to unload the trucks. On this project, there were times we were stopping every few minutes because of the roots.” In the end, it took the team nearly a month to remove the paved road—and two more weeks to remove the parking lot—but no large roots were damaged during the methodical process.
Project progress wasn't always smooth, though, with an outdoor project site that was at the mercy of Mother Nature. In 2016, one year into the execution, the park was hit with snow so heavy that it crushed the doorway and roof of two project trailers. The weather made it impossible to continue construction, and after the winter thaw, snowmelt and heavy rainstorms also washed out parts of the state highway. Delivery of critical project materials was delayed several days.
“It was a tough period,” says Mr. Gediman. “There were a lot of adjustments and juggling, but we were resolute about getting it done.” Fortunately, the team had already mapped out backup plans for project execution during prolonged inclement weather, so while construction was halted, the team was able to pivot toward other activities—then fast-track the schedule when outdoor work was able to resume.
The project team activated that same risk mitigation plan again the next year during an intense wildfire. The team got notice that it had only two hours to evacuate the project site, and team members were kept off-site for a full week as firefighters worked to contain the nearby blazes. Though no fires hit the grove itself, they did impact the project: Trucks carrying materials were dramatically delayed by a wildfire that blocked a highway. And because Yosemite is remote and all project materials had to be trucked on-site, the team had no other option but to wait, and push forward with other tasks, in a bid to keep the project on schedule.
“The team had to be flexible day to day, and we came to expect that things would always change,” says Mr. Pieper. “We planned for the worst, even as we hoped for the best.”
Visitors to Mariposa Grove might not realize that one of its most dramatic and visually arresting features, the grove's raised boardwalk, almost didn't happen. During early project planning discussions, the boardwalk sparked intense debate. From an ecological perspective, it was a no-brainer, allowing visitors access to the sequoias without impacting the hydrology of the grove. Yet it was also clear that building the boardwalk would be a pricey line item, requiring other elements to be tabled or causing a budget increase to support the expanded scope. “We had a lot of conversations about whether we could have the boardwalk or not, looking at the pros and cons,” says Ms. Beatty.
Finally, the decision came down to Acting Superintendent Woody Smeck. “We took him out there, and his perspective was that having that raised walkway right at the entrance of the grove gave visitors the idea that this was a special place and that they were taking care of something precious,” says Ms. Beatty. “That was something that we really hadn't thought of.” The boardwalk became part of the project's official scope, and subsequent fundraising enabled the project team to execute remaining project elements.
Besides preserving the hydrology and sanctity of the grove, the boardwalk added something else to the grove: fully accessible trails. Before, guests with mobility restrictions had to view the grove from their car windows as they drove along the trail. Now they can traverse the grove trail like all other visitors, getting up close and personal with the ancient giants. PM