Yosemite to Cut Trees for Better Views

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 23, 2011 8

Yosemite’s once-open meadows are now being colonized by trees. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

“These darn trees are getting in the way of my view of nature,” joked one of my guides on a trip to British Columbia a few years back. We had stopped during a hike on a forested esker and were trying to look through the woods to a lake far below. We couldn’t see it through the dense foliage. Of course, his comment made us all laugh. Little did we know then that such an absurd idea would years later—this fall, in fact—become a reality in Yosemite National Park.

Starting later this year, thousands of trees will be cut down in Yosemite to provide better views of the famous granite faces, such as El Capitán and Half Dome, and the breathtaking waterfalls, such as Bridalveil or Yosemite Falls, that ring the valley. But the sounds of lumberjacks and the sights of downed trees—felled only for the purpose of providing better photo ops—are somehow discomfiting in a national park, prompting some to ask, “Why must so many succumb to the saw?”

When nature gets in the way

Trees now block the views of many of the park’s waterfalls. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Part of the reason Yosemite was set aside in 1864 as a national park was because of its awe-inspiring panoramas afforded by its open meadows. During the past 147 years under federal protection, however, many of the park’s trees have grown to staggering heights. And that’s the problem: park officials say that they are now so tall that they are obstructing the grand, iconic views. To solve the problem, the “Scenic Vista Management Plan” was adopted, which, essentially, gives the park the right to chop them down. They will then be scrapped for firewood and wood chips.

The park today, say proponents of the plan, is not the one early visitors, such as John Muir and Ansel Adams, rhapsodized about when they first saw it in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, the region’s wide vistas were open to the jutting, massive slabs of rock and spilling waterfalls. In those days, natural fires sparked by lightning and fires set by Native Americans cleared encroaching stands of trees. Livestock once grazed in the valley, also pushing back saplings to the edges of the meadows. But the livestock is now long gone, and wildfires are immediately extinguished in the interest of visitor safety. Some of the trees that have since made their way in are more than 100 feet in height.

In accordance with the Scenic Vista Management Plan, the majority of the cutting—mostly of Ponderosa pines and cedar trees—will take place along roads, overlooks and turnouts in seven square miles of the most heavily visited sections of the valley. Only trees younger than 130 years old will be cut, and no giant sequoias will be included in the culling. The work may go on for as long as 10 years, since cutting will only be allowed during the months of September and October in order to avoid disturbing bats and birds.

There is a precedent for such a “trimming”: Yosemite officials report that they’ve thinned trees before—without complaints. In fact, several large trees that obscured the park’s famous Tunnel View were taken down three years ago.

None of the giant sequoias will be touched. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Clear-cutting for clarity

But three years ago, as some point out, only 20 Ponderosa pines and other trees were cut. This new plan calls for thousands of trees to fall to the axe.

Many who love the park feel that there is something abhorrent about cutting down so many trees just for the sake of providing visitors with a perfect view. And, anyway, who decided that the valley should look the way it did when the Ahwahnechee, who used low-intensity fire to promote the growth of oak trees for acorns and grasses for grazing, were “managing” the area? Perhaps the best thing for a protected landscape is for humans to leave it alone and let nature take its course—and that includes a period of succession. Perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to “stage” the natural world to coincide with current fashions of how we think it should look.

The question comes down to: what does “protection” for a landscape mean? Are you in favor of cutting down those pesky trees that get in the way of your view of nature?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Sandee Lane June 15, 2018 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    This is a ridiculous idea, kill such awe inspiring trees for a better view, I think who ever decided this should be locked up in the nearest nut house…

  2. Mark November 6, 2016 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    Can we appreciate that meadows are also a beautiful part of nature. And where did they come from? In part from periodic wildfires, a part of the natural process before man arrived. Fire suppression all across the western US for the past 200 years has promoted tree growth, affecting natural ecosystems. I suppose some environmentalists won’t be happy until the last meadow is grown over.

  3. Jimmy Cathey August 25, 2011 at 5:03 am - Reply

    Just sad. Where will it all end? I remember in the late 1970’s I think it was, when there was a big ado about ‘removing’ the last indian from ‘the park’ because he was in the way. This was a man who was born there and it was the only life he knew. At that time I believe he was in his 80’s. Can you imagine that? We are a great nation but sometimes we just do stupid things and cutting those trees is stupid.

  4. Art Hardy August 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Campsites, lodges, restrooms and food sites weren’t part of Yosemite’s landscape 150 years ago, either, but they’ve improved the visitor’s experience immensely. I don’t have a problem with a few trees being taken out, but thousands seems excessive.

  5. Anton Harfst August 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Thank you for posting this. It is almost a joke to stile nature to our idea of it. But in many parts of the world it is done. I originate from a country where all nature is artificial. And still people are up in arms when trees are cut down.
    Now I live in a country where there still is ‘real’ nature. Although a lot of people are doing their best to burn everything to the ground to build their dream house. How you can even contenmplate the thought of building your dream in a burnded area is way beyond me. But so is the reality here in Greece.

    Back to Yosemite. I know, as outdoor photographer the great shots of people like Ansel Adems like the back of my hand. But would I like to see those exact views in real live? No, not really. It was their life and their vista’s. They made great pictures of it. And I would be shocked to find the same views. Even in a professional capacity: why would I go there if everything stayed the same? To copy the great work of Adams and his pears? I’d rather create my own 2011 view of things.

    Beside that, it is well known that forests like the ones in Yosemite need to burn once every century. When I hear they were not alowed to do so, I almost shudder. It will mean they are doomed. Not in our generation. And maybe not in the next. But down the line, our grandchildren will not be able to see a healthy environment. Cutting down trees is not the same as a lot of seeds need fire to develop.
    But wouldn’t it be horrible to burn parts of that wonderful landscape? Yes of course. It would be for our generation. But we inherited it from our past generations and need to give it on. Being selfish will destroy it altogether. And there is nothing wrong or bad coming to a Yosemite, where there has been some fire. Beautiful flowers will blossom the next season. Great new trees will develop. Wonderful new vistas will be created by nature. And as a photographer I would love to shoot there. And that will be more like Adams then anything that is done now.

  6. Jack August 23, 2011 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    I agree that they should be untouched. They’re protected! But I suppose there’s something to be said for the quote from the last living Native American who inhabited the valley: something about it becoming too overgrown and “bushy.”

  7. Traveling Ted August 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    Wow, what an interesting topic. This year Yosemite has seen 14 people die, and I wonder if this fact has anything to do with this decision. Perhaps authorities are worried that some people will take chances and walk in places they would not normally walk to get good clear pictures and put themselves in danger.

  8. Nine Quiet Lessons August 23, 2011 at 10:11 am - Reply

    It’s a difficult question. Cutting down trees to provide a better view of nature seems paradoxical, but part of the reason the park exists in the first place is to provide visitors with a view of its most famous features. Presumably, the park managers know their territory better than we do, and can best judge how to cultivate it for maximum effect.

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