Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape



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Yosemite State (and National) Park, June 10, 1864


In 1864, the literate American public felt disgust over the privatization and tawdry development at Niagara Falls. When it appeared the same would befall Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove, Congress set them apart as a public park for California (13 Stat. 325). Eight years later, lacking a state to receive land, another Congress established Yellowstone National Park. Yosemite, however, was the groundbreaker, the nation’s first state and, in reality, national park. A year after its creation, Frederick Law Olmsted laid out a management prescription that would become the blueprint and the philosophy for park systems nationwide (Olmsted 1865). A half-century later the Yosemite grant returned to federal management while the state pursued redwood lands for new parks (Engbeck 1980).

Today California boasts the largest and most diverse state park system in the country. It also has more units of the national park system than any other state except Alaska. Twenty-three national park units, totalling 8.1 million acres and 265 state parks at 1.4 million acres comprise more than nine percent of the state’s land area (figure 8). Together they serve nearly 120 million visitors per year (California State parks Foundation 2000; National Park Service 1997). Every ecological division and a bewildering array of historic themes are represented. The impact of these many preserved places on the landscape of California results not only from what they have wrought but what they have stopped.

The most important impacts of the parks have been preservation of open space and prevention of development Golden Gate and Santa Monica National Recreation Areas and numerous state parks have checked residential sprawl in the state’s major urban zones. Torrey Pines, Los Osos Oaks, Crystal Cove, Topanga Canyon, and Mount Diablo are among the state units with subdivisions lapping at their borders (Figure 9). Point Reyes National Seashore halted a major tract development after roads and twelve houses had been built. The area of the planned suburb now sweeps down to Limantour Spit with only three employee houses in view (Duddleson 1971; Pozzi 2000).

The presence of a park also has blocked other types of development. After San Francisco builthetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite, Congress, in 1921, enacted an amendment to the Federal Power Act forbidding its implementation in national parks (41 Stat. 1353). In the case of the Kings River, Congress blocked a Los Angeles reclamation project by adding the area to Kings Canyon National Park. The Nationa l Park Service (NPS) and park supporters also blocked several trans-Sierra road projects, losing only at Tioga Pass. An ambitious plan to build a high elevation road

along the entire Sierra Nevada also failed due to NPS opposition (Dilsaver and Tweed 1990, 182-186).

Arguably the most important open space preserved by the parks is along California’s crowded coast. The California state park system holds title to 280 miles, or 25 percent of the shoreline. National parks account for nearly 100 miles more, not including the Channel Islands. Although all open space is important, more than a fourth of California’s parklands are designated wilderness. Here the controls on construction and use of mechanical transport promote a more complete natural signature on the land (Schaub 2000).



Figure Figure 8. National and state parklands in Califonia. Sources: California State Parks and National Park Service. Cartography by Margarita M. Pindak






Figure . Los Osos Oaks State Park near San Luis Obispo protects an island of nature amid residential and agricultural development. Photograph provided by the Photographic Archives of Catifomia State Parks

Despite the preservation of open space, the legacy of human activity is present in all 288 park units. Park management has actively altered ecosystems while at the same time causing them to diverge markedly from the lands surrounding them. Among park managers’ early steps were, first, enjoinment of lumbering, hunting, and most grazing and, second, suppression of fire. Parks contain many areas of old-growth forest coveted by loggers. Originally, California boasted nearly two million acres of redwood groves. Only 86,000 acres remain, 93 percent of them in parks and reserves (Redwood National Park 2000).

Rangers practiced extensive fire suppression prior to the mid-1960s. During that time forest composition altered, sometimes dramatically, especially in the mountains. For example, giant sequoias simply did not regenerate for nearly a century. In the process, species like white fir expanded in both range and density of coverage among the sequoia groves (Sequoia and Kings Canyon 1987). During that time the fuel load in forests built up to an unnatural level that has rendered prescription burning a feeble corrective device.

Park management of fauna has also impacted the landscape. Early efforts to eliminate predators, coupled with bans on hunting, led to eruptions in ungulate populations. Deer in particular wreaked a devastating impact on vegetation. The chain reaction of these ecological changes rippled through communities contributing to near elimination of some species and increases in others. Subsequent efforts to protect predators, especially black bear and mountain lions, have led to the further divergence of parkland ecology from the surrounding areas. Bears, the aforementioned ecosystem engineers, are densest in the large parks where hunting is forbidden.

Another impact of the national and state parks is in preservation of historic structures and landscapes. Indian settlement sites, Spanish missions, forts of various groups, and agricultural industrial, commercial, and even Hollywood landscapes are preserved. Many ethnic landscapes have persisted due to their inclusion in park zones or to financial support from the state or national parks. The preservation movement, begun at Yosemite, led to the 1906 Antiquities Act (34 Stat. 225) for protection of historic resources. Ironically, President Clinton recently used it to protect the offshore rocks and islands along California’s entire coastline (US Department of Interior 2000).

Within the parks’ auto-accessible zones, planners design buildings and landscapes to exacting specifications and styles. This “parkitecture” is duplicated throughout both systems as well as various regional and local parks. Planners design campgrounds, buildings, parking areas, and

the disguised infrastructure to support them to have a “rustic” look that is both carefully wrought and itself historic (Carr 1998). Still another influence of the parks extends beyond their boundaries. Most national and state parks are major recreation destinations. The road system has evolved to cope with traffic coming to internationally significant sites like Yosemite and Sequoia, as well as the many accessible beach parks. Gateway towns such as El Portal, Mariposa, Three Rivers, and Borrego Springs have their own landscapes of tourism-lodgings, dining establishments, souvenir shops, and a remarkable array of loosely associated amusements. Parks in urban zones, with their protected open space, increase the value of adjacent lands. This, in turn, often leads to more expensive residential and commercial development. Also, parks and their tourism provide economic multiplier effects that spawn additional development in surrounding regions.

Finally, among the subtlest influences of the national and state parks is their contribution to environmental education and conservation proselytization. Outside academia, Californians encounter the environmental message most often in their parks. In some immeasurable way the cumulative impact of this message surely influences human landscapes throughout the Golden State.


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