Berkeley and the making of Yosemite

Rim Fire

The 2013 Rim Fire, one of the most destructive in the history of the Sierra, largely stopped at the Yosemite border, partly because of progressive fire policies practiced in the park. (Photo by Jonathan Byers)

Yosemite National Park would be something quite different were it not for UC Berkeley.

That’s the blue-and-gold current flowing through Yosemite: A Storied Landscape, a just-published e-book that brings to vivid life the California national park that inspires long strings of superlatives — most photographed, most climbed, most lived-in, most historic, most accessible, most inspiring — in celebration of its 150th birthday.

The book also shows off the promise of digital books: Essays easily share space with slideshows (climbers, artworks, the terrain), videos (time-lapse video of the Rim Fire, rioting hippies), animations, information snippets (Ansel Adams wore the jester’s costume in the annual Christmas play), and side trips (what women should wear, and not, on the trail in the early 1900s).

Yosemite is the work of Kerry Tremain, the former California Magazine editor, current digital publisher, Berkeley resident and self-described fan of UC Berkeley. The book was published by Tremain’s company, 36 Views, in cooperation with the California Historical Society. Currently on display at the historical society’s San Francisco gallery is an exhibit of Yosemite art and artifacts that are included in the book — including the skin of one of the park’s last grizzlies and the confession of its killer, both tied to Berkeley.

“I think Berkeley invented the park, in its current form,” says Tremain. (Article continues below the slideshow.)

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The university sprang into being not long after a Civil War-era land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln set aside the spectacular Sierra terrain for a park, 150 years ago this year. Ideas born of the young campus’s Western idealism and scientific, environmental bent quickly took hold in the park that many at Berkeley considered their own. The development and ongoing management of the park bear UC Berkeley’s clear imprint to this day.

Berkeley alumni galvanized by Borax millionaire Stephen Mather (class of 1887) drove the founding of the National Park Service in 1916, applying new progressive concepts to everything from stewardship of the land to lodging for park visitors to the handling of park animals.

Mather, along with fellow alum and conservationist Horace Albright, gathered scientists and other influential people at Berkeley for a conference on the importance of Yosemite during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition across the bay. And he led 15 prominent people on a 12-day trip into the Sierra, taking along renowned chef Tie Sing, who served feasts on white linen — and mourned the loss of his sourdough starter when two pack mules tumbled off a cliff early in the trip.

YosCov249Many of the most important scientists who developed essential ideas of modern ecology were professors in what is now Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, and they used Yosemite — and other public lands — as their laboratories. The link between science and the parks will be celebrated and strengthened during a conference planned for March 2015: “Science for Parks, Parks for Science: The Next Century.” The conference is the first step in an initiative at CNR to strengthen the partnership between UC Berkeley and the National Park Service through the next century of the parks.

Berkeley geology professor Joseph LeConte, another early conservationist, took his students to Yosemite and became friends with John Muir. The two founded the Sierra Club in 1892.

Zoology professor Joseph Grinnell conducted seminal studies of the wildlife of the Sierra, centering his work in Yosemite; his work goes on today and is essential to the understanding of climate change’s effects on various species. The tale of the grizzly skin now on display starts in Grinnell’s collections at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; Tremain, curating the historical society exhibit, tracked it down from a handwritten letter from 1918 and now is giving it its first public viewing.

Ideas flowing from Berkeley still influence Yosemite and the parks. A student of Grinnell, George Melendez Wright, wrote the science-based wildlife policies that inform the NPS to this day. And when the Rim Fire roared through the Sierra last year, it pretty much stopped when it reached the park border; forest management practices developed at Berkeley were credited with sparing Yosemite, Tremain says; his book illustrates the point with a dramatic time-lapse video of the fire.

On every electronic page you turn in Yosemite, Berkeley names pop up — among them, Chiura Obata, Arthur Pope and Phyllis Ackerman.

kt199Obata, an art professor, used Yosemite as his studio, and his paintings form a foundation of the Berkeley School of art. Imprisoned during World War II because he was Japanese, he taught art to kids in the camps. (Tremain says Robert Sproul himself, then UC president and a Berkeley alum, worked back channels to try to free Obata.) His work springs to life in a slideshow in the e-book.

The design of the Ahwahnee lodge — and National Park Service style in general — owes much to Berkeley-connected architects and designers, including Pope and Ackerman.

Writers who contributed to the book have Berkeley pedigrees, too: Kenneth Brower, Rebecca Solnit, Tremain.

The story of Yosemite, and the Park Service, is bigger than Berkeley, of course. But Berkeley and Berkeley people gave it much of its essence, Yosemite shows.

“It was a set of ideas and ideals and values about the importance of civic responsibility and public duty and creating public institutions that would last and serve people,” says Tremain. ”Berkeley nurtured all that. It was in its DNA.”

“Yosemite” is available online. Forty percent of the book’s profits will go to the California Historical Society and the Yosemite Conservancy.

In celebration of the Yosemite land grant’s 150th anniversary, the National Park Service has posted an illustrated timeline of the park’s history and people’s stories about their connections to the park.