There's something about Yosemite National Park that seems indomitable. Between its monolithic rock faces, mighty waterfalls, and yawning valleys, the iconic landscape is a tangible force of nature that draws 4 million visitors every year.
But Yosemite has been shrinking. The park used to be 30 percent larger until hundreds of square miles were surrendered over untapped gold, timber, and mineral resources between 1905 and 1937. Over the last century, Yosemite has lost 505.5 square miles to private interests, according to a new study published this week in Ecology and Society.
"Conservation doesn't end when a protected area or park is established. The conversations and debates continue over many years," Mike Mascia, the study's co-author and senior director of social science at Conservation International's Moore Center for Science, told me.
"The interesting thing about Yosemite is that we have 150 years of history, beginning when the park was established in 1864 as a land grant, so we can see the legacy of these legal changes early on and, now, decades later."
The exploitation of national parks was why, one hundred years ago this week, the National Park Service was created. Its first ward, Yellowstone National Park, was designated to defend it "from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within," according to the Yellowstone Act of 1872. Today, nearly 84 million acres are protected under the National Park System.
But what does that protection really mean? The answer was hiding in plain sight, said Rachel Golden Kroner, a PhD candidate at George Mason University and lead author of the study.
Environmental archives revealed that since the early 1900s, five legal changes to the park's protected areas were enacted or proposed. Yosemite's boundaries shifted seven times over industrial-scale forestry and mining interests. As a result of these downgrades, roads, dams, electrical lines, and pipes began to cover Yosemite's fringes.
This phenomenon, which is sometimes referred to as PADDD, or "protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement," left its mark on Yosemite's ecological well-being. "Places that were removed from Yosemite's forests have a higher density of roads, which suggests these ecosystems are now more fragmented, less contiguous, and less healthy," Kroner told me.
It's important to note that all of Yosemite's changes occurred during the 20th century, when park governance was still evolving. And although many habitats were fragmented during the process, some of them have since been re-protected as wilderness areas. Still, the study's authors hope their case-study will help to guide future conservation policies.
Natural resource extraction within national parks is more common than one might think. According to National Park Service records, 534 drilling operations were active in 12 national parks, as of 2013. Of those, 319 projects were exempt from federal jurisdiction. The others were "grandfathered" by provisions dating back to 1979, and remain unhindered by National Park Service regulations.
As natural resource pressures continue to grow, so will competing demands over biodiversity and practices like mining, logging, and drilling. So, as we head into a new century of national park preservation, perhaps it's imperative to look backward as well.
"We spend a ton of time thinking about how to establish protected areas in the first place. Then, we spend even more time figuring out how to get them well managed," said Mascia.
"Maybe we overlooked the fact that these places can not only be made by us, but taken away by us."