The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yosemite’s Grizzly Giant has seen a lot. Now, fire threatens the iconic tree.

The Washburn Fire burns in Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park, Calif., on July 8. (Noah Berger/AP)
6 min

Years ago, some people in the then-nascent United States thought sequoias were made up, a flora that existed only in fantasy.

Then came a serendipitous encounter during the California Gold Rush, followed by bark sent across the country for exhibition and extensive writing and art to help convince nonbelievers that the massive trees were real — and that their protection should be codified.

Sequoias, which stand hundreds of feet tall and live for thousands of years, have been a national landmark for more than a century. But now, a fire is threatening over 500 giant sequoias as it encircles Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove.

Home to the famous “Grizzly Giant,” the grove is the largest in the park. During a community meeting Monday, Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon called Mariposa Grove the “root of the whole national park system.”

It closed on July 7 after visitors reported seeing smoke near the park’s Washburn Trail.

The Washburn Fire is the latest in a series of fires in the western United States, as climate change has made it easier for them to burn longer and hotter.

Last year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire in the Sierra Nevada killed or burned thousands of giant sequoias so severely that they are expected to die in the coming years, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Sequoias that have weathered humankind and lightning storms are once again vulnerable as the Washburn Fire continues to burn.

“Our visitors come from all over the world to see a magical icon like the sequoia that we thought was, to some degree, untouchable,” said Sharon Miyako, the acting branch chief of field interpretation operations at Yosemite.

Last week, firefighters placed sprinklers around the Grizzly Giant and Mariposa Grove Cabin, built over 100 years ago by Galen Clark, a protector and promoter of the grove who was appointed Yosemite’s first guardian.

But Native American tribes in the area had spotted sequoias long before Clark and other White people did.

There are seven Native American tribes with ancestral connections to Yosemite, who have been stewards of Mariposa Grove since before the oldest sequoias there took root, Miyako said.

“The tribes continue to have an ongoing role in using, stewarding and protecting the grove,” she said.

Clark saw Mariposa Grove for the first time in 1855, when he traveled to California as part of a tourist party.

While there are some reports of White people spotting sequoias as early as 1833, the Gold Rush, which began in 1848, was the impetus to further discovery, said Daegan Miller, a historian and author of “This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent.”

In the early 1850s, Augustus Dowd, a hunter who was helping feed gold miners, was chasing a grizzly bear when he came across sequoias in what is now the Calaveras North Grove. At first, people didn’t believe the trees he saw could truly be as tall as he observed.

“All early tales of the great size of the trees were considered as exaggerations, and whenever scores of feet were discussed the listener thought that inches were meant,” Lawrence Cook, then-NPS Chief of Forestry, wrote in a 1955 book “The Giant Sequoias of California.”

Attempts to prove the sequoias’ existence led to calls for their preservation, and the chance for people around the world to marvel at them.

The tallest tree Dowd found, named the “Discovery Tree,” was cut down, and its bark was shipped to New York City for an exhibition. But settlers in the east were unconvinced.

The stump of the Discovery Tree, which was used as a dance floor at the time, can be seen today at the Calaveras Big Trees State Park. As news of California’s big trees continued, a different sequoia’s bark was stripped and sent to another exhibition in New York, this one titled, “Vegetable Wonders of the Gold Regions.”

Known as the “Mother of the Forest,” the tree drew immense attention — as well as public outcry that it had been destroyed for display, lending to conservation efforts for California’s sequoias.

“That was like hard physical evidence that these things existed,” Miller said. “So we got the evidence, but then people were like, ‘Oh my God, why are we chopping these things down?’ ”

In the years following, many White people became involved in preservation, including Clark.

The National Park Service states: “Within five years, Clark ascended to a critical role in the development of what would eventually become Yosemite National Park.”

In 1864 — decades before Yosemite National Park and the National Park Service were established — President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that gave the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California “for public use, resort, and recreation.”

The grove rose in prominence as a destination for tourists, environmentalists, painters and photographers. The Grizzly Giant in particular captured the awe of many — including Theodore Roosevelt, who camped beneath the tree in 1903.

“It was during that time that he formed a lot of his ideas to give us some of the more preservationist-minded legislation that he put forth,” said John Woolman, an NPS interpretive park ranger stationed in Yosemite.

Woolman, who has worked in the park since 2009, said even among other giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, the Grizzly Giant stands out.

Estimated to be around 3,000 years old, the tree stands 209 feet tall, with branches upward of six feet in diameter. It is the second-largest tree in Yosemite.

“Its character that it gives off is so different than any other tree that I’ve actually seen,” Woolman said. “It’s its own entity.”

For decades, rangers such as Woolman and Miyako have guided tour groups through the grove, visitors craning their necks in search of the tree tops.

On the tours, rangers’ stories have always had a common theme when it came to sequoias and fire — resilience. Miyako said they would talk about how fire actually helps the trees release seeds more easily, how they’ve survived many lightning fires over thousands of years.

But those stories now include a more sobering fact — last year, wildfires killed nearly a fifth of the world’s sequoias, according to some estimates. They’ve started to question that resiliency, something Miyako never thought would happen.

“When I started here, the idea of seeing sequoias threatened, the idea that we would be telling people that we were closing the grove for fire and we would need to set up some protections for sequoias, that was unthinkable,” she said. “And now it has become something that we’re seeing on an annual basis.”

And the driving force behind these intensified threats? Humans. It’s a point Woolman tries to make on every tour he gives now.

“The decisions that we make miles, sometimes hundreds, thousands of miles, away from these magnificent trees do have an impact on them eventually,” he said.