National Geographic : 2005 Mar
times, and its new owners hoped this seasoned administrator-however inexperienced in min ing matters-might stanch their losses. This was a prickly venue for an Easterner who liked his landscapes green and glistening. A long drought had savaged the California countryside. The scrub-covered hills sat pow dered with brown dust. From his headquarters at Bear Valley, Olmsted could look northeast toward more verdant elevations. And soon he'd be riding that way himself, first to a grove of giant sequoias-"the grandest tall trees you ever saw"-and finally into a lush valley brack eted by towering cliffs. Curiosity had intro duced Olmsted to Yosemite. He was not the first landscape aesthete to dis cover the glories of that magical place. Carleton Watkins, the stereoscopic photographer, had already set up his tripod in Yosemite Valley, and Albert Bierstadt, with palette, was not far behind. Unbeknownst to Olmsted at the time of his own first visit, the works of Bierstadt and Watkins had recently inspired Congress to enact a measure transferring the valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of Califor nia, to hold in trust for the entire nation as a place "for public use, resort and recreation." President Abraham Lincoln signed the act in June 1864. Three months later the governor of California appointed Olmsted chairman of the Yosemite Commission, impaneled to draft a management plan for the country's first de facto national park. (In 1872 Yellowstone became the first official national park; Yosemite was not designated a full fledged national park until 1890.) In his report, drafted for the California legis lature, Olmsted praised Yosemite not so much for the sharp relief of its cliffs and waterfalls as for the way the "wondrous heights" were "banked and fringed and draped and shad owed by the tender foliage of noble trees." He admired the Merced River "rippling over a pebbly bottom" and much preferred the mead ows when wreathed in a "light, transparent haze." "The first point to be kept in mind then," Olmsted insisted, "is the preservation and .