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In this guest post, Yosemite Conservancy President Frank Dean shares some of his reflections on 2019 and hopes for 2020 in Yosemite.

“Are we there yet?”

We’ve all heard that well-worn question from fellow travelers on the way to Yosemite or other destinations. It’s a common refrain on road trips — and on long hikes, when the last steps to a sought-after summit seem to stretch on for miles.

The obvious answer to “Are we there yet?” could be a simple “No.” (Are we there yet? hardly ever comes up when the finish line is clearly in view!) But posing that age-old question can open the door to considering how far you’ve come, and what lies ahead.

A Conservancy volunteer collects seeds in Yosemite Valley as part of a project to improve pollinator habitat. Photo: Courtesy of NPS.

Take our work in Yosemite. “Are we there yet” in our mission to preserve the park’s resources and enhance visitor experiences? Have we passed every mile marker on the path to ensuring Yosemite can continue to inspire and thrive for years to come?

In many ways, Yosemite’s future looks increasingly bright. Consider all the progress that our donors have made possible, including ecological restoration work to protect wetlands, sequoia groves and wilderness areas; increased scientific knowledge in diverse fields; and successful efforts to reach out to the next generation of stewards. Yet there are still challenges ahead.

As 2019 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on all that our donors made possible in the past year, and also looking forward to what lies ahead in 2020 and beyond.

Our donors helped fund dozens of projects in Yosemite in 2019 far too many to highlight here! Their support helped restore trails in the Valley and Yosemite Wilderness; catalyze research on bats, peregrine falcons, mountain lions and the rare Sierra Nevada red fox; facilitate a 30th consecutive year of songbird studies; improve habitat for monarchs and other pollinators; digitize thousands of historic photos; engage young people in nature-based learning and environmental stewardship; and much more.

One project that stands out to me from the past year is the expansion of our volunteer program to focus on Preventive Search and Rescue (PSAR) on the Mist Trail corridor below Vernal and Nevada falls. Our trained volunteers provided focused safety guidance about trail conditions, new signage, and a less steep alternate return trail. Congratulations to that Conservancy-PSAR partnership for winning Yosemite’s “Volunteer Program of the Year” award for 2019!

Conservancy volunteers share safety tips with hikers on the popular Mist Trail. Photo: Yosemite Conservancy.

Our publishing program also had a banner year, and several of our recent books received national recognition. Yosemite-area photographer Robb Hirsch’s 2019 The Nature of Yosemite: A Visual Journey, which features essays from a variety of contributors (including the Conservancy’s Adonia Ripple and Pete Devine), quickly sold out its initial hardcover run, earned accolades from High Country News, and is featured in multiple gift guides, including in Publishers Weekly and Los Angeles Times.

The award winning Wildheart joined our publication lineup in 2019.

Meanwhile, Wildheart: The Daring Adventures of John Muir was named a winner in the children’s category of the 2019 National Outdoor Book Awards, earned a Eureka! Honor Award from the California Reading Association and prompted a rave review in The Wall Street Journal. And in other news from the children’s book realm, this past summer the 2017 Conservancy-published, award-winning Where’s Rodney? achieved even greater national reach when Scholastic’s educational division licensed a paperback edition exclusively for teachers.

It’s not easy to select Yosemite book ideas that will be compelling, educational and reasonably priced in a dynamic publishing market. Hard work paid off this year: The Library of Congress assigned Yosemite Conservancy our own number, and will fully catalog our titles, as they anticipate more successful publications from us in the future. Way to go to our publishing team! Keep an eye on our bookstore for our 2020 releases.

While our publishing team worked to produce top-notch titles for readers of all ages, our program staff poured their energy into helping thousands of people connect with Yosemite through adventure, art and theater. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing our newest Yosemite Theater program, “A Room Full of Rascals,” performed by Brian Shoor. This one-man show is a funny and educational experience that reminded me about the powerful impact of excellent storytelling. If you’re planning a trip to the Valley when the theater is open (April through October), I highly recommend Brian’s program and our other Yosemite Theater offerings.

The iconic Bridalveil Fall is the focus of a multiyear project that will continue in 2020. Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Josh Helling.

Looking ahead to 2020, we’re anticipating notable progress on two major projects: the Bridalveil Fall area restoration, which will be fully underway next year; and the transformation of the former Yosemite Village Sport Shop into the new Welcome Center, which will significantly improve the visitor experience in that popular part of the Valley.

I’m also looking forward to a smaller but still noteworthy, and symbolic, upcoming project to complete some preservation work on the historic Rangers’ Club, which will be 100 years old in 2020. The club represents one of the first examples of private funding being used to resolve an issue in Yosemite: Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, personally donated the funds for the building to provide suitable employee housing. We’ll celebrate the Rangers’ Club philanthropic story next year, while recognizing that its impetus — ensuring that employees have places to live — remains a challenge that affects Yosemite rangers, biologists and our own Conservancy staff today.

A lack of housing isn’t the only trial Yosemite faces these days. Record visitation and traffic congestion present an ongoing, pressing challenge. With funding from Yosemite Conservancy, expert consultants have collected and used essential traffic data to provide park management with some options to consider for alleviating congestion and improving the experience of arriving in and moving through the park.

Addressing the traffic issue will require collaboration with a variety of stakeholders, from community members to policymakers. We’re grateful to the local business community for recognizing the seriousness of this challenge and for being open to working with the park to consider solutions, and we’re hopeful that political resolve will follow suit.

California red-legged frogs have returned to Yosemite Valley, thanks to several years of restoration work. Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Al Golub.

Meanwhile, climate change threatens ecosystems worldwide, and Yosemite is certainly not immune. Our donors continue to support critical research and restoration that helps the park prepare for current and future climate change-driven shifts and ensure the long-term resiliency of Yosemite’s wildlife and habitats.

So, back to the original question: Are we there yet?                                                          

Thanks to our donors’ support, Yosemite Conservancy has made a tremendous difference in the park. Successes cover a huge range, from reintroducing California red-legged frogs to Yosemite Valley, where biologists have found evidence that the threatened amphibians are now breeding; to building boardwalks that protect meadows and restore natural hydrology; to returning endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep to the Cathedral Range for the first time in a century.

Yosemite’s beauty continues to inspire us, and much progress has been made, even just in the past year. But we’re not there yet: The work of preserving Yosemite and creating enriching visitor experiences continues, and we have so many more opportunities to explore. With your help, we’ll strive to help the National Park Service in new ways as our partnership and the issues evolve. Thank you for your passion and support for Yosemite!

We’re grateful to everyone who plays a part in supporting and stewarding Yosemite, and we can’t wait to see what you make possible in 2020. Keep an eye on our website for news about projects you can help fund, our upcoming programs in the park, volunteer opportunities, and more. Thanks for reading, and see you in the park!