In the summer of 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted welcomed two groups to a campsite in the Yosemite Valley. Olmsted himself led one of the groups, a commission established by the state of California to determine what it should do with two spectacular landscapes in the Sierra Nevada: the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Olmsted’s fellow commissioners were there to hear him deliver a report about what these nature preserves, which had been granted to the state by Congress the year before, should become. The other party was a delegation of Republican Party power brokers from the East who were making a post-Civil War victory lap of the West. Their ranks included Schuyler Colfax, a U.S. Congressman (and Speaker of the House) from Indiana, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican. This was their first look at America’s western states, and especially at Yosemite, which had been made famous a few years earlier by the essays of San Francisco minister Thomas Starr King and the photographs of Carleton Watkins. Olmsted, already prominent as the co-designer of New York’s Central Park and as first head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a war-time relief agency, was particularly eager for the influential Easterners to listen in.
“Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove: A Preliminary Report,” which Olmsted read that day and submitted to the California legislature shortly thereafter, is one of the founding documents of the U.S. conservation movement, and of what would later be known as the national park idea. While the state government formally rejected Olmsted’s text (the California Geological Survey feared that Olmsted’s proposed funding for the new preserve would cause a diminishment of its own appropriation), the Yosemite National Park that we know today is substantially the result of the recommendations contained in Olmsted’s report. More importantly, the principles underlying the nature-park idea — which have since been expanded upon by many nations — were first and most clearly laid out in Olmsted’s report. The heart of Olmsted’s concept was that America’s greatest places should be open to the broadest public.