Authorities trace the beginnings of the Yosemite Association (YA) to the creation of the first
museum in the national park system. This achievement involved the activities of Ansel Hall,
Yosemite’s first chief naturalist, who converted six rooms of the former Jorgensen Studio for
museum use in 1921. By 1922, 33,000 people had visited the museum, and discussions began
regarding a new facility. These deliberations captured the interest of the American Association of
Museums Committee on Museums in National Parks (later the Committee on Outdoor
Education). Seeing an opportunity for an experiment to equip and build a park museum,
committee members facilitated a $50,000 grant from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial
Fund in New York. In 1923, the Yosemite Museum Association was created to secure these
funds. Founders included Ansel Hall; Joseph Grinnell, Director of the Museum of Vertebrate
Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley; Barton W. Evermann, Director of the
California Academy of Science; and William Frederic Badè, President of the Sierra Club. The
park installed a cornerstone for the new museum in 1924, and Hall left the National Park Service
(NPS) payroll temporarily to be its “executive agent.”
The first museum exhibit to be built was the Glacier Point Lookout, or Geology Hut designed by
Herbert Maier and completed in 1925. A two-story museum building was completed the same
year in Yosemite Valley, and included rooms for a library, classroom, offices, caretaker quarters,
and storage. Exhibits were completed in 1926 and the museum opened to the public shortly
As plans for the new museum were implemented, the mission of the Yosemite Museum
Association was broadened to include gathering and disseminating information on the park,
furthering scientific investigation, and maintaining a research library. To reflect these new
objectives, the Yosemite Museum Association was renamed the Yosemite Natural History
Association (YNHA), and Articles of Incorporation were drafted in 1925, serving as a model for
the creation of park cooperative associations decades later.
An illustrious eleven member advisory board of specialists guided the mission of the YNHA. As
of 1932, members included Dr. Harold C. Bryant, National Park Service; C.N. Goethe, Capitol
National Bank; Chauncey J. Hamlin, Buffalo Museum of Science; Professor Willis L. Jepson,
University of California, Berkeley; Dr. A.L. Kroeber, University of California, Berkeley;
Professor Joseph N. LeConte, University of California, Berkeley; Dr. Francois E. Matthes, U.S.
Geological Survey; Dr. Harvey Monroe Hall, Carnegie Institute Laboratory, Stanford; Dr. Carl
P. Russell, Yellowstone National Park; Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, President of Stanford and
Secretary of the Interior under President Hoover; and Robert Sterling Yard, Executive Secretary
of the National Parks Association.
The Articles of Incorporation also defined a five member board of trustees. Original members
included naturalist Bert Harwell, painter and writer Della Taylor (Mrs. Herman H. Hoss), painter
Harry C. Best, Yosemite physician Dr. Harley Dewey, and Judge J. M. Oliver. Originally, terms
of service lasted until death or resignation at which time replacements were appointed. YNHA
activities were directed by the chief naturalist, who during the earliest years included Ansel Hall
(1922-1923) and Carl P. Russell (1923-1929).
1925 also marked the beginning of YNHA's support of the Yosemite School of Field Natural
History, established by the National Park Service and California Fish and Game. Based on
studies of outdoor education in Europe, this innovative program brought students out of labs and
into the park for seven weeks during the summer to learn observational techniques in the field. In
1930, under the direction of C.A. Harwell (1929-1940), YNHA supported the creation of another
educational program, the Junior Nature School, precursor of the Junior Ranger program.
The first printed version of Yosemite Nature Notes also appeared 1925. Having begun in 1922 as
a series of mimeographs, it was written by park naturalists and printed by naturalist staff. The
newsletter documented Yosemite activities and presented this information to the public.
By 1935, YNHA received memoranda from the National Park Service confirming its approval as
a cooperative association. However, attempts to incorporate the organization before World War
II fell short, and under the directorship of C.A. Harwell or C. Frank Brockman (1941-1946),
programs such as the Yosemite School of Field Natural History went on hiatus during the war.
YNHA consolidated and grew during the post war era. Articles of incorporation were filed with
the state of California in 1947, and Fresno’s Crown Printing and Engraving Company began
printing Yosemite Nature Notes, having already produced special issues. YNHA also assumed
responsibility for the Yosemite School of Field Natural History from 1951 until 1954. During the
same period, it created a revolving fund for land acquisition, purchasing 25 lots in Foresta and
others in El Portal for the National Park Service. Book publishing also surged with the
production of such works as Miwok Material Culture by S. A. Barrett and E.W. Gifford and One
Hundred Years in Yosemite by C. P. Russell. YNHA directors during the post war period were
Donald Edward McHenry, serving from 1947 to 1956, and Douglass H. Hubbard serving from
1956 to 1966.
Momentum slackened for YNHA in the 1960s. Yosemite Nature Notes ceased publication in
1961 (with final issues dated 1962) due to increasing production costs as well as increasing
responsibilities of park naturalists. Since membership was directly tied to newsletter
subscriptions, YNHA also lost its membership base. Lack of staff support also contributed to a
slowing pace, since the organization’s only employees other than park naturalists were seasonal
and part-time sales clerks.
In 1969, Edwin C. Alberts, NPS Western Regional Cooperative Association Coordinator, visited
Yosemite and made several suggestions in a report. One recommendation was for YNHA to
amend its by-laws by broadening the membership of the Board of Trustees to include a mix of
NPS staff, concessioners, and friends of the park, as was currently common with other
cooperative associations. He also advised the organization to broaden its membership with dues
paying members including park employees, concessioners, and visitors. Alberts also noted that
YNHA’s Articles of Incorporation were unique in stating that the organization’s purpose was to
aid the national park system, not only Yosemite National Park. This allowed YNHA to aid other
organizations in California while most other West Coast societies restricted themselves from
Chief Naturalist William Jones directed YNHA operations from 1969-1972, and during this time
the organization was revitalized. Henry Berrey began as managing editor in 1971, having left his
position as publicist with the Yosemite Park and Curry Company when it was sold. Berrey
expanded the publications program and reinstated a membership program. He was also involved
in the development of the Field Seminars Program (forerunner of Outdoor Adventures), the first
program of outdoor education courses for the public in the national park system. A precursor
program began in 1971 as “Discovery Weeks” with Naturalist William Neeley as instructor.
Drawing upon the School of Field Natural History as a model, Berrey established an agreement
with the Extension Program at University of California, Davis for students to receive course
credit for seminars. The first summer pilot program was undertaken in 1972, during the
directorship David Karraker (1972-1974). Two instructors conducted four courses attended by 75
In 1973, YNHA’s Board of Trustees grew from five to seven members, and the organization also
moved to new quarters. Having previously shared space with each chief naturalist, separate
office space was created for YNHA by enclosing an open area under a roof overhang on the
north side of the Yosemite Valley Museum building.
Along with office space, existing programs began to grow. By 1975, The Field Seminar Program
offered 18 courses taught by 9 instructors with 299 participants, and in 1977, the Extension
Program of the University of California Berkeley began offering college credits. In 1979, YNHA
and the National Park Service signed a cooperative agreement stipulating operations, functions,
Several new programs began in the early 1980s. In 1981, support began for the Art Activity
Center, where visiting artists conducted classes at no charge from June to October. The same
year, an in-park program for naturalist interns began though the University of California Davis.
Interns served in Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and Tuolumne, supplementing the work of summer
Henry Berrey’s interest in financial support to expand the intern program and Superintendent
Robert Binnewies’ concerns for implementing the 1980 General Management Plan led to Board
discussions about a fundraising campaign. In 1982, the YNHA Board asked consulting firm
McManis and Associates to complete a fundraising feasibility study. The consultants
recommended a merger of the YNHA with the Yosemite Institute (YI) to create a foundation.
The McManis proposal was dropped when YI declined to consider this option and the NPS
Western Regional Office expressed discomfort with cooperating association fundraising.
In 1983, the YNHA Board hired consulting firm Lavendar/Rice to complete another study. These
consultants proposed the creation of a select committee specifically for fundraising.
Consequently, the Board formed the Superintendent’s Special Committee, chaired by Byron
Nishkian of San Francisco, a colleague of consultant David Rice. Committee members from Los
Angeles and the Central Valley were sought to create a broad base for the solicitation of
donations. The fundraising effort was named the “Return to Light Campaign” and its objective
was to raise 52 million dollars. It became the first fundraising effort of the national park system.
With the fundraising campaign in motion and the retirement of Business Manager-Editor Henry
Berrey immanent, YNHA began a search to fill a new position that would include these
responsibilities as well as those previously held by the chief naturalist (retitled chief interpreter
in 1972). In May 1985, Steven Medley joined the YNHA as its president. Medley first came to
Yosemite as a seasonal employee after graduating from Stanford in 1971. He later became a
ranger and naturalist, and with an MLIS from the University of Oregon, served as librarian and
museum curator. He returned to Yosemite as YNHA president after receiving a J.D. from the
University of California Davis in 1981 and practicing law in Grants Pass Oregon for four years.
With Medley’s appointment, the chief interpreter’s role shifted to park liaison. YNHA’s last
director from the National Park Service was Leonard W. McKenzie, Chief Interpreter from 1975
Shortly after Medley’s arrival in 1985, the Yosemite Natural History Association was renamed
the Yosemite Association, although in legal documents, it remained the Yosemite Natural
History Association (d.b.a. the Yosemite Association). In correspondence to Quickenden
Lamington of the Natural History Association, Queensland Australia, Medley explained this
change as an effort to ease confusion with the general public about the organization’s scope.
In 1986, Yosemite Association offices moved from the Yosemite Valley into a two story
building known as Bagby Station in El Portal outside of the park’s boundaries. The station was
built in 1907, and until 1945, used as a stop between Merced and El Portal on an 80 mile route
along the Merced River. It had also been used for housing by the subsequent owner, Della Gress.
In 1973, YNHA purchased the building from the Merced Irrigation District and moved it to El
Portal with plans by Director Douglas Hubbard to create a transportation museum. When
museum development failed due to lack of funds, the building was reconfigured for office space.
At the same time as these changes, the Board also renamed the Superintendent’s Special
Committee as the Yosemite Fund (YF). Steven Medley coordinated operations in the San
Francisco office as part-time executive director of the Fund and Mary Lou Edmonson was hired
to serve as development officer. Susan Singer, a former fundraiser for the Fine Arts Museum of
San Francisco, was brought to the organization as executive director. By 1986, the Fund had
awarded its first grants totaling $76,187.
As the Yosemite Fund was gaining momentum, Chairman Byron Nishkian died and his wife
Ellie completed his term. The new chair, Richard Peterson, lobbied for independence from
YA – a proposal already presented by Nishkian. The National Park Service supported this move,
and the YA Board created the Yosemite Foundation (d.b.a. Yosemite Fund). In February 1988,
the Fund was incorporated as an independent, non-profit, fundraising and grant-making
foundation with its own board council and board of trustees. In July 1989, Board Chairman
Peterson replaced Executive Director Susan Singer with President Robert Hanson.
YA expanded its programs during the mid-1980s and 1990s. In 1994, support began for a series
of evening programs called Yosemite Theater, and in 1995, the Wilderness Center opened,
staffed by Association volunteers. The organization also initiated a campaign to “Keep Bears
Wild” by educating the public on methods to discourage scavenging bears. Publishing efforts
escalated by placing books with some of the largest distributors in the U.S., creating and
distributing book catalogs, and retaining an independent book representative, Wilcher and
Associates to promote YA’s publications across the Western states. Medley also entered books in
publishing competitions, and from 1994-1995, won 15 Excellence in Interpretation Awards from
the National Park Service, including the prestigious Director’s Award twice. YA publications
received other awards from the American Association of Museums, and the American
Association for State and Local History. The Field Seminar Program was also lauded by the
National Park Service in 1994 as the best interpretive program offered by a cooperating
association in the national park system. By 1997, a total of 997 participants were enrolled in over
The achievements of the 1990s were occasionally offset by political and financial tensions
during the same time period. YA’s comments in support of a Wild and Scenic designation for the
Merced River and the effort to Save Mono Lake were viewed as inappropriate by Superintendent
Finley, and this controversy sparked comment in local newspaper articles and editorial pages.
After the devastating 1997 flood, tension also existed between YA and YF as both lobbied for
donations to aid recovery. To avert any conflicts, YF proposed an agreement with YA focusing
on complimentary roles and collaborative fundraising, member solicitation, facility planning, and
By 1999, Beth Pratt was hired as vice-president to help manage YA, but by 2002, the
organization was undergoing significant financial stresses. The Board of Trustees, now totaling
16 members, assumed responsibility, and the treasurer and finance committee chair stepped
down. The Board expanded Beth Pratt’s position to officially include the responsibilities of chief
financial officer, and requested an evaluation of all programs. A business plan sought funds to
support the Publication Program.
In October 2006, YA experienced another crisis when President Steven Medley was killed in an
automobile accident. Beth Pratt served as interim president until the Board’s selection of David
Guy as chief executive officer in June 2007. Under Guy’s leadership, program partnerships were
established or confirmed with the YF for the Junior Ranger program, Heyday Books in Berkeley
for publishing, and with the National Park Service, as guidebooks were tailored to specific areas
of Yosemite. Guy also finalized a new Memorandum of Understanding to operate the reservation
systems of the Wilderness Center and Ostrander Ski Hut, initiated a board member evaluation
protocol, and continued the annual spring forum for members.
As the Board and new chief executive officer established YA’s future direction, the impact of the
nation-wide economic downturn could not be ignored. In 2009, YA submitted a letter to YF
suggesting a Joint Sustainability Task Force created from each organization’s board. The Task
Force hired consultants from the firm La Piana, who surveyed members, other cooperating
associations, and NPS staff. The consultants concluded that a merger of YA and YF would
benefit both organizations, and the National Park Service supported the proposal to merge.
In December 2009, both organizations signed a merger agreement, operating on by-laws similar
to those of the YF. All YF board members remained board trustees, and all YA board members
were invited to join an existing Board Council. Some YA board members also became members
of the Board of Trustees, and David Guy was temporarily retained as a consultant. Two new
committees were added to existing YF committees -- an Education and Programs Committee,
and a Sales and Publications Committee. All YA members and YF donors were retained as
“Friends” and offices remained in El Portal and San Francisco. The merged organization, named
the Yosemite Conservancy, was formally launched on January 2010.
Information for this summary was gathered from correspondence, reports, and manuscripts in the
collection including those of Henry Berry, Steven Medley, David Guy, and former YA Board
Chairman Thomas Shephard. Another source was the 1969 report of Edwin C. Alberts, NPS
Cooperating Association Coordinator for the Western Regional Office (Series I, Subseries E,
Folder 13). Information was also collected from "The Yosemite Association: 80 Years of
Support for Yosemite," Yosemite, vol. 65, no. 3, Summer 2003 and the Yosemite Conservancy’s
web site at www.yosemiteconservancy.org