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Abraham Lincoln never had the chance to stroll through the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees, gaze at the soaring granite faces of El Capitan and Half Dome, or feel the cool spray of waterfalls that come alive when the Sierra Nevada snows melt in spring.

Yet because of his actions 150 years ago, at a time when the nation's very survival was at risk, millions of Americans do those things every year while drawing inspiration from Yosemite National Park.

This June 30 is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's signing of the Yosemite Grant Act, a law that set aside core sections of what is now the park for protection and preservation for public use, in perpetuity.

The action didn't create the first national park; that came eight years later, with Yellowstone. But historians and conservationists credit the 1864 law — passed by Congress during one of the bloodiest periods of the Civil War — with laying the groundwork for what we know now as the national park system.

"This was the seed,'' former Yosemite superintendent Mike Tollefson says. "This was the idea, that an area should be protected for all people for all times.''

It's an idea other nations from China to Chile have copied with national park systems of their own, says Tollefson, now president of the Yosemite Conservancy, which raises money to support park improvements.

That history may escape many of the nearly 4 million visitors to Yosemite every year. But the National Park Service and the tourism-dependent communities that surround the park are spending the year highlighting Lincoln's role with commemorations, cultural events and re-enactments.

On June 30, ranger Scott Gediman will slam down a sledge hammer to begin breaking up pavement in the Mariposa Grove. It will be a symbolic start to the latest effort to reduce the human footprint in Yosemite, replacing tram roads with hiking trails and creating an environment for new growth.

"It's a natural cathedral,'' Gediman says of the grove. "We want to get it back to that state.''

The $36 million project is to be financed with $20million from the Yosemite Conservancy — which is still raising money toward that goal — and the remainder in federal money.

The hundreds of giant trees inside Yosemite are among the largest living things on the planet, their lifespan measured in thousands of years. The trunks are as big as 36 feet in diameter.

"It's a very spiritual experience to spend time in the grove,'' Tollefson says.

The act Lincoln signed was passed by Congress with little controversy and no money for maintenance, protection of the trees or anything else. It turned over two parcels, Yosemite Valley and what was called the Mariposa Big Tree Grove nearby, to the state of California with the condition that they "be held for public use, resort and recreation.''

It is also remembered as the birth of California's state park system. But the state was not yet up to the job, in the view of pioneering naturalist (and Sierra Club founder) John Muir and others at the time, author Dayton Duncan recounts in his newly published book about the anniversary, Seed of the Future — Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea (Yosemite Conservancy, $27).

Four decades after Lincoln and Congress took that first step, another president, Theodore Roosevelt, made a visit to Yosemite. The trees were already widely visited ancient wonders, some marred by man, when Roosevelt arrived in 1903.

One photo shows Roosevelt and his official party in front of a sequoia tree with a carriage tunnel cut through it. Another photo shows him in front of Grizzly Giant, a tree estimated to be 1,800 years old.

Now remembered as one of the great conservationists in the nation's political history, Roosevelt slipped away from his official party after that bit of public tourism, Duncan recounts. Rather than sleep at the park's Wawona Hotel, he spent three nights camping in the wilderness with Muir, who showed him the incomparable landscape up close and pressed him for more complete federal protection.

"It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man,'' Roosevelt said of the experience.

A 5-inch snowfall on one of those nights only invigorated the president more."This has been the grandest day of my life,'' he is reported to have said when he rejoined his official party.

Roosevelt returned to Washington and signed legislation in 1906 that united the core of Yosemite — its lush valley and the giant grove of sequoia trees — with the surrounding mountain range as a national park under federal protection, no longer entrusted to the state. That act also gave the president new powers to establish national monuments.

"Let every Yosemite tree and stream rejoice,'' Muir wrote.

About the park

Size: 761,268 acres

Visitors: 3,691,191 in 2013

Established: 1890

History: Native Americans lived in the Yosemite Valley until the Gold Rush. President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864 to protect the valley. Scottish-born naturalist and writer John Muir was entranced by the area during a visit in 1868 and devoted much of his life to its conservation. He was a founder of the Sierra Club.

When visiting: The Yosemite Valley Visitor Center is on Northside Drive in Yosemite Village. The entrance fee, good for seven days, is $20 per vehicle or $10 for an individual. Visitor info: 209-372-0200.

Of note: The park is as big as the state of Rhode Island, but most visitors spend their time in the 7-mile-long, 1-mile-wide Yosemite Valley.

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