SL’s Matthew Bieker catches up with the creator of the NPR podcast YosemiteLand.
I read that you grew up on a peach farm south of Fresno. Did that have any bearing on your current career path?
My first full-time job was at Valley Public Radio in Fresno as a general assignment reporter. But because of my interest in the environment, because I was a geography minor, and I had a farming background, they asked me about six months in if I would cover environment and agriculture. It just came easy because I knew about tractors essentially. So, yeah, it sort of shaped why I’m doing what I’m doing today.
Why did you decide you wanted to work in radio?
I worked for the Fresno Bee for a year as a police reporter in college, three nights a week, and then I just wanted to try out everything. So I tried radio—I interned at the public radio station in Fresno, I did a video internship, I worked at the school paper, and then my last semester I got an internship with Al Jazeera in D.C., because I wanted (to do) TV and something international. (After college) I got a print job, and about three months into (it), my editor said, ‘My husband could help you make a better career choice for yourself if you’d like,’ and I was like, ‘Well, who is he?’ ‘Oh, he’s in charge of diversity for NPR.’ So he said, ‘These stations are hiring and you should apply.’ And one of them was the station I interned at in college, Fresno, and it just happened to be a regional station that covered six counties, two national parks and three national forests. And I thought, ‘That’s a good idea, I don’t have to go back to East Coast journalism with suits and ties, I can go to California and wear polos.’ I never had a dream or ambition to be in public radio—I actually grew up in a very conservative, Christian, far-right family, so I didn’t know about public radio until I was in college. But then the job opened up and I ended up liking it. I just wanted to tell stories in an interesting way that are character-driven, you get to go to fun places, you get to actually embody whatever the work is about— whatever the topic is about—and I feel public radio does that.
Were there any issues that were unique to California and the Sierra you felt you wanted to direct your attention toward?
At that time, the drought was beginning. And I felt like this area was underreported. Say, on the East Coast, in New York or Boston, there are all these journalists, and here on the West Coast there just aren’t many, so any story is yours. Like, if you found it, you report it and you’re the guy behind it. When the drought happened about six months into my job, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is perfect. This is something that’s interesting, this is happening, it’s a big deal, it’s harming a lot of people. It’s affecting the ecosystem in the area, everything from ground water to dying trees, the animals, to people’s lives, to drinking water.’ I wanted to tell those kinds of stories of people in need and how the environment is folded into that.
That leads me into the impetus for your YosemiteLand podcast for Capital Public Radio. It sounds like you’ve had a connection to Yosemite for a long time, but why did you start the podcast?
I’d just started at CapRadio (in Sacramento) and they wanted me to do a podcast, and I had done a series at my (Fresno) station on housing affordability in the Yosemite region, the towns and cities in and outside of Yosemite, how the Airbnb economy was affecting people who lived there. I’d (also) covered Yosemite for about five and a half years. I had all this experience camping there as a kid, and then in my adult life, spending a lot of time there hiking and hanging out with friends who have worked in the park, (so) I had a personal connection with the park, and then I also had all this reporting I had done there, so we thought it could be something interesting. Everyone loves Yosemite, 4 to 5 million people visit there every year, so like, let’s do this podcast.
I got a lot from your podcast in terms of the major changes that Yosemite is facing in the near future: overpopulation, natural disasters like fire, and climate change. In your opinion, where does the greatest threat to Yosemite’s continued existence come from?
From the reporting, I think a lot of the sources we spoke with would say humanity is one of the largest threats to the natural world. Natural climate change is amplified by humanity, right? (Also) when it comes to fire suppression, when a big fire takes off, it’s amplified because there’s all this fuel on the ground, because we haven’t let fires burn. So I would say, in a lot of ways, the human world has put the natural world at risk.
I believe it. I visited Yosemite over the summer and I thought equally as stunning as the beauty was the sheer amount of people being funneled in and out of the valley.
Yosemite’s such a beautiful place right? At some point in the podcast, I said something to the (effect) of: ‘I’ve made all these claims about how busy Yosemite is, and I don’t want to come here anymore because of how busy it is. But at the same time, it’s so beautiful here that I want to come back, and it’s still worth it to manage all those people because of the great place it is.’ And it is still worth it to go. And the park service works really hard to mitigate all that traffic. They’re working on pilot projects about parking and congestion, and have moved parking away from Merced River to help preserve (it). So it is a feat, an ongoing journey to them. But I think the park is totally worth visiting, and you can (always) just change when you go.
Is there anything that people should know about visiting Yosemite in the off-season? And is there anything people can do personally to help protect the park or minimize their impact?
Winter is one of the best times to visit Yosemite. There are less people, it’s beautiful, there’s snow on the ground, you get some of the best pictures. You can’t scale some of the mountains like you can in the summer and late-spring when conditions are great for hiking, but it’s a different experience. The valley changes and it becomes white and there’s ice—it’s just gorgeous. So I’d say visit in the winter. And to your other question, for people to have a smaller impact on Yosemite, they just need to think about how they’re experiencing it. Maybe instead of parking in Yosemite, they take a YART bus in—that’s a service that can take you from places like Merced to Yosemite National Park. And then don’t litter. Just be kind, don’t take things from Yosemite, leave the natural world as it is. Experience it and just take photos home with you.
Throughout the course of the podcast, one of the aspects I found most interesting was about the tribes that were native to the Yosemite Valley, and how they are starting to reclaim their identity and even physical space in the valley. Do you have a favorite episode or issue that you felt was especially important to cover?
Two, and for two different reasons. I think the most important one was the Native American episode, and I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t tokenizing them. The Awahnichi people are made up of seven to eight tribes, and they just recently got access to a village they can develop themselves. I wanted to capture what they wanted, the experiences they’ve gone through, and just have their voices shine really loud—versus something that would just stereotype them. I just hung out with them for a really long time and I even had some little spiritual experiences with them. Second, I really loved our rock climbing episode. I met with everyone from Alex Honnold, who free-solo’d El Capitan and Half Dome, to young rock climbers who were inspired by Alex and documentaries on Netflix about rock climbing, to guys like Ken Yager who’s been climbing for 45 years in Yosemite. It was just cool to meet all those generations of rock climbers, and hear how they’ve gone from gnarly dirt-bag kind of guys to celebrities, and how rock climbing has gone mainstream. There are Patagonia commercials about rock climbing in magazines and TV. That was just one episode I felt connected to.
I’m sure. And, personally, it sounds like a lot of fun as well.
Totally. As a reporter, you write about things that you’re interested in, or maybe that you’re not. But to me, it’s kind of a bonus if there’s fun involved, right? Like, not everything has to be boring or laborsome.
Absolutely. Thanks for your time, Ezra, I really appreciated speaking with you.