The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Ten:
Sanctuary on Trial

For Yosemite the 1920s and 1930s were a most important crossroads. Led by Joseph Grinnell, scientists were challenging long-held beliefs, above all that the park, in the final analysis, was meant for recreation. Rather, Yosemite should be seen as a great open-air classroom, a sanctuary where every native resource, from the smallest plant to the largest predator, would be protected and studied in its natural environment. Up against that ideal were the traditional park values of increased access, development, and economic self-interest. Government officials and concessionaires alike still measured their success by the level of visitation. That left the problem of how to deal with a growing number of visitors whose interest in the landscape was easily disrupted or distracted. Park features were wonderful but not consistently entertaining, especially after dark. What else should be provided for the visitor's diversion and amusement?

Like earlier prophets, particularly John Muir and Frederick Law Olmsted, Joseph Grinnell defined entertainment as the study of ecology. Evenings would be spent attending lectures and campfire programs. Yet most visitors, concessionaires argued, wanted something more to do. Besides, the whole of Yosemite was practically uninhabited, allowing plenty of room for sanctuary outside developed areas. But the rate of change still concerned perceptive scientists; just how long would even that wilderness stay remote and inaccessible? Yosemite had become so much a part of California's mobile culture&151;so much a magnet for the tourist and the automobile—that inroads throughout the high country itself no longer seemed improbable.

As in Yellowstone and other large parks, the black bears in Yosemite were an early barometer of the tension between resource management and development pressures. Although encounters between bears and visitors had already occurred, it was not until the 1920s that the problem became acute. Previously the majority of bears had been hunted or chased out of the valley; even government soldiers and civilian rangers had killed bears on occasion. Dogs were also used to keep the animals away from residences and camps. Finally, under the National Park Service, government officials began to understand the basics of normal bear behavior. The number of animals in Yosemite Valley was found to be greatest in the fall, when sources of natural foods in the high country were all but depleted. Bears also were attracted to the valley by the visitors' food and garbage, the latter conveniently made available in Yosemite's open dumps and pits. [1]

Normally bears were scarce until late August or early September, in short, until well past the peak of the regular tourist season. But even that began to change as sources of food increased. In addition, visitors began looking for the bears. Amusement replaced fear of the bears as people delighted in their antics. The cliffs were immovable, but park animals were alive. Writing Stephen Mather in May 1924, for example, one visitor confessed, "The tameness of the deer, bear, and birds is the greatest attraction of them all." Indeed literally "thousands of people annually" were coming to Yosemite Valley just for the pleasure of feeding "bears sweets from their own hands at their feeding grounds," in other words, at the government garbage dumps, already known as the "Bear Pits" among valley residents and visitors. [2]

The ramifications of open garbage were not lost on Stephen Mather. "Isn't it about time," he immediately wrote Superintendent W. B. Lewis, "that we worked around toward some plan for the incineration of garbage as the true solution?" Otherwise, confrontations between visitors and bears seemed only inevitable, since "it is possible that too many bears may be attracted to the Valley, where they may become a nuisance to the campers." [3]

Although the proposal made sense, other sources of food and garbage—including the campsites themselves—still would have attracted large numbers of bears. Logistically the problem was coming sharply into focus; as long as the number of visitors increased, totally separating people from bears would be next to impossible. Meanwhile, a combination of biases undermined even modest suggestions for making the attempt. Simply, visitors wanted to see bears, and the Park Service—ever conscious that more visitors spelled its own success and survival as a federal agency—was not about to cool a romance the public so firmly endorsed.

Rather, the Park Service openly encouraged it. And this was not the first time visitors had been entertained through resource manipulation. But bears, as potentially dangerous animals, were obviously in a different category than fenced or caged mountain lions, rattlesnakes, ground squirrels, or Tule elk. There was, nonetheless, a widespread conviction that bears could be controlled and still provide entertainment for thousands of visitors. Accordingly, as early as 1924 the Yosemite National Park Company, the Curry Company's leading competitor, received permission to spread crankcase drainings from its buses over the government garbage dumps in an effort to break bears of their habit of frequenting those pits. But the intent was not to stop bears from eating garbage; the real motive was to force the animals over to new feeding platforms just erected by the concessionaire. "It seems to me," wrote one irate visitor, "that the object of the Company's action is to secure patronage for their [evening entertainment]. If the creatures are hungry the little food put out will attract them." [4]

In a lengthy report to Stephen Mather, Superintendent Lewis carefully explained that no one intended permanent harm to the bears. However, the accusations of concerned park visitors—that the Park Service had openly allowed its dumps to be polluted with oil—were also fully confirmed. "Up until about two years ago," Lewis remarked, "bears were just about as scarce in Yosemite Valley as deer." Even now bears customarily did not appear in the valley until late in the season. "For many years," he continued, "they did all their feeding at the garbage pits at night and it was only with the greatest difficulty that tourists going to the pits after dark were enabled to get a glimpse of a bear." And that, Lewis argued, was indeed most unfortunate, for with a greater number of bears frequenting the valley, "and a decrease in their timidity," they had in fact become "an increasing source of interest to visitors to the park." [5]

Because the garbage pits were "accessible only by rough and narrow roads," and also because "the stench of burning garbage was not particularly pleasing" to visitors, Lewis had listened to the overtures of the Yosemite National Park Company. Its proposal called for providing "a feeding place somewhere near the Village" where bears could be given "clean" and "sanitary" garbage. Lewis himself "was not particularly keen" that the government build the facility; then, in 1923, "the Company suggested that they experiment with the thing themselves, which I allowed them to do. They put a feeding platform near the river bank about a mile below Yosemite Lodge on the north side of the river and erected a couple of electric flood lights." Next the concessionaire experimented with ways to bait bears "until they got into the habit of coming to feed at a regular hour in the evening." Once the animals were responding on cue, the company began running its motor stages "nightly to a point on the river bank on the opposite side of the river and directly opposite the feeding platform." The floodlights "were turned on, and the people were given an opportunity to watch the bears for fifteen or twenty minutes." [6]

The motive, Lewis admitted, was company profit. "This finally became one of the scheduled trips of the Company and was patronized quite extensively." Buses ran from both Yosemite Lodge and Camp Curry. "A charge of $.50 was made for the trip, money refunded if no bears were seen." It followed that the concessionaire had a strong incentive for bears to be present. Of course, private motorists paid nothing for the privilege of using the same facility. Nor did it "detract from the garbage pits themselves," since later in the year the pits also "were patronized day and night by hundreds of motorists." [7]

Competition was far more likely at the beginning of the season, when bears in Yosemite Valley normally were not as active. Consequently, around May 1, 1924, the company manager had approached Lewis and asked "permission for the Company, in order to get the bear show started, to burn garbage with oil for a few days in order to try to drive, some of the bears at least, up to their regular feeding platform." Lewis had approved. "Unfortunately," he confessed, "instead of confining this to a few days they kept it up for three or four weeks and it was only stopped when I got a protest some two weeks ago." In other words, he had bent to company pressure until his own complicity had been revealed. Still, he maintained that the protesters tended "to exaggerate the situation materially." In fact the experiment had failed. Burning garbage with oil had not resulted "in driving the bears to the feeding platform as was expected." As proof, the company had discontinued its trips "until later in the season," when bears "just naturally" became more plentiful. "Like most of these protests," Lewis concluded, still defending his concurrence in the matter, the issue had "two sides." He saw nothing to justify either the "elimination of the bear show" or its modification "in any way." [8]

In retrospect, Lewis's stand marked another retreat from preservation, as well as the beginning of Yosemite's perennial bear problem. Whichever had come first—public pressure to see bears or the Park Service's decision to openly encourage that activity—the fact remained that the animals were being trained, in effect, to behave unpredictably and abnormally. Like any wild animal offered a secure source of food, bears had quickly responded to the availability of garbage in Yosemite Valley. Suddenly even Lewis saw the problem that was developing. If the large government dump in the lower end of the valley was closed, the withdrawal of the bears' food supply might "force them more than ever into the public camping area." In that case, even though the installation of three new incinerators had just been approved, it might still "be necessary" to resort to artificial feeding "in the lower end of the Valley, separating and delivering clean garbage for that purpose." [9]

In the pursuit of one objective—public enjoyment of the bears—the Park Service had suddenly confronted a host of unforeseen problems, problems whose resolution was made all the more complicated not only by increasing levels of visitation but also by the knowledge that bear shows were profitable. In the pattern of David Curry, the Yosemite National Park Company had shrewdly found a way to turn a spontaneous park tradition into a formalized paid event. Lewis himself subconsciously acknowledged the distinction. "I recall how people used to sit for hours, quietly, in the dark, waiting for a bear to appear in order that they might turn their spot lights on him and get a glimpse of him as he dashed away in the timber." [10] All at once the sense of anticipation, the quiet, and the spontaneity were gone. No longer was the visitor's patience either a virtue or a necessity. For just fifty cents and a money-back guarantee, bears would magically appear at the concessionaire's feeding platform, not only in greater numbers but also on time.

In its eagerness to maximize visitation, the Park Service had not thought through the contradictions of feeding bears anything. In addition, what were the consequences of allowing a concessionaire to profit by that activity, even if it was later found to be in the animals' best interest? The Yosemite National Park Company had a stake not only in the activity but also in the facility the company had provided. In other words, reminiscent of David Curry's appropriation and popularization of the firefall, the Yosemite National Park Company had extracted a park tradition, and the control of that tradition, from government officials. Henceforth any reversal of that decision would be easier said than done. Much as the firefall, abolished by the Interior Department in 1913, was restored to Glacier Point just four years later, the feeding platform would have to be discontinued over the objections of its investors and supporters, who predictably would defend its legitimacy on those very grounds—precedent and cost. Similarly, the longer the platform was used, the more the public would accept it and, in time, simply conclude that feeding bears was a hallowed park tradition.

As a group, park naturalists held the most reservations about wildlife policy in Yosemite. Many, after all, were students, friends, or colleagues of Professor Joseph Grinnell's. They tended, as a result, to bring to their positions his uncompromising conviction that national parks should be refuges of biological diversity. Recreation should be spontaneous and nondisruptive, imbued with an appreciation for what the natural world by itself had to offer. The Park Service should be concerned less with entertainment and more with education and preservation. Park officials were not responsible for "making things happen"; rather, the visitor was responsible for accepting parks for what they were. At the very least, parks could not be every thing to both visitors and natural resources without risking the consequence of mixed priorities and seriously eroding the resource.

Those who trusted Professor Grinnell as a chief proponent of that philosophy increasingly took him into their confidence or asked him for advice. To reemphasize, many who came to him in this fashion were long time colleagues or former students. In October 1927, for example, the issue of bears evoked a plea for greater caution from Carl P. Russell, Yosemite's park naturalist. A master's degree recipient from the University of Michigan in 1917 (he would obtain his Ph.D. there in 1932), Russell had come to Yosemite in 1923 as a summer field naturalist. His promotion to park naturalist led invariably to correspondence with Grinnell, whom Russell came to admire for his unremitting good advice. Yet in a draft position paper just brought to the naturalist's attention, Grinnell had argued that although every species of native wildlife ought to be protected in national parks, reducing the population of those animals known to becausing problems might still be acceptable. "Don't, for the love of Mike," Russell replied in strict confidence, "let such a suggestion regarding disposition of Yosemite bears come from your office. With such a leverage certain ones of our officials will do a splendid job of eliminating the bear nuisance!" Already there was "plenty of tendency to drive out and kill the Yosemite Valley animals." Proponents of eradication were still looking for any excuse. "A word from an authority in your position," Russell therefore warned, "would bring on a grand slaughter, I fear." [11]

Even more troubling, the Park Service seemed indifferent to a permanent solution. "Almost alone," Russell noted, "I've stood for non-molestation of bears." The way to reduce their so-called depredations was not to kill more animals; rather, the solution was to insist on greater responsibility from both residents and visitors. Simply, human carelessness was supplying bears with too many artificial sources of food. "Right now we are dumping no garbage in out-of-door cans," he reported, identifying one method of reducing those sources. "Each household has been supplied, or will be supplied, with small sanitary cans to be held inside and dumped each morning when the garbage wagon calls." Granted, garbage that had not been incinerated still wound up in the dumps. "But at any rate bears are not bothering camps and houses as they were." As long as garbage could "be supplied at the old dumps every year," he therefore concluded, "I think no serious damage will be done by bears." [12]

In another noteworthy departure from standard management biases, Russell blamed people for most bear-inflicted injuries. At the least, it seemed inconsistent to kill so many bears for actions aided and abetted by human interference. "I don't feel that we are justified in killing a third of the bears now in Yosemite Valley, nor even a half dozen," he remarked in this vein. Recently, for example, a female bear with cubs had been singled out as "a menace to visitors by sending a score to the hospital with minor scratches and bites." Presuming she would be killed, he concluded emphatically that he would prefer "to place the responsibility upon the foolish visitors who insist on feeding her, and her cubs, from their hands. She injured no one who left her alone." [13]

Grinnell's response left little doubt that Russell had made his point. "I have your letter of October 7 before me," the professor wrote, "with its vigorous and logical defense of the bear." He would, accordingly, defer to Russell's judgment, "as based on an intimate personal knowledge of the situation—including its human factor." The draft recommendations in question would immediately be revised and only then sent as an "Open Letter" to the park superintendent, "for whatever possible good it may do." [14]

Russell, it may be said, was also ahead of his time. Even Joseph Grinnell was not yet prepared to argue that wildlife had certain rights transcending human perceptions of animals and their worth. What Russell seemed to be saying was that bears did have rights, at least that of behaving as any parent, human or otherwise, would in the protection of its young. Was it asking too much of park visitors not to approach a female bear and her cubs? Even more to the point, why exterminate bears but not punish people? Whose behavior, after all, was truly abnormal? "I have yet to be molested in any way by a Yosemite bear," Russell stated, further elaborating on his defense. Rather, the blame for such encounters usually lay on the other side. Bears kept getting into trouble because humans were careless. "I put no bacon in my screened porch," he remarked, offering another prime example of an everyday stupidity. As a result, he was not in the least surprised that no bear gave his porch "a second sniff." [15]

Russell's common sense aside, bear management in Yosemite for the next fifty years was a constant juggling act between periods of occasional leniency and ones of vigorous control. Control at best was interference, resulting mainly in capturing bears and transporting the animals to remote portions of the park. At worst, large numbers of bears were killed under the rubric of public safety. "Something has to be done," Superintendent C. G. Thomson pleaded to Grinnell in 1929. That spring alone, more than thirty people had been injured, "and some serious damage had been done to automobiles by marauding bears." The situation in Thomson's view further justified borrowing two dogs "to help us discourage the bears from remaining at Happy Isles, Camp Curry, the Lodge, and similar living and circulation areas." Otherwise, he confessed, the solution was simply "to shoot the offending bears" and be done with the entire problem once and for all. [16]

Thomson did not approve what he called "that lazy method"; on the other hand, he too was a victim of pejorative language. Bears were "marauding," "offending," "dangerous," or "troublesome." "Of course, our responsibility is to the visitors," he argued, further revealing his rationale for stepping up bear-control measures. [17] And to Carl P. Russell that was just the point: What really was accomplished by controlling only bears? What about insisting that park visitors be responsible as well? After all, if the public encouraged bears to behave abnormally, the penalty was just a reprimand, but if bears injured visitors in the process, the penalty was often death.

Like wildlife issues in general, the question of bear management in Yosemite had considerably sharpened because changes in the park had been so rapid and dramatic. Those changes, moreover, were both physical and philosophical. Physically, Yosemite by the late 1920s averaged nearly a half-million visitors a year. The Park Service greeted each visitor as a measure of success, proof that the American public wanted and supported its national parks. But more visitation also brought more problems, ranging from minor infractions and weekend overcrowding to a plethora of issues not as easily resolved. Simply, the park's physical plant was undergoing greater and greater strain. And just as the government moved in to correct the situation, giving priority, for example, to better roads and accommodations, along came a new awareness of park ecology and its needs.

The issue had been sharpened. Where did human responsibility toward the resource begin and end? More specific, were parks to accommodate increasing crowds of visitors apparently at the expense of everything else?

As Yosemite's history testified, commitments to the protection of natural resources tended to be considerably weakened the closer those resources lay to existing or planned development. Put another way, protection of an area was always least controversial the more remote that area was from the demands of civilization. That irony of conservation was perfectly mirrored in Yosemite Valley, where those favoring greater development already commonly invoked the argument that wilderness enthusiasts had the rest of the park (that is, the high country) practically all to themselves. Preservationists dismissed the argument exactly for what it was, a seductive invitation to accept only what no one else wanted. In their view the challenge was to mitigate every change, to bring people and resources together even in Yosemite Valley without constantly succumbing to human frivolities at the environment's expense.

That mandate aside, record visitation throughout the 1920s presaged another rush to modernize and expand park facilities. Charles W. Michael, Yosemite's assistant postmaster and an amateur ornithologist, was among those who complained bitterly that the valley was being overrun. "Yosemite Valley is getting to be an awful place," he wrote Joseph Grinnell in July 1927. "We have had crowds all season and right now the camps are very much crowded. The air is filled with smoke, dust, and the smell of gasoline." The following summer Michael's report was very much the same. "I am tired of the constant whizz of automobiles," he confessed. Fall in the valley was far more peaceful and "lovely." Unfortunately, "sooner or later" the public at large would also "get wise to this fact and then there will be no rest at all for those who like peace and quiet." [18]

Least among them, it appeared, was the National Park Service, for whom the "whizz" of automobiles was the sweet sound of success. Also to attract visitors, the Park Service encouraged an annual rodeo, better known in Yosemite circles as Indian Field Days. The idea was first suggested in 1916 by the Desmond Park Company, the forerunner of the Yosemite National Park Company and originator of the bear-feeding show. The company asked local Indians to a barbecue in the valley; in return, tourists were entertained with dances and were invited to purchase native crafts, "which," Superintendent Lewis later reported, "did not sell particularly well." [19] Admittedly, the entire event was a disappointment and was therefore discontinued.

In 1920, however, Indian Field Days was revived, this time as a full-fledged rodeo complete with horse-bucking, pony races, and mounted tugs-of-war. Subsequently the three-day festival was cut back to two days; still, the number of Indians and visitors participating had steadily grown. "Accordingly," Superintendent Lewis was finally pleased to report, "we feel here that this thing is becoming quite an event and is beginning to draw visitors to the park. It is generally held about the first week in August," he further observed, "after the heavy flow of travel has stopped and undoubtedly has had some effect on the prolongation of our heavier travel season." The Yosemite National Park Company was delighted, having further suggested "creating an Indian village here in the Valley." Apparently the objective was to "charge an entrance admission to the evening dances and Pow-wows that would be given." Here Lewis himself cautioned that he might draw the line, noting the danger of creating "side shows of all kinds to which admission would be charged." Meanwhile, Indian Field Days had certainly served its purpose—the attraction of more visitors to Yosemite National Park. [20]

Indian Field Days, the firefall, the bear show—the list of such activities was obviously growing. But again, each was promotional. None contributed to the preservation of the environment. All, moreover, had been inspired by concessionaires, further suggesting that profit rather than park ecology was the true object of concern.

So too the Park Service went along and, it could be argued, enthusiastically approved. Indeed, when talk finally did get back to regulation, the government seemed far more worried about visitor services than the environment. In Yosemite the tide of visitation had led to growing concern about the quality and quantity of all types of accommodations. For years the two largest competitors, the Yosemite National Park Company and Curry Camping Company, had thrown charge and countercharge at each other about unfair business practices. [21] Each company, it appeared, had found a ready-made excuse for any alleged failure to meet the public's needs.

The government had finally heard enough. In 1925 Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work insisted that the companies merge and pool their facilities; henceforth they would be awarded a virtual monopoly of all accommodations and sales. Theoretically, regulation from the Park Service's perspective would be easier and more direct. Similarly, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, as the new organization would be called, would have far more capital to invest in major construction projects. [22]

Just two years later, for example, on July 14, 1927, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company opened the opulent Ahwahnee Hotel, thereby realizing a thirty-year dream for true luxury accommodations on the floor of Yosemite Valley. Structurally the Ahwahnee was a shadow from the past, grand testimony to the period when only wealthy Americans could afford to visit the national parks. [23] Symbolically, however, it was dramatic witness to the new management structure. Increasingly, concessionaires spoke in terms of their partnership with park officials. The implication was obvious—both were after the same results. Legally the National Park Service was in absolute control of Yosemite; in practical matters, however, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company was becoming more and more influential. The establishment of the legal monopoly did more than consolidate leasing privileges; it further consolidated and enhanced the concessionaire's business and political base.

The question again was simple: What would happen if opposing wills clashed, especially if the quest for profits seemed contradictory to the needs of preservation? In that instance might not the Park Service itself be at a great disadvantage, having aided, in effect, the development of a powerful management structure alongside its own?

Although the potential for conflict of interest was practically everywhere, the extent to which park resources might in fact be compromised was still most dramatically visible in calls for controlling bears. As visitor complaints about bears steadily mounted so did the Yosemite Park and Curry Company's concern that the animals were driving away business. "It is literally true," wrote the company president Donald Tresidder on September 30, 1927, "that the Curry Housekeeping Camp was forced to close this Fall at least two weeks earlier than contemplated because of the fact that our guests simply would not endure the bear nuisance." Company estimates of revenue losses totaled "hundreds of dollars weekly through guests who enter the Park contemplating a stay of from one to two weeks but who leave within a day or two, owing to the fact that they spend their nights defending their property against the bears and dare not leave their camps during the daytime for the same reason." Nor did the problem end there. "For example," he further reported, "at Camp Curry cars have been partially demolished by bears in their attempts to get candy or other sweet-stuffs locked in the machines." And in at least one instance, an "outraged guest, who had his sedan almost torn to pieces," demanded payment for damages from the Yosemite Park and Curry Company and threatened a lawsuit. [24]

Simply removing foodstuffs from peoples' cars had not thwarted the animals in the least, "because guests who took boxes of candy or food to their tents. . . returned from meals to find suitcases torn open and, in two instances, found not only their clothes and effects destroyed but the tents themselves completely demolished." And the situation was no different in company housing. "Night after night," Tresidder remarked, "our employees are forced to stand guard." One camper had finally "evolved the scheme of throwing a rope over an overhanging limb and pulling the food out of the bears' reach." But only the preceding night a bear had "climbed out on this limb, broke it down," and proceeded to run off with the food. The guest then "thought it was the company's duty to give him and his wife meals at the cafeteria, in view of the destruction of his property." [25]

Everywhere, in short, the situation was much the same—guests were leaving the valley prematurely "because of their fear of bears." Even people who normally stayed between one and three months were cutting back their visits by substantial amounts. A recent article in a San Francisco newspaper charged that it seemed Yosemite National Park was "being run for the protection of bears and not for the protection of tourists." Likewise, sweeping California were rumors that hundreds of people had been injured—some very seriously—by Yosemite's bears. "While these reports are grossly exaggerated," Tresidder himself admitted, "nevertheless there is sufficient truth in them to do us a great deal of harm." [26]

Of course, by harm Tresidder was referring to the company's profits. Indeed nowhere in his letter was there any hint of resolving the bear problem from a biological point of view. Nor did he acknowledge the company's complicity in attracting bears to Yosemite Valley through continuing publicity stunts such as the evening bear show. The problem again was not human ignorance or expedience; rather, all penalties should be extracted from Yosemite's bears alone.

If ever there was a conflict of interest between profit and preservation between the Park Service as protector of the resource or as facilitator of company gains—this was it. "With the present lack of protection outside of the park we can very well go to some little trouble to raise a few bears," Carl P. Russell, the park naturalist, confided to Joseph Grinnell. "I beg you," he therefore repeated, "don't start anything that will encourage killing of Yosemite bears." Russell saw it too; the company, rather than biologists, had management's undivided attention. "We have had quite a number of suggestions as to how the bear situation might be relieved," E. P. Leavitt, acting superintendent, reported to Washington on October 8. Yet it was Tresidder's letter of September 30 that Leavitt enclosed for the director to review. Similarly, in his own letter to Park Service headquarters, he in effect corroborated Tresidder's insinuation that Yosemite was being run for bears instead of for park visitors. "While I am personally opposed to killing off bears if there is any other practical solution," Leavitt remarked, "conditions are fast reaching the stage where we must determine whether the Valley is being administered for the use and enjoyment of the people or for the use and enjoyment of the bears." [27]

As Russell vehemently argued, the responsible answer was that the park was for the enjoyment and preservation of both. But that approach required managing people as well as park animals, and this the Park Service was most reluctant to do. Complaints about bears were bad enough without inviting further denunciations from unhappy visitors perhaps penalized for feeding bears and other park wildlife. "There must be some remedy," began the standard complaint, in this instance from a camper anguished about losing sleep during three nights spent fending off bears. "As far as I am concerned I don't care if you drive them all out of the Park or kill them en masse." Either way it seemed "high time that something was done, not only in Yosemite but in the other National Parks to relieve the campers of this pest." Otherwise the National Park Service should "drop the slogan about 'the people's playground' and call the Parks plainly what they will soon be—'the bear playground'." [28]

The question begged again was, why should there be any distinction? Why not have parks that were refuges for both? Because, as Carl Russell and Joseph Grinnell had both sadly discovered, the Park Service lacked the fortitude and conviction to insist that preservation came first. "My references to my esteemed fellow-workers are quite confidential," Russell appended his letter, further acknowledging that park biology was the least of his colleagues' concerns. [29] And indeed, articulate champions of biological conservation such as Russell and Grinnell were still few and far between. When all was said and done, people far outnumbered animals, and that was the only statistic the Park Service consistently found compelling. Like the Park Service, moreover, the concessionaire served people. Inevitably, as a result, there was a hidden if not obvious partnership linking the management of the two. Their goal was the same—to satisfy visitors. The resource, it followed, would continue to suffer the expense.

Like any bureaucracy, the Park Service bent to the wishes of its constituents, and among them, visitors and concessionaires were the two most vocal and insistent. The observations of Carl P. Russell were therefore all the more significant; in 1947 he would become superintendent of Yosemite, holding that post until 1952. With a Ph.D. in ecology and a lifetime interest in western history (his books included the first significant study of Yosemite National Park), he was among that small minority of scholars and scientists promoted to higher management rank. [30] Harold C. Bryant was another, rising to the superintendency of Grand Canyon National Park. [31] Otherwise management personnel tended to have more "practical" experience and training, generally years of association with engineering, maintenance, law enforcement; or some combination of those and other operations-related skills. A military background, such as that of Superintendent "Colonel" Charles Goff Thomson, was also a career plus. Scientists were not discouraged; they were just in the minority. But even scientists were expected to have Park Service aims at heart. And the most important was the standard operating dictum that the comfort, convenience, and safety of the visitor came first.

Joseph Grinnell, outside the Park Service, and Carl P. Russell, inside, symbolized emerging efforts to redistribute the balances of management more evenly and equitably. Even if people obviously did come first, must all but the most benign resources rate a distant second? Wildlife in general, and predators in particular, had yet to be understood, let alone achieve some semblance of legal standing. Rather, the tendency persisted to judge animal behavior strictly in terms of human values. In this vein E. P. Leavitt, acting superintendent, reported in December 1927 that Jay Bruce, the state lion-hunter, "made a very successful trip to the South Fork of the Merced River below Wawona on November 29 and 30. He killed an average-size female lion and captured her three kittens, which were about four months old." That made ten lions killed in the Wawona district during 1927, "and a grand total of 43 killed by Mr. Bruce during the current year. He has killed close to 400 lions," Leavitt concluded, "since he has been engaged in this work." [32]

Clearly Jay Bruce was something of a hero to Park Service officials. So too Leavitt's replacement, Superintendent Charles Goff Thomson, reported in April 1929 his "authentic information" that a cougar was "very active around Alder Creek; a liver-pancreas-eating savage that is making his nine or ten day circuit with almost daily kills." [33] Obviously Thomson had already made up his mind that extermination of mountain lions in the Yosemite environment had to be continued.

The fate of Yosemite's bears remained equally problematic. The love-hate relationship that had finally evolved was dependent for the most part on the whims of park visitors. Residents generally considered bears a nuisance; likewise campers tended to side with calls for stricter controls. The average tourist enjoyed bears along the roadside, at least until the moment of inevitable carelessness that resulted in the predictable outcome—scratches or bites. Granted, Superintendent Thomson admitted, people shared the blame. "We cannot go on killing bears that are spoiled by familiarity with tourists," he agreed. Still, he qualified that statement, adding that the Park Service also could not allow "the bears to go unchecked." Once more the contradiction—checking bears without restraining or penalizing tourists—escaped his attention. Rather, he had discovered another rationale for promoting the bear show. Here visitors and animals could meet under strict supervision, separated by the protective gulf of the Merced River. On the one night of July 16, 1929, nearly two thousand visitors in 336 private cars and 4 large buses had filled the viewing stands for the evening demonstration. [34]

In October 1929 Superintendent Thomson reported Yosemite's "latest innovation"—a new "patrol wagon" consisting of a "large piece of corrugated pipe sealed at one end and equipped with a trap door at the other," all "mounted on two auto wheels" and pulled by a truck. Whenever an alarm was sounded that a bear was "disturbing the peace," the wagon was quickly dispatched to the site and detached from the truck. Thomson explained the process that followed: "A piece of meat [is] placed inside. Smelling the meat the bear usually jumps in, the door slams shut, after which the culprit can be transported to the lower end of the Park where he is liberated." Every bear caught was also "daubed with a bit of paint" when released; in that manner the Park Service could determine in an instant which bears were returning to residential areas. [35]

A constant employment of the bear trap over the next several years seemed to help resolve the worst of the bear problem. In 1929, eighty-one people were treated at the valley hospital for bear-inflicted injuries; from January 1 through August 31, 1932, only sixteen people required similar care. By August 1933 the situation had once again deteriorated, with fifty-two injuries reported since January 1. Once more, stepped-up killing of bears seemed the only practical solution. The total number of animals killed was rarely revealed to the public, even in the official monthly reports. In November 1935, however, Superintendent Thomson acknowledged that five "of the worst offenders had to be shot." In June 1936 he reported, "A few bears were quietly disposed of when it was determined that they were endangering persons and property." Finally, in August 1937 came the following admission: "Authority was secured from the Director to increase the number of bears that may permanently be disposed of during the current season from 8 to 14."[36]

In that fashion, wildlife management in Yosemite still swung back and forth between mild tolerance and vigorous control. Whenever trends did seem more positive—that is, whenever evidence of understanding seemed to outweigh the standard prejudices—determined efforts to educate the public, as advocated by Joseph Grinnell and his associates, appeared to make all the difference. Just another example was the Yosemite School of Field Natural History, a summer seminar begun in 1925 to train young men and women as park naturalists and science teachers. A prime objective of its first director, Harold C. Bryant, was to provide more incentive for Park Service personnel to resolve biological issues with greater patience and understanding. And indeed, a review of the twenty or so individuals admitted every year revealed that at least half were—like Bryant—somehow associated with the University of California, with Joseph Grinnell, or, more likely, with both. [37]

The Yosemite Natural History Association, established in 1924, similarly furthered the educational aims of park science and interpretation. Yet again, lasting converts were in the minority. The leading management constant continued to be park development. Although protective measures sympathetic to wildlife might still be controversial, most visitors, politicians, and local business interests could always be counted on to support expanded services and accommodations. [38]

The Great Depression proved a boon to redevelopment. Even as severe economic problems gripped American commerce and industry, Yosemite, as the direct beneficiary of government recovery programs, sailed through the 1930s with barely a ripple in the Park Service's aggressive program of internal restructuring and improvements. All but the heart of the Tioga Road, the park's cross-Sierra highway, benefited from large infusions of new construction capital. By the end of the decade every other major thoroughfare had been widened, straightened, and paved with fresh asphalt. New roads and bridges of modern design and fabrication replaced existing park structures that had outlived their usefulness. Most dramatic were the reconstructed sections of the Big Oak Flat Road, specifically that portion rising up from its new junction with the El Portal highway through a series of tunnels and right-of-ways carved from the precipitous walls of the Merced River Canyon. Similarly, the new Wawona Tunnel, dedicated in 1933, measurably enhanced travel southward on the reconstructed Wawona Road by cutting off the steepest climb out of the valley, past Inspiration Point. [39]

Before, during, and after the Depression, plans everywhere were the same—to accommodate rather than limit the influx of new visitors. Consequently, along with highways all sewage, water, electric, and telephone systems were expanded or modernized. Wherever tourists tended to congregate, new parking lots likely appeared. The Yosemite Park and Curry Company also targeted those sites for a variety of new additions. "We are attaching a blue print showing the refreshment stand we desire to construct and operate at Happy Isles," Don Tresidder, the company president, wrote Superintendent W. B. Lewis on April 26, 1927, for example. Looking forward to the stand's completion in time to serve guests that summer, Tresidder asked for approval "at an early date, in order that we may proceed with the work immediately." Similarly, on November 12, 1927, the company proposed the construction of a new toboggan slide on a site fronting Camp Curry. "In light of the late date at which it has been necessary to make this proposal," Tresidder concluded, "may we please ask that, if it is required, you telegraph Washington at our expense and request a telegraphic reply." [40]

That common brand of anxiety was just another indication that the concessionaire's priorities related strictly to business and not to the environment. Pressure was building, moreover, for any form of development that would appreciably extend the normal travel season. In Yosemite that meant the development of winter sports, and the toboggan slide proposed in 1927 was further proof that the big push was on.

Like the Curry Company, the Park Service embraced winter sports as the perfect solution to year-end declines in visitation figures. Consequently, once more the important distinctions between the regulator and the regulated were consistently blurred. The superintendent's monthly report for January 1930 was just one indication of the campaign's increased influence on Park Service management. So popular were winter sports that the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Yosemite Lodge, and the Camp Curry bungalows all had to remain open. Especially on weekends, when visitation was heaviest, many rangers were also "engaged in winter sports work." Meanwhile, park and Curry Company officials had already met with the California Development Association to discuss the possibility of attracting the 1932 Winter Olympic Games to Yosemite National Park. [41]

The Camp Curry ice rink, touted as the largest in North America, was central to everyone's hopes for winning the Olympics. The Yosemite Winter Club, another Tresidder innovation, further sponsored a broad variety of activities and promotions. In January 1931, for example, Superintendent C. G. Thomson reported the inauguration of the "first annual San Joaquin Valley—Sierra Winter Sports Carnival, sponsored by the State Chamber of Commerce." An estimated 3,700 people entered Yosemite Valley on January 10 and 11 "to witness the carnival and take part in the events." Four years later the winter sports movement reached another milestone at Badger Pass, the site of the Curry Company's downhill ski facility. By December 1935 a ski lift and a lodge were ready for guests. The following January alone, 9,995 people visited the area, proof again that winter sports in Yosemite National Park were a most popular diversion. [42]

Although the park had not been chosen for the 1932 Winter Olympics, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company had achieved its predecessor's historical ambitions—to turn Yosemite National Park into an all-year resort. The missing key for David A. Curry had been better transportation. For Don Tresidder, in contrast, the opening of the All-Year Highway in 1926 made winter sports realistic. He immediately molded that opportunity to the company's greatest advantage, inviting ice pageants, speed-skating championships, college hockey games—whatever the Park Service would allow—to play out their special brand of excitement against Yosemite Valley's imposing mountain backdrop.

In keeping with precedent, every serious call for less development and more preservation in Yosemite came from outside the government bureaucracy and especially from outside the management circles of the park concessionaire. Another skeptic and critic was Dr. John C. Merriam, president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. "It is my feeling," he wrote Stephen Mather in October 1927, "that along with a basic plan for the Valley floor, including all of the administrative and service necessities, it will be essential to go back to a fundamental investigation of the things which are dominant among the greater values of Yosemite." Needed, Merriam elaborated, was "a special commission or group" to determine the future of Yosemite National Park, giving specific attention to the possibility of "developing a plan comparable in some sense to that which is being worked out on broad lines for the National Capital." [43] Put another way, he would return to the principles of Frederick Law Olmsted, reestablishing preservation—and not recreation—as the primary purpose of Yosemite National Park.

Merriam's "special commission" was actually the vision of Duncan McDuffie, president of Mason-McDuffie, a prominent California brokerage firm with headquarters in Berkeley. Merriam not only agreed that such a commission seemed "desirable" but also considered it a virtual "necessity" in every ongoing effort "to develop means for the highest and largest use of Yosemite and at the same time to safeguard its greater values." Although the statement still lacked definition, anyone could see where he thought Yosemite ought to be headed. And that was perhaps the reason for Mather's endorsement. Inviting critics to work with the Park Service was one way of deflecting open criticism of the agency's policies, turning those very critics, as Mather implied, into another group of important "collaborators." Be that as it may, he promptly approved. Such were the origins of the Yosemite National Park Board of Expert Advisers, also known simply as the Advisory Board. [44]

Officially inaugurated on July 1, 1928, the board consisted of three members recognized for outstanding contributions to science, landscape planning, and the national parks. Duncan McDuffie accepted an appointment, as did Dr. John P. Buwalda, a geologist with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., of Brookline, Massachusetts. The choice of Olmsted was especially symbolic. Like his father, he had risen to become one of the nation's most reputable landscape architects. The senior Olmsted had died in 1903, but in his son the legacy of Yosemite planning had indeed come full circle. Much as Frederick senior had implored nineteenth-century Californians to think far beyond themselves, so Frederick junior insisted that planning always with an eye to the future was still the government's primary responsibility. [4]5

Accordingly, over the next several years the Advisory Board met and addressed every issue that might have affected the park's destiny. In the valley those issues included the following: dredging Mirror Lake to preserve its depth and thereby its reflections; constructing cableways from the valley floor to Glacier Point and Mount Watkins; sanitation and sewage disposal; trail location and maintenance; traffic circulation and automobile congestion; and relocating the existing Yosemite Village. Outside the valley the committee investigated construction at Glacier Point, development at Tuolumne Meadows, and the effect of increasing visitation at the Mariposa Grove, among other issues affecting the development and protection of all backcountry zones. As early as August 16, 1928, for example, Frederick Law Olmsted, chairman of the board, reported to Stephen Mather that concerns had arisen regarding the future realignment of the existing Tioga Road west of Tioga Pass. "A careful reconnaissance should at once be made to determine the best ultimate location," Olmsted wrote. Especially at Tuolumne Meadows, the Tioga Road's final realignment would measurably affect the most suitable locations "for camping, for the Lodge and cabins, for the store, garage, and other services, and for the administration headquarters for this part of the Park." [46]

Predictably, however, development pressures kept Yosemite Valley as the focus of attention. Already the Curry Company was falling back on a standard line of argument—there was no parking "problem" in Yosemite Valley that more parking lots would not resolve. Olmsted strongly disagreed and reported on November 7, 1928, "The more we studied it the more keenly we felt that it would be a calamitous loss to obliterate the arm of the meadow in front of Camp Curry by gravelling it and converting it into an automobile parking space." Granted, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company wanted more parking for its guests. Even so, a lot at this location "would be a very serious loss to the attractiveness and value of Camp Curry." Eastward from the meadow in question the view opened "across the Valley toward the Royal Arches and up the Valley into Tenaya Canyon," Olmsted observed. Throughout Camp Curry's history, that was the view patrons had found "so distinguished and so pleasantly memorable." Although many current guests undoubtedly thought first about their cars and not about any particular view, that was all the more reason to resist substituting "for this meadow a necessarily ugly, bare, parking yard, partly or wholly filled with serried ranks of automobiles." Probably nothing else, short of decimating Camp Curry's trees, would do more to destroy its "pleasant association" and to make guests sense that the camp was in fact "overcrowded and overgrown and citified," in short, "not very well worth coming back to." Last, but by no means least, "a great parking yard, as seen from Glacier Point, for example, would seem like desecration." [47]

In his emphasis on protecting the subtler beauties of Yosemite Valley, Olmsted had simply taken up where his father had left off in 1865. He further stated Professor Buwalda's opinion. "The two assets of the Valley which are in a sense most vulnerable, the two which if marred involve the most irreparable injury, are the cliffs and the meadows." At least scars in vegetation had some chance to heal, whereas those "on bare granite [could] never be obliterated." Still, "radical changes in the meadows by filling on them for roads or parking spaces" would also so extirpate the existing "biological conditions that if every shovelful of filling material were subsequently removed a scar would remain for generations." [48]

It followed that driving across the open meadows, also a popular pastime in Yosemite Valley, should be strictly forbidden. Indeed, Olmsted argued, the Park Service should immediately move to make that practice "impossible." Outspoken support for removing the valley's "rather absurd little Zoo," as well as for relocating the Tule elk herd outside the national park, further underscored the Advisory Board's sincerity in defending the priorities of biological conservation. [49]

In an initial response to the committee's recommendations, the Park Service in 1929 inaugurated the so-called moral ditches program. Through the construction of deep trenches bordering the roadsides, motorists were finally prevented from short-cutting across the meadows. In 1930 the Advisory Board challenged the legitimacy of Indian Field Days, last held in 1926 and 1929. "In the midst of the Leidig Meadow," the board's report noted, "almost untouched by other artificial changes, an oval race-track was stripped of turf and slightly graded, to make the surface safer and more convenient for horse-races." That large oval now branded "the whole meadow," especially when viewed from high above along the valley rim. The effect was to suggest management for the sake of "a sporting event" rather than for the protection of "a precious element in one of the great natural landscapes of the world." [50]

The restoration of Leidig Meadow would undoubtedly require "many years, even if much pains be taken to that end." The first priority was to abolish Indian Field Days itself which, in the committee's estimation, wan really "quite absurd." Essentially the event was little more than "a white man's race-meet or rodeo," since Yosemite's Indians historically had never known of such events. In the meantime, any felt need to provide entertainment for government or company employees could certainly be met by "some other device not disregardful of the landscape." Similarly, as an added source of amusement for visitors, Indian Field Days had no more excuse or justification "than the introduction of a county fair or a full blown commercial circus." Indeed the committee undoubtedly "would feel much the same way," Olmsted concluded, about adding "a golf course as a means of 'attracting' or holding in the Valley visitors to whom its essential qualities are insufficiently interesting without such conspicuously artificial elements in the landscape." [51]

Yet again that was precisely the issue—Yosemite Valley was being over run with such proposals, most of which seemed to originate in the offices of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. In April 1930 a nine-hole miniature golf course was in fact laid out on the grounds of the Ahwahnee Hotel. "So it goes," Olmsted remarked, obviously disgusted, "nibble by nibble!" [52] In 1929 Don Tresidder had also asked for serious consideration of a cable car system running from the valley floor to Glacier Point. [53] In its initial response, the Advisory Board conceded the advantages of such a system for transporting greater numbers of visitors and, bearing equally on Tresidder's motives, for opening Glacier Point to significant winter access. Quite obviously, however, the esthetic considerations demanded full review. Most troubling, the cableway and cars would be distinctly visible from all parts of the valley facing Glacier Point. Likewise, "the cableway and its fascinating moving cars," the board reported, would undoubtedly become an attraction unto themselves, in brief "an object of curiosity to almost every visitor in the upper part of the Valley." [54]

The question, then, was simple. Was that distraction somehow outweighed by the project's intended benefits? If with some reluctance, the Advisory Board firmly concluded no. The movement of the cars and the clear visibility of the cables, "binding the top to the bottom of the cliffs, would involve a critical loss to the majesty of the Valley wall and to its power of stirring the imagination to contemplate the vast geologic units of space and time to whose story the Valley is a key..." Indeed "the proposed cableway," Olmsted added the following year, would be located in "precisely that part of the entire Park which is its most distinctive, most famous, and most precious natural feature—the very heart of the Yosemite Valley proper, extending from El Capitan to the Half Dome." Unless that area was fully protected, the cableway was unjustified, regardless of any alleged benefits affecting transportation or convenience. By itself, improved access was no reason to continue "indefinitely the process begun by our predecessors of progressively weakening and nibbling away the natural impressiveness and natural beauty of this great central unit of the Valley." A far wiser choice would be "to admit our limitations and leave some of these problems unsolved," Olmsted concluded, "pending the discovery of solutions clearly and certainly free from this fundamental objection." [55]

One by one the fears that his father had expressed as early as 1865 were all coming true. Discernible change was everywhere; even more was in the offing. There seemed no better time to plead again for his father's admonition that preservation come first. "If by an incredible set of circumstances," he wrote, returning to the line of reasoning used by the senior Olmsted in 1865, "the Yosemite Valley had remained undiscovered by white men until this year 1930,... and were entrusted to the National Park Service and its advisers to protect and make available for enjoyment and appreciation by the people of this and future generations, what plans for its treatment would secure the greatest value to mankind in the long run from this marvelous find?" "That," he further answered himself "is no easy question." But often a planner's only recourse was to pose such a challenge, to insist that people think hypothetically and have the courage to look ahead. That was the big difference between 1930 and 1865; evidence of past mistakes and "the physical damage" they had caused could now be marshaled. The challenge, then, was simply to heed those lessons, to admit, above all, that "nibbling" in Yosemite Valley had been relentless and that sometime—somehow—the Park Service would have to perform its duty and firmly draw the line. [56]

That line, moreover, should be inside Yosemite Valley itself rather than somewhere along its periphery, thereby protecting, as Olmsted maintained, the great heart of Yosemite National Park. Otherwise preservation was just an expedience, a temporary lull in the relentless "nibbling" that was still so clearly underway. In fact there was no more room for the common brand of subterfuge, for the argument that development, because it was concentrated in the valley, somehow was insurance that the rest of the park would remain wild. That line of argument was the worst expedience of all; it simply justified past mistakes while opening the door to countless new ones. Granted, man-made changes on the valley floor were "trifling" in comparison to those "changes repeatedly wrought there by Nature in the very recent geologic past." But that still was not the point. Taken together, even the most trifling human changes had obviously "contributed to a serious cumulative total impairment of the original and distinctive impressiveness and beauty of the central unit of the Yosemite Valley." The challenge of preservation was to protect the entirety of the park, not just those parts—however large—that were previously undeveloped. [57]

Everywhere, the issue remained joined. Although the scenery attracted visitors, it was the distractions that paid. Both commercially and esthetically, the concept of pure sanctuary was very difficult to sell. If scientists and preservationists did indeed have reason for greater optimism, it lay in the fact that people outside the Park Service, from Joseph Grinnell to Frederick Law Olmsted, were occasionally provided an agency platform for expressing nontraditional points of view. But that was still a major qualification; the Park Service more eagerly served its most influential and supportive clients, especially those for whom Yosemite would remain just another business opportunity. When the scenery no longer entertained, there had to be something more to do. In contrast, the very idea of sanctuary called for resisting such temptations. Grinnell and Olmsted, among others, had tried their best to instill that value in management, to make it paramount rather than just supportive throughout Yosemite as a whole. For preservation to have meaning, they argued, it must always come first. For sanctuary to succeed it must be the only objective. To be sure, there could never be any doubt why preservation remained so controversial.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap10.htm — 17-Mar-2004