The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Eleven:
The Science of Sanctuary Redefined

The year that ecology became a serious value in Yosemite National Park would be difficult if not impossible to pinpoint exactly. Ecology certainly did not rise to preeminence at any time during the 1920s, when a combination of predator controls and overtures to increased park development significantly compromised the aspirations of many naturalists and scientists. A more likely candidate for the honor would be some year in the early to mid 1930s. In November 1932, for example, the Yosemite Valley "zoo" was effectively abolished. The following October, in 1933, the Tule elk herd was finally removed to a refuge in distant Owens Valley. Meanwhile, the Park Service was having second thoughts about its predator control programs and was considering halting the extermination of all predatory animals except, in certain instances, the ever durable coyote. [1]

Then, in 1933, came the publication of Fauna of the National Parks of the United States, the first officially sponsored, detailed statement about the principles of wildlife management in national park areas. Its three authors, George M. Wright, Joseph S. Dixon, and Ben H. Thompson, all listed intimate ties to Yosemite National Park. Each could lay further claim to a close working relationship with Joseph Grinnell and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley. To be sure, the volume bore the unmistakable imprint of Joseph Grinnell, especially in its underlying conviction that wildlife should be a predominant value of national parks. It further emphasized many of the ideas that Grinnell and Tracy Storer had formally enunciated nearly two decades earlier in their own pathbreaking article, "Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks." [2]

Fauna of the National Parks had a most intriguing history. George M. Wright, its young senior author, financed the research from his private family fortune. And it was Wright who enlisted Joseph Dixon and Ben H. Thompson in the project. Still, behind everyone stood Joseph Grinnell, constantly providing his young associates with guidance and encouragement. Dixon was a product of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, where he had served since 1915 as assistant curator and economic mammalogist. A graduate of Stanford University, Thompson also came to know firsthand Grinnell's rigorous standards and attention to detail. Thus throughout the study's research and subsequent preparation, the professor's influence and ideas were very much apparent. Especially in Wright, Grinnell saw another vital seed for bureaucratic responsibility, for influencing the Park Service to make meaningful changes in resource management from within. The young man's initial opportunity had come in November 1927, when he had reported as ranger naturalist to Yosemite National Park. "Mr. Wright has had two years' experience in museum and field work at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, with Dr. Joseph Grinnell and Mr. Joseph Dixon," the superintendent's monthly report briefly noted, further suggesting the significance of those university ties. Obviously, as a result, Wright would "be a valuable addition" to the park staff. [3]

The publication just five years later of Fauna of the National Parks more than confirmed that Wright's talent, like his mentor's, had implications for wildlife research far beyond the boundaries of Yosemite alone. With all of the conviction that imbued Grinnell's own letters and publications, Wright and his colleagues set forth, collectively and park-by-park, the requirements for wildlife maintenance and long-range recovery. "It is true that flora and fauna and even geography itself have been in a state of flux since the continents first rose from the sea," they admitted, "and in this sense there is no one wild-life picture which can be called the original one." That said, "practical considerations" obviously required that some period be established as the ideal set-point for determining how to proceed with restoration in any given area. In the authors' estimation, that period was the one "between the arrival of the first whites and the entrenchment of civilization in that vicinity." To go farther back in time would risk wider and more serious gaps in scientific knowledge. "Consider this from another viewpoint," Wright and his colleagues therefore argued. "The rate of alteration in the faunal structure has been so rapid since, and relatively so slow before the introduction of European culture, that the situation which obtained on the arrival of the settlers may well be considered as representing the original or primitive condition that it is desired to maintain." [4]

The desire itself was nothing new, having surfaced as early as 1916 in Joseph Grinnell and Tracy Storer's article for Science magazine. The distinction in 1933 was Park Service sponsorship of the source and its authors. The statement nevertheless was bound to cause problems, especially among purists, who argued that management itself was most definitely artificial. "Recognition that there are wild-life problems is admission that unnatural, man-made conditions exist," Wright and his colleagues wrote, anticipating the likely rebuttal to their report and its views. "Therefore, there can be no logical objection to further interference by man to correct those conditions and restore the natural state." Of course restraint must be exercised to make certain that management did not chance upon "an even more artificial condition in place of the one it would correct." [5]

In an institution of so many ideals, here was yet another, restoring "a balance of nature" to a host of park environments. What, then, was the original composition of those admittedly elusive "balances?" And could they ever be introduced even if reconstructed? Once again Wright, Dixon, and Thompson were forced to make certain concessions to environmental reality. "At present," they admitted, "not one park is large enough to provide year-round sanctuary for adequate populations of all resident species. Not one is so fortunate—and probably none can ever be unless it is an island—as to have boundaries that are a guarantee against the invasion of external influences." [6]

As the basis of Wright's, Dixon's, and Thompson's experiences and research, Yosemite fit that description perfectly. External threats to Yosemite were actually twofold, consisting not only of environmental change but also of a flood tide of visitors. Yosemite, it followed, stood to remain at the forefront of management controversies as the National Park Service wrestled with the provocative list of challenges raised by Fauna of the National Parks.

Inevitably, the early years of environmentalism, defined as the growing awareness of the intricacies of biological systems and the need for their maintenance, were very much consumed with the search for a valid terminology. One popular construct was the so-called balance of nature. The question was whether that concept was either useful or accurate. If the universe revealed any constant, it more likely was change. What biologists seemed to be saying was that nature was self-adjusting. But again, where did those adjustments lead, and precisely what did they portend? The many variables in the natural world were not necessarily always positive or, for that matter, consistently in equilibrium. Whatever theory was offered, it was bound to have exceptions, especially when that theory was either tested or applied directly in the field.

Such uncertainty left proponents of change, even in national parks, free to argue its "naturalness" or inevitability. What Fauna of the National Parks therefore tried to establish was that human change, at the very least, must be controlled, except in clear instances where intervention was the only certain recourse for restoring natural balances. The conundrum was still obvious: if humans themselves had evolved biologically, was not their presence—and its consequences—perfectly "natural" in its own right? Wright conceded the point in volume two of his report; the distinction was that man had the intelligence to resist destructive change. "He thus becomes capable of self-imposed restrictions to preserve other species against himself." More than anything else, Wright declared, that very human at tribute explained the uniqueness of the national park idea. "Within the national parks, man's estimate of the greatest values to be obtained for himself from the sum total of their native resources, dictates that he shall occupy them in such a way as to cause the minimum of modification from the aspect they presented when he first saw them." [7] The question, then, had come full circle: What levels of change were either desirable or appropriate in the national parks, and who, when all the arguments were in, would be making those decisions?

As the focus of debate further shifted from wildlife to vegetation, Yosemite was once again in the center of the controversy. In a future of increased biological awareness, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias served as another perfect illustration of probable consequences for management. For decades, protection had consisted mainly of constructing firebreaks around the grove and fences around individual trees, as well as occasionally cleaning up fallen branches and other debris. Otherwise the trees were considered a grand novelty rather than an irreplaceable biological resource. In 1881, for example, the Wawona Tree was hollowed out to allow stagecoaches to pass through the base of its trunk. And in the years that followed, chambers of commerce, veterans organizations, and university clubs, among other civic groups, prevailed upon park officials to name the biggest trees and adorn them with suitable plaques. "I agree with you that a tree in the Mariposa Big Tree Grove should be named for Bret Harte," Major William Forsyth replied to one such request in August 1911. If the sponsor would send the major "the name painted in gilt letters four inches high on a strip of zinc six inches wide, one-eighth inch thick, and painted black," he would have it fastened "on the tree you mention near the tree named Tennessee." A June 11, 1912, inventory of the grove's largest sequoias revealed that the obvious assortment of wartime heroes, American presidents, and literary greats had already been similarly honored. [8]

By the late 1920s, illegal as opposed to legal vandalism had become the bigger problem. "I know you will be particularly interested in the device I finally hit upon for the protection of the Grizzly Giant against vandals," Superintendent Charles Goff Thomson proudly reported to Park Service Director Horace M. Albright in November 1930. "I have puzzled nearly two years over a way to protect this tree and yet not impose unsightly fences et cetera into the foreground." The solution came to him while recalling his military service during World War I. "Out of a vivid memory of my days in France, I finally hit upon the scheme of putting in a low parapet wire entanglement and we have just accomplished this." The entanglement was "of the low German type with long triple-barbed wire strung crisscross between steel posts standing at a maximum of a foot from the ground." The barrier surrounded the Grizzly Giant in a maze twenty feet wide "but no nearer than about twenty feet at the closest point to the trunk." Heavy plantings of ferns, azaleas, and snowbrush were intended to conceal the wires "except upon close scrutiny." [9] Apparently Thomson had not stopped to consider the possibility that someone other than vandals might, as a result of that camouflage, accidentally become ensnared in his World War I masterpiece.

Rather he was convinced that he had not only thwarted potential vandals but also, in the process, further solved the perennial problem of soil compaction. "The entire area about the tree had been made a desert by trampling people," he observed. Consequently, that area as well had been replanted with native flowers and shrubbery. "The effect is simply splendid as now the Grizzly Giant rears its great bulk out of an area of lush vegetation. A narrow trail encircles the tree at a reasonable distance," he concluded, "reducing the hazard to its root system to the absolute minimum possible." [10]

The pursuit of technical solutions to biological and social problems was also much in evidence as Superintendent Thomson stepped up the so-called vista clearing in the Mariposa Grove. By October 1933 over three thousand trees, mostly white fir, had been cut at ground level and completely hauled away. "No evidence of the clearing appears," Chief Ranger F. L. Cook confidently reported. "Unless one knew that the clearing had been done he would think that it were a natural condition of the forest." The esthetic results, in either case, were most gratifying and dramatic. From the loop road through the grove it was now possible, literally for the first time, to view giant sequoias, both singly and in groups, from practically every angle. "The trees are more readily visible and one gets a better impression of size, majesty, and numbers while riding along the road," Ranger Cook added by way of elaboration. The impression overall was of greater openness and spaciousness, the appearance, in effect, of a "park-like" forest. The removal of logs, branches, and other "unsightly" debris further contributed to the freshness of that sensation. [11]

Only a few years earlier Cook's assessment probably would have ended there. Traditionally, after all, the Park Service had been most concerned about how resources appeared to the general public. But Fauna of the National Parks was just the latest reminder that appearances could be deceiving. "Arguments against removal of the trees are not so easy to find," Cook therefore added, acknowledging the possibility of biological considerations. He himself was not a scientist and made no pretense to speak "with authority." He doubted that removing white fir from among the sequoias would affect the giants "during their long span of life"; still, he noted, no one could say for certain what effect the firs might have "on the ecological condition of the forest through the centuries." [2]

The distinction was that trees were "living things." Unlike traditional park landscapes, "such as canyons, waterfalls, mountains, lakes, geysers, caves, etc.," biological resources undoubtedly called for "an entirely different set of factors" in their management. However beneficial vista clearing might seem to be from an esthetic point of view, by allowing visitors in the Mariposa Grove, for example, to "have a much greater appreciation of the number, size, and grandeur of the Sequoias," the fact remained: Such clearing probably changed "the natural condition and appearance of the forest." [13]

Much as Cook did not seem fully aware of fire's past importance in periodically "clearing" the Mariposa Grove, through lightning strikes or Indian burning, George Wright himself urged caution in sequoia vista clearing projects. "I believe that any competent ecologist," he wrote the Park Service director, with copies to the superintendents of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, "would consider the removal of an associated species such as white fir, and the establishment of clearings, as something to be viewed with alarm." Certainly no intensive project should be carried out "without years of preliminary experimentation in areas of minor importance." Besides, "in a national park we are both obligated and should desire to present Sequoias exactly as found in nature. The only permissible deviation relates to the practical necessity of making the groves accessible to visitors. Extensive vista clearings do not, in my estimation, fall within this category." [14]

How opinions would change. Meanwhile, Wright was a victim of what he believed to be natural. For all his statements that wildlife relationships should approximate their condition just prior to pioneer contact, he relied on his perception of the sequoia groves as he had always known them. That perception alone, rather than scientific evidence, formed the basis of his statement that sequoias should be protected "exactly as found in nature," again, just as he had first seen them and therefore knew them best. The contradiction was so obvious that Superintendent Thomson challenged it immediately. "Mr. Wright... apparently assumes that our careful and effective management of fauna may not be so applicable to flora," he too wrote the director. Wright's perception of the sequoia groves was no less false or idealistic. Park Service "suppression of naturally-caused forest fires has resulted in enormous and menacing jungle growths that threaten our best exhibits, including the Big Tree groves," Thomson declared. As early as the 1850s, "Galen Clark cleared not only a goodly portion of Wawona, but his biggest job in the Mariposa Grove was the clearing away of manzanita and ceanothus and other shrubs and brush about the bases of the Big Trees. I could go on and on," he concluded. "Primeval conditions, indeed." [15]

In the course of the debate, an important subtlety had emerged. Wright argued for restoring a period long vanished and yet also revealed his potential for being distracted by the environment he personally knew. Yet it was still Wright, and not Thomson, who called for further study, sensing, in the end, science's overarching significance. Thomson was perfectly willing to move forward with what he had. "I propose to complete a thesis which I already have in rough draft," he wrote, further defending his own assumptions, "conclusively demonstrating the fact that primeval conditions have long passed from most of the Parks; that there is no good in assumptions to the contrary." [16] In other words, he simply preferred his own theories. The greater depth in Wright's argument was that management must follow science. Thomson alone seemed comfortable with the thought that because of existing inroads on national park environments, management need not always wait until more scientific evidence had been gathered.

In this instance, at least, Thomson's assumptions had been correct. The sequoia groves had already been extensively altered by the exclusion of fire. However, he used that fact not as a rationale for reintroducing fire but rather as a justification for his vista clearing efforts. Wright did not initially mention fire but sensed science's larger importance, namely that with more information there might evolve a truly consistent pattern of management, rather than one based in any way on momentary—and perhaps illusory—contemporary preferences.

The persistence of assumption underscored the absence of scientific knowledge. Complete data on past environments and biological relationships was simply unavailable. Among the few exceptions, Joseph Grinnell and Tracy Storer's Animal Life in the Yosemite had appeared late in park history, long after major alterations to the environment were already well advanced. What elements had composed the so-called original environment? The descriptions of explorers, journalists, and early tourists aside, the truth of the matter was that no one could say with absolute biological certainty.

If debate about the Yosemite environment was still best described as a groping for awareness, nowhere were the standard prejudices and inconsistencies more evident than in decisions affecting wildlife. Activists still struggled to give priority to wildlife conservation, attempting, specifically, to raise the level of appreciation above the excitement of seeing wildlife to full acceptance of the restraints required for the perpetual coexistence of people and animals. Especially in the opinion of concerned scientists, most notably Joseph Grinnell and his associates, wildlife was the natural resource that made Yosemite so thrilling and so captivating. Landscapes, however spectacular, were shorn of uniqueness without "the witchery of movement." Wildlife was that resource of action, national parks' one feature that by its constant mobility invited the fullest sense of anticipation and the drama of encountering the unexpected. A full recognition of the role of predators was also central to that philosophy. Here again, parks would be incomplete as representative examples of the original American wilderness if they were devoid of those animals whose "witchery of movement" included the excitement of the chase. [17]

The perception of wildlife as innately dangerous to humans thwarted not only reform but also bureaucratic maturity. The amazing irony of that perception was its distortion of common sense, especially its tendency to sensationalize threats from wildlife while distracting attention from the real sources of danger in the park, namely the far greater chance of death or injury caused by a careless park visitor or—even more probable still—by personal disregard of basic safety precautions. The potential for death and injury spanned the entire range of human frailty, from automobile and climbing accidents to drownings and sunstroke. [18] Park Service rhetoric, nonetheless, tended to promote the standard biases. Only animals killed "cruelly" and "savagely"; humans suffered "fate."

Whether or not park rangers had the courage to mold public opinion, to emphasize the contributions of Yosemite's wildlife rather than sensationalize those rare moments of risk to visitors, again depended almost entirely on who was in charge. An especially revealing incident occurred on July 12, 1931, when a woman hiking with four companions in Tenaya Creek Canyon was alleged to have died from a rattlesnake bite. "I believe this is our first fatality from rattlesnake venom since the Service took over this Park," Superintendent Thomson informed the director. Yet the significance of that statistic escaped him entirely. By his own admission, the chances of being killed in Yosemite by a rattlesnake were extremely remote. Nevertheless the order went out immediately to kill every rattlesnake on sight. [19]

Anticipating the reaction of certain horrified biologists, Thomson moved to deflect criticism by justifying extermination as a prerequisite for public safety. Granted, there were "one or two members" of the National Park Service with "a friendly feeling toward rattlesnakes." Be that as it may, "the safe-keeping of all visitors" was of far greater priority. He maintained that no "casual interpretation of park values," for example, protests against disturbing so-called "balances of nature or other hypothetical or similar theories should ever restrain our employees from a firm resolve to destroy every possible rattlesnake." The recent "sad occurrence" had only strengthened his own resolve "to war against them throughout my superintendency here." [20] So much for the fact that apparently in the past fifteen years no other visitor had died under similar circumstances.

Nor could it be proven that a rattlesnake bite had been the cause of death. Joseph Grinnell quietly investigated the incident, writing Charles W. Michael, his contact in Yosemite, for "the inside" of the story featured in the press. "I was able to learn that there is no positive evidence that the woman was actually struck by a rattlesnake," Michael replied. "She felt a sharp pain in her leg and thought at first that she had stepped into a thorny bush of some kind. Then she got the notion that she had been struck by a rattlesnake. The rest of the party ridiculed the idea as no snake had been seen or heard." The woman's leg swelled badly, however, and she was treated for snakebite at the valley hospital, where she died several hours later. "As you say, that rattlesnake story will remain inconclusive—in the minds of those of us who are critical of evidence," Grinnell declared, also refusing to succumb to the emotionalism of the moment. "But it will go down in history as an actual death from rattlesnake bite," he admitted, finally resigning himself to its consequences for biological conservation. "I don't see how it could be headed off now." [21]

It was, as Grinnell lamented, another missed opportunity for balancing everyday sensationalism with biological common sense. At times any animal, humans included, could be dangerous and unpredictable. The challenge was to educate park visitors to see themselves as part of, not apart from, the natural world. Some risk was inevitable. Even so, were the biological risks found in national parks any greater than the personal risks normally encountered in civilization? The concept of biological sanctuary called for that very level of commitment—for the complete willingness to abandon at the park gate all preconceptions of human society. Inside Yosemite, biological order had to prevail. And that meant an environment not just for park visitors but for every species of wildlife, potentially dangerous or otherwise.

If as yet rarely expressed so forcefully, environmental philosophy was tending in that direction. Gradually, tolerance was building for mountain lions, coyotes, and even the dreaded rattlesnake. [22] It was just another case of building such a conscience outside the Park Service rather than principally from within. Granted, Joseph Grinnell had seeded Park Service officialdom with his best and brightest pupils. But their influence was still decades in the making. Besides, even added to others with a similar biological point of view, his students were, and would remain, a distinct if articulate minority. Otherwise the Park Service leaned heavily toward its traditional roots and perceptions, few of which more typified the prejudice that scientists still faced than did Superintendent Thomson's declaration of war on every Yosemite rattlesnake.

In keeping with precedent, conservation in Yosemite National Park was still least controversial in direct proportion to the distance that the resource to be protected was from the centers of visitation and development. Attention, for example, had turned to Yosemite's boundaries. Ever since the park had been reduced by a third of its territory in 1905, preservationists had expressed dismay over the extensive cutting of the old-growth timber in the ceded areas, especially in the yellow and sugar pine forests that had originally formed the park's western side. As logging operations accelerated during the 1920s, a concerted effort arose to purchase several thousand acres of timber and return them to the park. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., America's leading park philanthropist, contributed nearly $1.7 million to the campaign; Congress further passed legislation agreeing to match all private donations. Accordingly, in 1930 the so-called Rockefeller Purchase, comprising more than twelve thousand acres of timber straddling the Big Oak Flat Road and providing a critical buffer for the Tuolumne and Merced groves of giant sequoias, was designated for restoration to Yosemite National Park. [23]

The biological significance of those lands was considerable. The same could be said of the 8,765 acres in the Wawona Basin that likewise were added to the southwestern corner of the national park, in 1932. These properties also benefited from private donations and government matching funds. At least for Yosemite's boundaries, it appeared that the environment was slowly but steadily gaining in priority. [24]

Indeed still more land, the Carl Inn Tract, was added west of the Rockefeller Purchase between 1937 and 1939, again thanks to private donations and government matching funds. However, each of the new additions had its traditional as well as biological argument. Planned improvements along the length of the Big Oak Flat Road west to the park boundary dictated that the National Park Service should control more properties in the vicinity of the Rockefeller Purchase and Carl Inn. Similarly, reporting the Wawona additions in August 1932, Superintendent Thomson was quick to balance the esthetic gains against the possibility of appropriating some of that new territory for additional park improvements. "The Wawona Basin is an excellent area in which to develop campgrounds and cabin accommodations," he cheerfully remarked. Thus the park would be able "to meet the ever increasing demand for cheaper accommodations—developments not possible in Yosemite Valley." [25]

From the perspective of park officials, management might be a balancing act, but it still tended toward development. Indeed the gradual shift in favor of protection was once again traceable to George Wright and his colleagues. Fauna of the National Parks summarized in a single report the biological imperatives facing Park Service personnel. In that regard any additions to Yosemite were only to be applauded, even if portions of those lands would later be developed. Yosemite, like every park, was nowhere near biological self-sufficiency. Larger wildlife species in particular frequently roamed far beyond the boundaries of even the original national park. Whatever the rationale or however small the acreage, any increase in the size of the park was therefore greeted as another step in the right direction.

Biologists' efforts through the remainder of the 1930s and beyond were almost totally consumed in ensuring that no more habitat was lost to the park. Development, they argued, should be held to present levels to prevent further deterioration in wildlife's chances for recovery. Here too, Fauna of the National Parks listed a number of examples. "Many have already expressed a wish to see Yosemite National Park restocked with mountain sheep," Wright and his colleagues observed, highlighting just one of the projects requiring significant additions to existing habitat. "A gradual return of the southern remnant is the ideal solution, and there is a fighting chance that this will take place if it continues to increase and reoccupies its range northward along the crest of the mountains." One "serious obstacle" worked against that possibility—the continuation of "heavy grazing by domestic sheep between Yosemite and Mount Whitney." Eventually, as a result, reintroducing mountain sheep to Yosemite National Park would probably require Park Service intervention. [26]

Then again, the sheep were not likely to survive unless critical habitat adjoining the park was protected. Yosemite's eastern boundary ended abruptly along the crest of the Sierra. "The park unfortunately does not include the east slope, which is the habitat preferred by the sheep. They are particularly dependent on this side during the period of heavy snow, and would be without the benefit of park protection at such times." [27]

For the moment, the men observed, the wisest course of action was patience and vigilance. The southern band of sheep was still too small to risk capturing some of the animals and transporting them to Yosemite, especially since the prospects for their recovery just outside the park were obviously very slim. At least the project was legitimate and eventually "should be planned for, because the native form is still in existence." Meanwhile, the Park Service should "do nothing now except to watch the Mount Whitney sheep until either they work back naturally, or, failing that, become sufficiently abundant for a restocking experiment to have a chance of success." [28]

Whatever its remoteness, the crest of the High Sierra otherwise failed as suitable habitat for sustaining free-roaming bands of native sheep. The problem, to reemphasize, was domestic livestock that grazed on lands immediately bordering the park. Turning their attention to Yosemite Valley, Wright, Dixon, and Thompson noted that wildlife problems there were different but that the outcome was much the same—the dislocation of certain species. Animals were killed by automobiles, only one of the unforeseen consequences of allowing cars in the valley. Just one "striking example" involved "the gray squirrel colony near the foot of El Capitan," apparently "the only remaining colony in Yosemite Valley after the great epidemic of 1920." And yet, "for a number of years practically all of the potential increase was accounted for as automobile fatalities." Once again "the way must be found," Wright concluded, "to reconcile the conflicts arising from joint occupation of the national parks by men and animals without impairment of any major park value." [29]

The reward for Wright's efforts was the establishment in 1933 of the Park Service's Wildlife Division. Yet the battle for biological legitimacy was still all uphill. In February 1936 George Wright, then only thirty-two years of age, was killed in New Mexico in an automobile accident. Perhaps no single event cost wildlife conservation in the national parks more of its zest and momentum. [30] Everywhere, it appeared, the ideal of sanctuary came practically to a standstill. Thus Joseph S. Dixon, as field biologist, predicted in 1940 that visitors to Yosemite in 1990 would "want to know why on earth didn't the Park Service have vision and fortitude enough to keep commercial developments off the Valley floor so that it could be kept as a natural sanctuary or shrine." Given the evolution of visitor services, his answer was indeed prophetic. "At the present rate the investment in commercial buildings will become too great to be moved." [31] Wildlife Division or not, the Park Service hierarchy still followed its traditional agenda.

That agenda during the 1930s had been further swept along on the winds of the Great Depression. The government's priority nationwide had been to put people back to work. In effect, from the moment of its inception in 1933, the Wildlife Division of the National Park Service had competed for attention with the Civilian Conservation Corps, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous Depression Army. By the end of 1933, five separate camps had been established in Yosemite. Invariably, the CCC's make-work priorities promoted a development outlook. Until it was disbanded in 1942, the CCC devoted the vast majority of its efforts to constructing roads, bridges, firebreaks, shelters, picnic sites, and trails. Often projects were proposed and advanced with no real attention to their biological implications. In the rush to economic recovery, the environment was again that much easier to forget. [32]

Thus the 1930s concluded on another crest of park development. Instead of seriously addressing the advantages of perhaps limiting visitation, the Park Service searched for more ways to accommodate the inevitable. The key word was planning. Dr. E. P. Meinecke, for example, an influential park consultant, suggested that overcrowding in the valley might be eased substantially by restricting camping to individually designed and designated sites, thus ending the free-for-alls commonly used in the past. The Curry Company, arguing that congestion was only periodic, also saw the solution in expanding park facilities rather than imposing limitations on future public access. [33] Amid the signs of emerging environmental restlessness, these viewpoints continued to be the constant. Tradition, not ecology, still held the upper hand.

Like George M. Wright's untimely passing in 1936, the death of Joseph Grinnell three years later symbolically closed the era of environmental awakening in Yosemite National Park. [34] The next quarter century would also be characterized by intermittent periods of ecological awareness followed by a return to traditional policies openly favorable to development. One noteworthy reform occurred in the fall of 1940, when Yosemite joined other national parks in abolishing its bear-feeding show. During the summer of 1943 Superintendent Frank A. Kittredge briefly revived a substitute, for which he was reprimanded severely by Park Service headquarters. "It is regretted that this situation has occurred," wrote Regional Director O. A. Tomlinson, for example. Kittredge was therefore advised that "the bear feeding ground and all appurtenances to the 'bear show'" were to "be obliterated" immediately. [35]

Yet the damage, in retrospect, had long since been done. An entire generation of park visitors had grown up with the idea that bears in national parks were not really "wild" animals. Indeed, as late as the summer of 1937, warning signs in Yosemite read as follows: "CAUTION: DO NOT FEED THE BEARS FROM THE HAND." By implication the message was twofold—bears might otherwise still be fed. The inevitable rise in injuries among thoughtless or careless visitors finally forced the Park Service to word its warnings more decisively. Thus Joseph S. Dixon, in his capacity as field biologist, recommended that every sign in the park should immediately be changed. Superintendent Lawrence S. Merriam emphatically agreed, reporting to the director that henceforth every sign would state: "DANGER: DO NOT FEED THE BEARs"—period. [36]

Nonetheless the problem, to reemphasize, had long since been created. In Dixon's estimation, artificial feeding was largely responsible for a bear population on the floor of Yosemite Valley "at least four times what it was under original natural conditions." [37] Policy in the early 1940s shifted accordingly, emphasizing artificial feeding outside of the valley in the hope that more bears would be enticed to leave developed areas. In the meantime, the irony of Dixon's statement was still lost on Park Service officials, Dixon included. Simply, who dared insist that Yosemite Valley's human population should also approximate those alleged "original natural conditions"? In the words of Fauna of the National Parks, the ideal "natural" period fell somewhere "between the arrival of the first whites and the entrenchment of civilization in that vicinity." [38] But obviously that standard applied to the environment only. For if it applied as well to the level of visitation (by 1941 approaching six hundred thousand people annually), [39] all but a few hundred visitors, equivalent to either the original native or the original pioneer population, would have to be turned away at Yosemite's gates.

The seeming futility of trying to revert to past landscapes while at the same time moving to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors lay at the heart of biological debates during the 1940s and 1950s. "We construct roads and trails and buildings one moment and cry 'spoliation' the next," Dorr G. Yeager, the acting regional naturalist, observed in 1943, penetrating to the heart of management's greatest irony. "Our limits now are intangible and the abeyance or concurrence of a project usually is governed by the persuasiveness of the argument presented by the advocate of the project." In short, persistence paid off and preservation further suffered. As inspiration for his remarks, Yeager noted the completion of Park Forester Emil Ernst's "Preliminary Report on the Study of the Meadows of Yosemite Valley." Ernst seemed to present conclusive evidence "that the forest is rapidly engulfing the meadows." How, then, should the Park Service react? "It occurs to me that these problems cannot be solved," Yeager concluded, "until we have established an over-all development policy from which we shall not deviate." Meanwhile the Ernst report would "only add fuel to the controversy" concerning the direction and appropriateness of future park development. [40]

An immediate example of that controversy was how best to retain the valley's stunning views. With the forest closing in all across the valley floor, many of the finest vistas of cliffs and waterfalls were rapidly becoming overgrown. "These views must be kept open if a visit to the valley is to be worth while," argued Thomas C. Vint, chief landscape architect for the National Park Service. Still, the method he offered was both comforting and familiar. "I doubt if anyone would advocate the practice of burning"; rather, the problem called for simply cutting and removing vegetation by hand. "I very strenuously oppose any consideration of broadcast burning within the forest growth of Yosemite Valley," Chief Forester G. D. Coffman declared, agreeing that Ernst's historical documentation could be interpreted too literally. After all, just because "the Indians used fire in Yosemite Valley as a means of maintaining open conditions," that was no justification "for returning to such a haphazard practice." [41] And so the issue, although debated, obviously remained. At what point in the valley's history should its appearance be suspended, and how, in the final analysis, should that objective be pursued?

Unlike Joseph Dixon, few government officials flirted with the one criterion that might have made a real difference—restricting visitation to a level consistent with existing park facilities. Rather, Superintendent Frank A. Kittredge concluded in April 1945, "Yosemite Valley will be deluged with visitors as soon as the war is ended and gas rationing relieved." The situation was "inescapable." [42] The prophecy, in short, was still literally self-fulfilling. More provisions for visitation only spurred visitation all the more. If Yosemite was to be managed with ecology uppermost in mind, determining the proper methods was left to yet another generation.

Among all of the scientific issues raised in postwar Yosemite, no other rose to greater prominence than the protection of its wilderness values. By wilderness was meant not only preserving solitude but also protecting wild country's chain of biological relationships. Although the issue was no longer new, it seemed that the stakes had measurably increased. Led by booms in population and in technological innovation, postwar America was undergoing some very dramatic changes. Inevitably some would have an effect on Yosemite. In September 1944, for example, Superintendent Kittredge reported the first experiments with a new insecticide known as DDT. A small amount in both powder and liquid form had been given to the park by the Chemurgie Corporation of Richmond, California. "It appears that after the war the DDT chemical, now used effectively by the military in insect control, may be made available for civilian use," Kittredge remarked enthusiastically. "In that event it is possible that it may be of great assistance in Yosemite National Park in control of the fly nuisance." [43]

Given Yosemite's long history of insect abatement, the proposal made sense. For years it had been common practice to spray a film of oil over stagnant pools of water, thereby suffocating any mosquito larvae growing in the pools. The invention of new methods and chemicals similarly invited experimentation. Thus in July 1935 Superintendent Charles Goff Thomson had reported the successful application of one thousand gallons "of Arsenical spray mix" over "all of the accessible Alders" in the Mariposa Grove in an attempt to eradicate the alder flea beetle, "responsible in the past for considerable defoliation." The mix had also been applied to the elms at Old Village, trees apparently brought into the valley by James Mason Hutchings. Those trees as well had been "badly defoliated." "The trees now," Thomson had proudly stated, further underscoring the chemical's effectiveness, "have a beautiful dark green healthy color." [44]

But should wilderness be picture perfect? And were not Hutchings's elms themselves exotic? Finally, were not insect infestations just another form of predation, one whose short-term esthetic effects would nonetheless be erased by the new plant growth sure to follow? The point again was that those kinds of questions were just beginning to be asked. In the meantime, by June 1949 infestations of needle-miner moths in the lodgepole pine forests surrounding Tenaya Lake and Cathedral Creek reached epidemic proportions. Spraying was begun shortly afterward using a combination of airplane, helicopter, and hand applications. Again most prophetically, the chemical used was DDT. [45]

Predictably, doubts that spraying was either advisable or effective surfaced most often among trained biologists, especially those associated with preservation groups. The Sierra Club was most vocal; so too, faculty members of the University of California at Berkeley still frequently advised Park Service officials. Generally that role, like Joseph Grinnell's in the past, remained strictly unofficial. Stepped-up spraying for needle-miners in the late 1950s nevertheless provoked more widespread and even more outspoken comments. If only indirectly, scientists obviously still served as a most important conscience for government managers, who were not always as deeply committed to natural resources. [46]

By 1959 Yosemite's needle-miner infestation covered tens of thousands of acres surrounding Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake. The damage was most visible in the browned and dying trees seen from everywhere along the Tioga Road. "It may appear foolish to let a tree die, or to let part of a forest die," wrote David Brower, of the Sierra Club, summing up the consensus among Park Service leaders. "But," he added, immediately interjecting the opinion of knowledgeable scientists and preservationists, it appeared foolish "only in the short view." He next turned philosophical. "God made the lodgepole pine. God also made the needle miner. To oversimplify badly, He may have made both to prevent either from overrunning too much of the earth." Whatever God's reasoning, Yosemite during the past sixty years had been through three such epidemics. "The lodgepoles... are still there," Brower observed, "needle miners or no." Indeed one would need "an expert" to determine precisely "where the first epidemic of this century ran its course." Likewise people "might very easily pass the second one without seeing it." Brower continued, "Because of both of them, and similar epidemics in the previous century, you may have seen more meadow than you would otherwise see, and more mountain hemlocks." The lesson was "unmistakeable," he concluded. Nothing had been lost to Yosemite National Park; rather, the resources and their relationships were simply in constant change. [47]

Those changes, moreover, were perfectly natural. Indeed Brower's observations might just as easily have been Joseph Grinnell's. "Our fathers before us were taught that predators were bad actors, varmints, evil animals and birds which should be shot," he remarked, taking a page from Grinnell's earlier text. "We are not more enlightened than our fathers when we try to evaluate what the good actors are, and what the bad, in the forest." Rather the Park Service should "hesitate before assuming that a needle miner is no good and that we must therefore try to poison all needle miners in Yosemite—killing off we don't know what else in the process." [48]

Yet the argument got nowhere. During the summer of 1959 alone, 3,400 acres were sprayed, including the Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows campgrounds. In July 1961 another 4,872 acres were sprayed in the same vicinity, using three helicopters. And in 1963 the procedure was still continuing, with smaller acreages treated at Tuolumne Meadows and Glen Aulin. [49]

It was, as Joseph Grinnell had so often lamented, another prime example of the failure of bureaucracy to catch up with biology. Two momentus signs of catch-up came in 1962. The first was the publication of Silent Spring by the biologist Rachel Carson. Originally serialized in the New Yorker, the book provided Americans with a comprehensive warning about the dangers of pesticide use. Silent Spring was indeed a national bombshell, selling five hundred thousand copies during its first six months in print. [50] Also in 1962, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall appointed five distinguished scientists to a special Wildlife Management Advisory Board. In the board's chairman, Professor A. Starker Leopold, the legacy of Joseph Grinnell had once more come full circle. Leopold held a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of California at Berkeley. Two years after obtaining that degree in 1944, he had been appointed assistant professor and conservationist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (formerly Grinnell's own), where he had risen to become associate director in 1958. He still held that post in 1962, when Secretary Udall appointed him to the special wildlife commission. [51]

On March 4, 1963, the committee submitted its official report. No one seemed to notice, but the document bore the unmistakable imprint of Joseph Grinnell's ideas. "As a primary goal," the committee suggested, "we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man." In short the scientists concluded, "A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America." [52]

Grinnell and Tracy Storer had originally argued the point as follows: "Herein lies the feature of supreme value in national parks: they furnish samples of the earth as it was before the advent of the white man." The ideal was next promulgated in George M. Wright's collaborative study, Fauna of the National Parks. "The American people intrusted the National Park Service with the preservation of characteristic portions of our country as it was seen by Boone and La Salle, by Coronado, and by Lewis and Clark." Thirty years after Wright, and nearly fifty years after Grinnell, the ideal was unchanged. For Leopold as well, the survival of national parks rested primarily on a most basic assumption—that Americans would learn enough humility to maintain an ecological masquerade. "A reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated," the Leopold Committee argued, "using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity." [53]

The ideal of sanctuary was certainly winning its share of converts. If parks were to survive, they had to be managed for their resources as well as for more visitors. There was, for example, the latest "serious question," that of "the mass application of insecticides in the control of forest insects." Similar applications "may (or may not) be justified in commercial timber stands," Leopold and his colleagues observed, "but in a national park the ecologic impact can have unanticipated effects on the biotic community that might defeat the overall management objective." Simply put, spraying was "potentially dangerous." At the least, it seemed "wise to curtail this activity" pending research on a "small scale" to test for possible adverse results. [54]

The message was unequivocal: If the parks were to remain biological sanctuaries, then the resource must always be considered first. Granted, like Wright's and Grinnell's works, from which it drew such obvious inspiration, the Leopold Committee report was not entirely free of untested hopes and pure assumptions. Still, it did form another working basis for elevating park resources to higher and higher levels of management priority. "In essence," the committee acknowledged, "we are calling for a set of ecologic skills unknown in this country today." [55] The point again was that scientists were not afraid to admit those limitations and, simultaneously, to set the highest standards for translating research into management on the framework of what was known.

As the classic proving ground for such debates, Yosemite National Park was still in the forefront of controversy. For the third time in fifty years a team of distinguished scientists, inspired by a zoologist linked with the University of California, had examined Yosemite's management structure and again found it wanting. The Leopold Committee had said it tactfully—ecology was inexact. Yet the message between the lines was still troubling and sobering. Ecology might be imperfect, but at least it offered reliable standards. The National Park Service continued to follow its traditional agenda, rating the accommodation of people first and the management of resources only a distant second. From the standpoint of ecology, those priorities were skewed. As in the past, the biggest problem facing scientists was not how to handle imperfect data but rather was how to convince the Park Service to look away from people long enough to see where science was heading.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap11.htm — 17-Mar-2004