The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Twelve:
Self-Interest and Environment

Any resource open to everyone is eventually destroyed. So in 1968 Garrett Hardin, a professor of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, addressed the futility of pleading for voluntary self-restraint to protect the environment. Such appeals, he noted, impress those individuals with a real sense of social responsibility but fail to sway anyone intent on maximizing personal gain. The result is the tragedy of the commons, the inevitable overexploitation of collectively held resources in the relentless pursuit of economic self-interest. [1]

Extending that thesis to Yosemite, Professor Hardin argued that perhaps access should be denied to anyone unwilling to walk the prerequisite distance for ensuring that the park would not be overused or overdeveloped. [2] Although labeled as elitist, the idea did have broad appeal, especially among preservationists, who considered resource conservation to be the only legitimate purpose of national parks. [3] Development in any form was therefore illegitimate, if only for the reason that structures, roads, and everyday services were commonplace throughout America, whereas Yosemite was one of a kind. There had evolved, in either case, the unwritten standard that whatever Americans could do elsewhere in the country should not become common practice in national parks. Further bearing on Professor Hardin's thesis, setting priorities for conservation required that every interested party, from government officials and visitors to park concessionaires, give up insisting that access standards should be self-determined and thereby begin reassuring that Yosemite's role as a natural sanctuary would be enhanced.

Once more the issue hinged on the fundamental duality in park legislation, legal sanctions that provided, in effect, that Yosemite be managed for both private profit and resource conservation. Self-interest and the public interest (however defined) went hand in hand. But was coexistence realistic? Historically, the behavior of park concessionaires especially had suggested the many possibilities for serious contradictions. Regulated or not, concessionaires as a group had put profit ahead of preservation. As businessmen, they sought expansion, not only of facilities but also of saleable visitor services. Amusements were labeled "needs" and not merely luxuries. More often than not the subterfuge worked, allowing concessionaires to distance themselves from their own intensive campaigns for increased park development. The hostility of preservationists was all the more reason not to label the profit motive for what it was but instead, feigning concern for the environment, to plead again that meeting the demands of expansion was done only with considerable reluctance and, to reemphasize, at the insistence of the public.

If any single commodity ever sold in Yosemite cast doubt on the sincerity of that argument, most certainly that commodity was alcohol. Hardly had the first tourists begun arriving in the valley when tent saloons started popping up alongside popular overlooks and trails. [4] As we have seen, the artist Charles D. Robinson was among the more notable Yosemite publicists who labeled its bars as "necessities." The military later disagreed and for a time restricted the sale of alcoholic beverages to drinks by the glass in hotel rooms or with meals only. The return of civilian control in 1914 presaged another brief period of general sales; soon afterward, however, all sales were banned. [5] National prohibition, imposed in 1919 by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, effectively sealed the debate for the next decade and a half and, in the process, clearly reinforced the Interior Department's earlier decision to halt all liquor sales in national parks.

With the repeal of national prohibition in 1933, there was an opportunity to review, at the very least, the advisability of resuming the sale of alcoholic beverages in public parks and refuges, in effect requiring visitors to ask of themselves beforehand whether or not bringing liquor in was worth the inconvenience. It would be just one more thing to worry about, just one more thing to carry. Yet the question had hardly been asked when the ban on sales was lifted. Although obviously pleased, concessionaires once more found it expedient to hide their support behind the standard words of subterfuge, insisting again that public demand was the chief source of persuasion.

It remained for Don Tresidder, the president of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, to lift that legerdemain to new heights in a lengthy memorandum dated June 20, 1934. "We wish to state emphatically," he began, "that this Company is not going into the liquor business with the intention of developing a trade that will be as profitable as possible." The remainder of his two-page document continually underscored that promise, indicating that although prohibition in national parks had just been repealed, his company intended to forbid anything suggestive of promoting alcohol consumption. To the contrary, the sale of alcoholic beverages would be kept strictly low-key and tastefully conservative. [6]

As of 1988 there were thirty-five outlets in Yosemite National Park selling beer, wine, or liquor, twenty-three of those outlets on the valley floor alone. [7] The Yosemite Park and Curry Company further promoted sales through modern bars, expansive shelf displays, and various types of advertising, including using company-operated buses and tours to point out the location of lounge facilities. Quite obviously, sometime in the fifty years following Tresidder's memo, his promise had been completely scuttled.

The point again was that Tresidder himself had laid the foundations for the swift and total abandonment of his promise. In retrospect, his memorandum of June 20, 1934, was simply the standard attempt to shift responsibility for a decision that he too so visibly wanted and supported. External pressures, he implied, had forced the decision on him. Indeed it was "not without some misgiving" that he had agreed to the "experiment." And so he continued to plead for sympathy and understanding. "It is believed that an intensive and aggressive selling of liquor would jeopardize the goodwill which has been built up among our guests and in the end would have a disastrous effect on our investment in hotels, transportation, etc.," he wrote, further underscoring his commitment to a wholesome park environment. "We have sought to provide facilities under such conditions that families with children would feel free to live in tents or open quarters without fear of being molested or exposed to many undesirable elements and practices found in large cities." [8]

Then why had the Curry Company even agreed to allow this "experiment"? Opening his memo with the punch line to his subterfuge, Tresidder answered that the company was simply responding "to a recognizable public demand on the part of our guests and upon the written authority of the Secretary of the Interior, who has sole and exclusive jurisdiction." Any fault, in other words, lay entirely elsewhere. Again the company was merely satisfying the "public demand" and, by implication, the wishes of a senior government official. The idea—hence the responsibility—belonged to someone else. If, therefore, through the sale of alcoholic beverages Yosemite slipped under greater influence from "undesirable elements and practices found in large cities," no one could blame the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, including its president, for also being party to the prerequisite self-interest perhaps responsible for that result. [9]

Barely another year elapsed before Tresidder revealed his true sentiments regarding alcoholic beverages. On July 13, 1935, Superintendent C. G. Thomson reported privately to the director and the park advisory board that a "new drinking room" had just been completed on the second floor of the Ahwahnee Hotel. The company had "tried to achieve a convivial atmosphere" with a decor suggesting the gold rush period of 1849. And that, in Thomson's view, was inappropriate. "It strikes me as a false note," he declared. "In my opinion, it is a decided let-down in the Ahwahnee atmosphere, and out of place in a national park." Even more to the point, it was his distinct "impression that we were to serve liquor merely as a simple service to the public, but not to accentuate it in any way." That indeed had been Tresidder's manifesto the previous year. "No special emphasis should be placed upon it," he had pronounced in his memo, further warning company employees that "merchandising alcohol" was to be conducted "in the same manner" that the company used to "sell canned goods or other items." For example, he added, "no window displays or alluring showcase displays will be permitted." Rather, everyone was to be on notice: "Any employee seeking to promote the sale of liquor beyond meeting the legitimate and unsolicited quests of our guests will be considered to have violated the clearly defined policy of this Company." [10]

Tresidder, of course, did not fire himself for approving the construction of the El Dorado Room, even though, as Superintendent Thomson noted, the room did seem purposely designed "to compete with the rash of 'cocktail lounges' ... in many hotels in California." Because building the bar was "an interior change" it had not at the time required Park Service approval. [11] It had, however, most certainly required Tresidder's. Thomson, meanwhile, left no doubt that had the decision been his alone he would not have allowed the El Dorado Room addition.

The incident graphically symbolized the manner in which the manipulation of self-interest tended to compromise Yosemite's distinctiveness as an uncommon resource. Tresidder's memorandum of June 20, 1934, was just another clever ruse, another purposeful attempt to deflect potential criticism even as the Yosemite Park and Curry Company moved forward with plans to promote—and not simply provide—alcoholic beverages. The kinds of limitations to be imposed on any products or services was an issue that few but preservationists had honestly addressed. Yosemite, accordingly, still wavered between preservation and civilization, with the latter still winning out in practically every telling respect.

For those in the postwar era who considered visitation itself a threat to Yosemite's scenic and biological resources, the park's first moment of truth came on December 31, 1954, when total visitation for the preceding calendar year stood at 1,008,031 people. It was but a few months short of a century since James Mason Hutchings had brought the first party of tourists to Yosemite Valley in 1855. Yet just thirteen years later, in 1967, the figure stood at two million and was rapidly climbing. Only twenty more years were needed to top three million visitors annually; the estimate in 1987 was 3,244,512, bypassing the previous year's estimated total of 2,982,758 by a whopping margin of 261,754 people. [12]

The lingering reaction among preservationists was one of vindication mixed with deep regret. Protection's first outspoken prophet, Frederick Law Olmsted, had predicted, in 1865, precisely the future that Yosemite was now experiencing. Ansel Adams added to Olmsted's interpretation. "When there was a vast reservoir of wilderness," he wrote to David Brower, "when areas such as Yosemite were difficult of access, there was a different kind of visitor; he came primarily for the experience of the place" and, even more significant, "was willing to sacrifice certain comforts and undergo considerable difficulties to gain this experience." Suddenly development in Yosemite National Park attracted every kind of individual, not just people resigned to discomfort in the best interest of preservation. So-called services had also become "more general" as the character of visitors had changed. Among those "services" were more and more "entertainments" intended by park operators "to cover a wide and often unjustified range" of public whims and desires. The result, Adams concluded, was "a 'resort' enterprise to which people are attracted for other reasons than the simple experience of the Natural Scene." [13]

In Adams's estimation the fault resided in park management, both public and private. "I know the perfidy of the Company and the weakness of the Park Service as you will never know them," he had already confided in 1952 to his Sierra Club colleague William E. Colby. "You would be shocked if you knew how many times you have been duped by a smooth protestation of virtue on the part of the operators and the weak acquiescence of the Government people." Such were the harsh opinions that often undermined reformers' efforts. "Not many of the individuals in the Park Service have the vision and imagination to grasp what is actually happening," Adams remarked five years later in his letter to Brower, still refusing to back down. "One situation begets another—a rapidly ascending curve of exploitation and 'development' has now brought Yosemite to the brink of disaster—and the insensitivity in evidence here threatens to spread to other Parks." [14]

His list of management failures was seemingly endless. "There is no excuse for typical urban installations in Yosemite," he began. "I am in complete agreement with the idea of removing from Yosemite ALL unnecessary operations, buildings and activities." First among them was camping. "Sympathetic as I am to such an experience, I simply do not see how camping on the floor of the Valley can be long continued without hopelessly affecting its appearance and mood." Yet the elimination of camping should be just the beginning. "People, things, buildings, events, and evidence of occupation and use simply will have to go out of Yosemite if it is to function as a great inspirational natural shrine for all our people. That means me, you, hotels, stores, bars, shops—everything but the barest service necessities." [15]

Adams noted, for comparison, the distinction between Yosemite and the National Gallery of Art, both public institutions supported by Americans. The gallery's "attendance has been... good—but the important fact is that the attendance is based solely on Art and the basic attraction of ART, and not on dances, bars, movies, nightly firefalls and vaudeville, swift roads, super-comfortable beds and adequate food, coca-cola stands, 'dude' rides and atrocious curios." The National Gallery "serves [only] those who wish to attend for the purpose of getting experience in art. Why cannot the National Parks be planned and operated along the same logical lines?" [16]

What one million visitors foretold for Yosemite was the difficulty of substituting logic for historical self-interest. To be sure, Ansel Adams himself was part of the complex entanglement that affected every rationale for resisting decisive changes in the park's management or infrastructure. Simply, tradition was not that easy to erase. "I may be guilty of a contradiction of my own principles," he finally confessed, "in continuing to support the Christmas Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel." Writing years later in his autobiography, he still had no illusions that the event had not originated in pursuit of the profit motive. "The winter season was always slow for the concessionaires; tourists were almost nonexistent. To increase visitation Don Tresidder, the president of YPCCO, began a program of winter sports." In 1927 Tresidder further "suggested a theatrical Christmas dinner at the Ahwahnee as a key focus for family winter vacations." Two years later he asked Adams to direct the entire affair, with the help of an architect, Jeannette Spencer. Adams agreed, "provided we could make it professional in concept and performance." The result was a Yuletide pageant, "an account of an English squire's Christmas entertainment," modeled after Washington Irving's Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. [17]

Clearly, no importation into Yosemite Valley could have been more foreign or artificial. The point was that this particular display of artificiality was Ansel Adams's own. "I plead guilty to this," he further confessed to David Brower. He nonetheless still excused himself. "Elements of art can be logically associated with the elements of the Natural experience—both concern the spirit and the emotions." Even on the eve of his death in 1984 his opinion was unshaken. He wrote in his autobiography, "I feel a certain pride about the Bracebridge; its aesthetics and style directly relate to the emotional potential of the natural scene." [18] Just paragraphs earlier he had admitted that increasing visitation was Bracebridge's true intent; suddenly all that seemed forgivable because he, and not the Curry Company, had designed the event.

Could this be the same Ansel Adams who had described the Curry Company as perfidious and the Park Service as weak just because neither had embraced his reasoning that Yosemite Valley should be restored by strict limitations on visitation and development? Here was the critic himself making a case for his opponents, arguing that not all development was necessarily intrusive or inappropriate. "As long as the Ahwahnee exists," he wrote, further conceding that point, "it offers the opportunity to express certain events of a definite spiritual character." Put another way, without the Ahwahnee there would be no special meaning to the Bracebridge Dinner, no grand stage on which Adams's proud creation could be played out to the fullest. The Ahwahnee "also, unfortunately, supports evidences of advanced urbanism which create a dichotomy in the Yosemite scene," he immediately added, still obviously wrestling with his original concern. [19] Then which was it to be—complete naturalness in Yosemite Valley or just enough urbanization to allow for Bracebridge?

In microcosm, the emotional tug-of-war of such a dedicated and outspoken preservationist was very telling evidence of the power of inconsistency. Faced with the thought of losing a Yosemite tradition so dear to his heart, Ansel Adams too was forced into rationalizing why he had diminished his lifetime scale of values. That very lapse in fortitude was precisely what Frederick Law Olmsted had had in mind when he wrote in 1865 of the need to adopt strict rules of conduct that would, without compromise, govern every park visitor. Ever since Olmsted, the search for those proper rules of conduct had been Yosemite's historic and endlessly debated challenge. Finally affected by the presence of Olmsted's predicted "millions," that search had indeed become all the more difficult. Ansel Adams was just another example of the futility of asking for commitment without effective coercion. For Adams, it was also too easy to slip into the comfortable excuse that whatever existed in one's own name was somehow legitimate, whereas developments and activities proposed by others were strictly impositions.

Olmsted's admonishment was to treat everything as impositions, unless something had originally been part of the natural scene. Otherwise the danger arose of accepting development itself as natural, further imposing layer upon layer of artificiality over the landscape. Garrett Hardin said it differently, but his conclusion was much the same. The acceptance of change need not be total; it need simply be present. The only way out of the tragedy of the commons was universal coercion. Everyone must accept the same standard, or the standard would fail. [20]

So Ansel Adams, whatever the purity of his motives, had succumbed to the very kind of inconsistency that was so easily turned around into defense for greater park development. Historically, the potential for inconsistency had resided in hundreds of visitors, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands. Now, for the first time, those inconsistencies might be expressed in the millions. Soon, it followed, more evidence would appear supporting Olmsted and Hardin, suggesting that the mere possibility of increased compromise would in fact erode whatever remained of the nation's commitment to protect Yosemite, "inalienable for all time."

On August 7, 1945, Newton B. Drury, the director of the National Park Service, challenged the Yosemite Advisory Board to address the issue of park development head on. "I should like the Board to consider particularly the possibility of moving as much as possible of the Government facilities out of the Valley," he wrote. "I should also like," he added, "the Board to give serious consideration to the proposal of eliminating Yosemite Lodge, broadening the range of service at the Ahwahnee, and eliminating the resort-type entertainment featured at Camp Curry, thereby reducing the tourist impact on the Valley Floor." To compensate for those services and facilities removed from the valley, he endorsed the proposal to "build up the facilities at Wawona, or at Big Meadow," on the southwestern and western borders of the park, respectively. Here could be located "the entertainment and other resort features that might be considered a normal part of the life of a community whose activities are based on desires other than those of seeing and enjoying the natural features of the Park." [21]

Thus Drury set the theme for the next forty years of park planning and debate. The following June he acknowledged receipt of the Advisory Board's report and noted his disappointment that it in fact disclosed "no opportunity for the elimination of activities and the removal of the accompanying facilities from Yosemite Valley." He suggested more review again to determine if "specific activities of both the Government and the Concessioner" should be moved to a location other than Yosemite Valley proper. "It might be expected," he conceded, "that there would be some loss of efficiency, or a small increase in operating costs." Those possible drawbacks, however, "should be balanced against the benefits that would accrue in decreasing the congestion on the Valley floor." [22]

Superintendent Frank A. Kittredge was most sympathetic, writing his own lengthy memorandum to the regional director and stressing the commercialization of Camp Curry. Visitors historically had found Camp Curry to be "delightful, homey, and wholesome," he remarked, appealing to the family values of an earlier age. Then the major concessionaires were consolidated in 1925, after which "the previous gradual increase in tents was pyramided," under the auspices of the newly formed Yosemite Park and Curry Company. As a result, a widening area "not intended for great numbers [of people] was stretched out at the foot of the mountainside." To draw still more patronage, "the beautiful evening campfire program of singing and story telling was enlarged by the addition of paid entertainers." Next came even more amusements, including "a huge dance hall" built "adjacent to the tents and cabin sleeping quarters." And all this was in addition to a modernized "dining room and cafeteria constructed to serve not only the guests of Camp Curry but visitors from other units and from the campgrounds." [23]

Consequently, in place of Camp Curry's original mood, there now prevailed a "carnival atmosphere." Additional "town amusements" had seemed the "logical" answer to accommodating "a village or town of summer residents." Tents and cabins provided housing for as many as fifteen hundred people nightly "in an area not originally planned for such numbers." In short, the concessionaire had "thrust" upon Yosemite Valley and the National Park Service "an area of great concentration," everywhere accented by "exotic entertainments" intended solely as a means "to draw and to hold crowds." [24]

Like Director Drury, Kittredge saw the solution in "decentralization," which, in his view, would once again "substitute a simple camp atmosphere for the present urban conditions and carnival aspects." Similarly, the Park Service should pursue the "elimination of the resort or 'fairground' amusements and the introduction of appropriate amusements." Ultimately, it followed, people seeking "jazz or city type" activities would "soon label the Park as 'dead' and remain away of their own volition." [25]

That itself, of course, was the enforcement of a standard, and as Drury and Kittredge realized, the concessionaire was consistently opposed to preservation by exclusion. Greater visitation was still the basis for greater profits. Accordingly, Drury in particular feared even stronger pressure for developing Yosemite Valley unless management effected "some rather drastic changes in general operations." Nor did preservationists have long to wait for the Curry Company's standard rebuttal to Drury's bold proposal. "Probably what troubles me most," wrote Hilmer Oehlmann, general manager, "is the apparently unqualified assumption that the people who operate concessions in the national parks would subscribe to any form of desecration of these areas for the sake of additional profit." However legitimate that interpretation, Oehlmann knew how best to attack it. Simply, his response was to undermine preservationists themselves by insinuating that their aims were no less selfish or self-serving. "Our critics know in their hearts that they have a deeper appreciation of beauty than the mass of their fellows and discount accordingly any real or fancied enjoyment which shallower mortals may derive from a visit to a park," he declared. That reaction proved nothing but the existence of another "type of snobbery." Like it or not, Oehlmann warned, postwar America was "on the move" and would "not be denied access" to the national parks. "To ascribe the presence of such throngs to the existence of man-made recreational facilities is patently absurd," he concluded. "With ten thousand people in Yosemite the dancehall holds a few hundred, the two cocktail bars together contain fewer than a hundred, while for every swimmer in the pools there are a hundred in the river." [26]

Oehlmann, of course, had conveniently omitted a complete inventory of all company-sponsored and promoted activities, from bicycle rentals and horseback riding to the annual Bracebridge Dinner. The second pillar of his argument was equally selective and once again suggested that preservationists alone were guilty of misreading park history. "Cocktail bars have been mentioned by our critics," he noted, returning to that most familiar example, "frequently with the intimation that the present concessioner started them." Yet everyone "familiar with the early history of the Valley" knew for a fact "that the first hotels had saloons and that the tourists who came here enjoyed the evening pleasures of gin-slings, juleps and other concoctions." [27] But again, he failed to mention prohibition, which had abolished all legal sales of those items. After prohibition it was the Curry Company, nor persuasive appeals citing early park history, that had effectively restored the sale of alcoholic beverages to Yosemite National Park.

The sophistry, in either case, always ended predictably—whatever the company sold was provided strictly to appease public demand. "How we could conduct our liquor business on a more restricted basis than at present and still give any reasonable measure of service in that field, I do not know," Oehlmann declared, pleading again that concessionaires did nothing to dictate visitors' tastes. But his succinct statement of principles forcefully suggested otherwise. "I am opposed to the philosophy that all human pursuits beyond eating, sleeping and enjoying nature should be interdicted, if only because they can be followed somewhere outside a national park." [28]

Under Newton B. Drury, a committed preservationist, the National Park Service itself had finally called for a study of that very standard of visitation. Yet Oehlmann remained confident that precedent in Yosemite was to his advantage. "Aside from the concessioners themselves, railroads, bus lines, travel agents, and oil companies will inevitably continue their efforts, and it is not to be expected that the Park Service itself will aspire to confront the Appropriations Committees with statistics of declining travel." [29] Granted, his statement was mildly threatening and obviously self-serving. But this time the weight of Yosemite's past was firmly behind him. Throughout history, self-interest had been more persuasive than preservation, and self-interest was not confined to concessionaires. The future of Yosemite still seemed locked in historical patterns. Even more simply put, Hilmer Oehlmann was right.

Although pressure was still strongest for development in the valley, the high country did not escape closer scrutiny of its potential for increased visitation. Symbolically, the realignment and modernization of the old Tioga Road foretold the invasion of preservationists' backcountry hideaways. Meanwhile, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company had released some disturbing signals of its own. On September 8, 1955, for example, Hilmer Oehlmann wrote Superintendent John C. Preston in response to a Park Service memorandum regarding bears at Merced Lake. "I realize that the indiscriminate killing of bears could bring criticism against the Park Service," Oehlmann remarked. "However, it has been my observation over the years that the pleasure of a motorist who observes a bear along the highway is not shared by the camper subject to nightly raids." He did not say which the company was more concerned about—that visitors would not be safe or that bears raiding camps would scare off potential customers. Yet no one could doubt his feelings about the animals themselves. "The well nigh unanimous opinion of persons who stay in bear-infested areas is that the critters are an unmitigated nuisance which should be abated." [30]

There was nothing in Oehlmann's memo about people infestations, a reversal of perspective that might have given him greater sympathy for preservationists' concerns. Rather, he held steadfastly to his position that more development in Yosemite was not only good but also inevitable. That the bear "nuisance" might have to be "abated" was simply facing reality. In a similar vein, he protested the consideration of the Wilderness Preservation Bill, introduced in Congress in 1956. He immediately wrote Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California and requested a copy of the legislation. "You kindly sent me the Bill," Oehlmann wrote, with thanks, on January 7, 1957, and in your letter of transmittal.. . you stated your conviction that the proposed legislation was meritorious." Oehlmann strongly disagreed. "For my part, I question whether it is either necessary or free from danger." "The danger that I see," he reemphasized, "is that the legislation would create an official group 'loaded' with wilderness enthusiasts, and the counsels of extremists might easily prevail." Again his reasoning was most familiar. "With the country growing at its present rate and with the need for optimum use of our material and recreational resources, I would be wary of radical counsel on the side either of development or preservation." Yet no one could doubt that Oehlmann sided with development, even if that meant preempting some of Yosemite's existing wilderness. "The principle of 'the greater good,'" he concluded, "should govern here as elsewhere." [31]

That principle, quite obviously, was but another rationale for allowing more people into wilderness areas. Accordingly, Oehlmann could not help but be opposed to the wilderness bill. The likelihood that its provisions would be applied first to parks with large backcountry zones, especially Yosemite, could jeopardize further opportunities to expand visitor facilities. The Park Service itself had just launched Mission 66, a ten-year program to upgrade park roads, campgrounds, visitor centers, and accommodations by 1966, the agency's fiftieth anniversary. The program was especially controversial among preservationists, who favored lessening rather than expanding those facilities, at least in backcountry areas where existing levels of construction and access were still rudimentary. Wrote Ansel Adams, "It is not so much what is wrong with Mission 66 as what is missing!" Instead of reaffirming the principles of national parks, the Mission 66 report "stressed the physical plants and planning directed towards a Recreational pattern." Bluntly, the report lacked commitment "to the basic problem of security of the National Park Ideal." Instead "the term 'Inspirational,'" Adams argued, "is used with a glib obligation to impart some veneer of spiritual purpose. But I get the feeling that those in charge have about as much true grasp and understanding of the Intangible as a Red Indian has of an IBM Calculator!" [32]

In preservationists' estimation, the reconstruction of the Tioga Road, which crossed Yosemite from east to west, only reconfirmed their worst fears about the future of park wilderness. As early as 1933 the Sierra Club had questioned several Park Service options for making the historic mining road a modern, paved thoroughfare. Reconstruction nonetheless soon began on that section of the Tioga Road from Crane Flat to McSwain Meadows in the west and from Cathedral Creek to Tioga Pass on the road's eastern extremity. World War II halted construction; so too, reductions in the Park Service's budget after the war delayed final action on the heart of the highway, that twenty-one-mile portion between McSwain Meadows and Cathedral Creek. That was the portion targeted as a top priority for Mission 66 and, consequently, for preservationists' claims that Mission 66 was overly committed to bigger roads and bigger development. [33]

Pressure for improving the Tioga Road was even stronger in outlying communities, especially those along the park boundary to the east, where reopening the Tioga Road every spring signaled the revival of lifeless tourist economies. "Conservatively, 50 percent or more of the business of Lee Vining is derived from tourist travel over Tioga Pass," noted Marjorie M. Gripper, the president of the Lee Vining Chamber of Commerce. That fact was for the benefit of Superintendent John C. Preston, whom she had written on January 19, 1954, pleading the community's annual case for the earliest possible opening of the Tioga Road. "I believe," she added, "that you can see why the setting of the opening date by you is of such great importance to the economy of Mono County." Would the Park Service therefore begin clearing the road of snow just as early as possible? [34] Other communities east of the park perennially asked the same question and now added their concern that the twenty-one miles of unimproved roadbed be immediately upgraded to modern highway standards.

The Park Service, in other words, was still caught between two opposing forces. It had helped encourage both, but only one—preservation—was unquestionably a legitimate purpose of national parks. The other force, commercialism, had been courted in the interest of building up visitation. Inside the parks, commercialism had taken the form of concessions, which ostensibly were under the full control of Park Service personnel. Outside the parks, however, the Service had little or no influence over the designs of commercial interests. During the 1920s, enlisting those interests up and down the state of California had seemed the best route to boosting visitation to Yosemite and hence boosting agency support. Invariably, as a result, the park superintendent spent a good deal of time meeting with business and civic leaders and reassuring all of them that travel to Yosemite would spill over into their surrounding communities. The unforeseen consequence was the growing dependence of nearby cities and towns on sustaining that travel. Consequently, the superintendent could look forward every winter to a barrage of letters insisting that the Tioga Road be plowed as quickly as possible, not because an early opening did anything to promote preservation but, quite the contrary, because it virtually guaranteed that visitation—hence business—would peak that much sooner. [35]

Even when the road had opened, the flood of letters from the east side never abated; in summer the subject of special urgency merely switched from plowing snow to promptly completing the highway's renovation. Marjorie Gripper, for instance, pressed her attack. "We wish to point out that this highway. . . is a disgrace to the Park Department and an imposition on the travelers." And just to make certain that her point had gotten across, she sent copies of her remarks to leading politicians, from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of the United States, to Norris Poulson, the mayor of Los Angeles. "Now, [we have] another problem," agreed Ted Gardner, executive secretary of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce. After thanking Superintendent Preston for opening the Tioga Road in time for the 1954 Memorial Day weekend, he added, "What can we do, what pressure can we exert, to secure the completion of the 21 mile stretch of poor road in the Tuolumne area between Yosemite and Lee Vining?" [36] Here again, only someone totally unfamiliar with the issue might have concluded that somehow his request was motivated by a hidden concern for the protection rather than the commercialization of Tuolumne Meadows.

Understandably, preservationists blamed the Park Service for simply caving in to people like Marjorie Gripper and Ted Gardner, individuals who seemed to equate convenient access with increased business opportunity. "The case of the Tioga Road illustrates our point," argued Richard M. Leonard, the president of the Sierra Club. "The Yosemite National Park speed limit is very appropriately 35 mph, quite adequate for park display and internal park travel roads. Why then adopt the standards of the Crane Flat road section?" That portion, already modernized, "invites speeds of 50 to 70 mph, so that the man who wants to travel at 35 mph and see the scenery is in danger of being hit in the rear by those who are not interested in scenery." And still, in his opinion, the case against roads was even more basic. "We don't build public thoroughfares through museums, libraries, art exhibits or cathedrals. Let us not build them through our parks." Alex Hildebrand, Leonard's successor, agreed. "A highway down the center aisle of a cathedral would enable more people to go through it, but it would not enable more people to come there for peace and spiritual inspiration." Nor would Hildebrand concede "that the correlation between the cathedral and a national park" was, as proponents of development so often stated in rebuttal, "very far-fetched." [37]

It was, however, most revealing that Hildebrand, unlike Marjorie Gripper, did not send a copy of his letter to any major politician. Rather, he directed all carbons to preservation community members only, among them Edgar Wayburn, Ansel Adams, and Alfred A. Knopf. [38] The oversight was, in and of itself, a significant revelation of the difference between the lobbying efforts of the Tioga Road's protagonists. Members of the Sierra Club apparently spent too much time preaching among themselves. And precedent, of course, was still on the side of those favoring Mission 66. The new Tioga Road was swiftly approved and pushed through to completion.

In one last moment of esthetic outrage, the Sierra Club was able to halt construction briefly, in August 1958. Climbing southwest of Tenaya Lake, the right-of-way cut through and across a long granitic escarpment, considered to be one of the most beautiful formations of its kind in the park. Yet following his inspection of the project on August 19, Park Service Director Conrad Wirth ordered that construction be resumed immediately. Sierra Club leaders present during his inspection, among them David Brower, won no major concessions regarding the road's design or alignment. In retrospect the Sierra Club concluded that it had reacted far too late. "The rampant bulldozer scrapes, and having scraped ramps on," Brower declared. "Nor all our piety and wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all our tears wash out a mark of it." The Tenaya Lake "we knew, the 'Lake of the Shining Rocks' the Indians knew, is dead. Please let us allow no one to forget what the experts killed there, needlessly, in large measure because we who knew they were wrong held our tongues." [39]

The Park Service, in its own defense, shot back at preservationists with its traditional arguments, noting, for example, that the Tioga Road was already there and in obvious need of improvement. The road's original width barely allowed for two cars to pass safely; similarly, its original alignment was too steep, too twisting, and otherwise in need of major adjustments. Even more to the point, the Park Service was obligated to please all of its constituents, not just preservationists and especially not just a few disgruntled members of the Sierra Club. "Brower is a paid employee of the Club and has been on the Service's back almost continually since he became permanently employed," Superintendent John C. Preston remarked, opening a speech before Park Service officials in January 1959. He conveniently ignored that he too was a paid employee of the organization whose position he was defending against compensated preservationists. Preston intended, like Hilmer Oehlmann, to imply that only the Sierra Club and not the Park Service was guilty of conflict of interest. At the very least, he hoped to shift any blame for selfishness and self-interest onto the Park Service's critics. Indeed, once other groups had learned of the Tioga Road controversy, they had rallied to the government's support. "This support," he observed, simultaneously revealing its sources and its biases, "came from the California State Chamber of Commerce, local city and county chambers of commerce, such as Merced, Fresno, and others, County Supervisors, State Senators and Assemblymen, as well as other groups and organizations." His conclusion was obvious: "All this reaction pointed up the fact that groups other than the Sierra Club are extremely interested in what goes on in National Parks." [40]

What Preston failed to clarify was just how that long list of commercial interests better served the needs of Yosemite National Park. Consequently, he represented instead the reluctance of Park Service officials to concede that most of the agency's support outside the preservation community was motivated largely by materialistic ambition. Park Service thinking was back in the 1920s, when it was still being argued that materialism and preservation might be compatible after all. The Tioga Road controversy was just another indication that the marriage of commerce and conservation might have been doomed from the start. Even so, given its long history of fostering that relationship, the Park Service understandably refused to consider suggestions that a breakup might be necessary.

The classic lesson in Garrett Hardin's thesis had yet to be considered. In the tragedy of the commons, a public field in a hypothetical village is eventually overgrazed because each villager makes an individual decision to exceed his allotment and to sneak more cattle onto the field. The promotion of self-interest destroys the resource for everyone. Accordingly, the tragedy is inescapable. Merely the knowledge that a common resource is open to everyone encourages each individual to exploit the resource as much as he can. After all, whatever that individual might save out of a sense of social responsibility will only be consumed by others who have no similar commitment to the welfare of the group. [41]

In its abruptness and completeness, the change of heart exhibited by Ansel Adams seemed to confirm Hardin's thesis. Critical of park development throughout the 1950s, Adams seemed, by the following decade, to have softened considerably. Most notably, by 1971 the flow of visitors through the park no longer distressed him; rather, he now vehemently argued in favor of greater numbers, pointing out that Yosemite Valley was "one of the great shrines of the world." However uncharacteristic of Adams in the past, that argument now underlay his support for additional means of access, including cableways and helicopters, "all less damaging than roads." Yosemite Valley, "belonging to all our people," had to "be appropriately accessible" both now and in the future. "Any attempt to reduce Yosemite Valley to a wilderness area would be futile—socially and politically, and would be a real disservice to the people at large," he wrote. "The maximum number of people should see Yosemite and should experience its incredible quality. To shut it off from the world would be somewhat similar to closing St. Paul's Cathedral for the sake of the architecture!" [42]

That assessment, to be sure, was from the same man who twenty years earlier had denounced even camping in Yosemite Valley as an unwarranted intrusion. Now he stood for the very things he had once so strongly opposed—increased development and easier access in the interest of visitation. Nor did he believe that wilderness values would unduly suffer even if visitor facilities were expanded elsewhere in the park. "The present High Sierra Camps do not, in my opinion, violate wilderness qualities as they now exist," he observed, for example. "I personally feel that a High Sierra Camp near the north rim of Yosemite Valley would be a logical link of the chain," he further maintained. "Likewise, establishment of more public camp grounds along the existing Tioga Road and the Glacier Point Road, and at Wawona, would not violate wilderness." [43]

That Adams had changed course was abundantly clear; less obvious was his reasoning, indeed his self-interest. Perhaps the key can be found in his ownership of a photographic studio in Yosemite Valley, a concession that he and his wife had inherited from her father, the artist Harry C. Best. The early 1970s, unlike the 1950s, found Ansel Adams a rising star on photography's center stage. Suddenly his years of personal sacrifice and hard work had all come together. And Best's Studio, renamed the Ansel Adams Gallery in 1972, was the preservationist-turned-businessman's bridge to his growing and adoring public. [44]

In short, like every other concessionaire in Yosemite's long history, Adams may simply have discovered the equation between people and profits. His studio was strategically located immediately adjacent to the valley visitor center. The more people the Park Service attracted, the more people that passed through his studio as well. In microcosm, that relationship was no different from the one enjoyed by the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. At least one thing was evident: Adams now also seemed to advocate wilderness preservation in direct proportion to the distance of that wilderness from the valley floor.

Granted, he may simply have changed his mind. Or, as suggested by Garrett Hardin's thesis, Adams may have fallen victim to the predictable double standard. Typically, he now defended his symbolic cows on Yosemite's commons while attacking those of others. The Ahwahnee Hotel, the Bracebridge Dinner, the Ansel Adams Gallery—these he had come to accept as "elements of art" and "spiritual character." But it was just that these were his sacred cows on Yosemite's public lands. His descriptions reveal a distinct bias between those activities he defended and those he opposed. "Obviously phoney enterprises such as the Firefall and the Chief Lemy Dances at the Museum," he declared in 1952, already discounting his own inconsistencies, "should be discontinued. The latter immediately! ... It is pure, unadulterated FAKE. The National Park Service should be ashamed of itself!!!!!" [45] Adams was right, of course; both the Indian dances and the firefall were purely contrived events. But so too was the annual Bracebridge Dinner, and that contrivance was not based on even a shred of Yosemite history. More to the point, the fakery of Bracebridge was Adams's own. He added to Yosemite's commons what he found appealing, conveniently ignoring that his impositions, whether or not he defended them as art, were no more legitimate environmentally than were the impositions of anyone else.

The fact remained: Whatever was added to Yosemite in the name of commercialism was somehow artificial. Most certainly no plant or animal had evolved with commercialism in mind. For Yosemite to be a refuge, the environment always had to come first, exclusive even of attempts to equate art with biology.

Realistically, development justified as art was just another means for rationalizing self-interest. Selling the Yosemite experience, whatever the rationale, still elevated someone's economic privilege above the park's larger public role. The assumption, of course, was that Americans agreed what that larger role should be. And just by singling out Ansel Adams, we can see that they did not. His struggle for consistency was symbolic of the nation's own. Perhaps Yosemite could accommodate both development and the wilderness; Adams's now esthetically pleasing "shrine" could have just enough wilderness to maintain the illusion of sanctuary. Then again, the tragedy of the commons so clearly suggested otherwise. Self-interest and the environment could never coexist; commercialism would always find a way to extract more and more concessions from Yosemite's common lands. Ultimately, any kind of enterprise would actively seek its own expansion. Outside Yosemite, expansion might be tolerable, indeed even legitimate. Once inside, however, expansion might overwhelm everything the park was supposed to represent. Self-interest and refuge moved on different paths, converging only when self-interest was unquestionably altruistic. Inside Yosemite, refuge demanded that the norms of civilization be reversed, allowing the principles of ecology—and not self-interest—to set every standard for proper conduct.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap12.htm — 17-Mar-2004