The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Thirteen:
Management Adrift

Although the boundaries of significant trends are often indistinct, the quarter century beginning in 1963 unquestionably witnessed several great moments of truth in Yosemite's long and intriguing history. The period began with the release of the Leopold Committee Report, thus ushering in another burst of ecological commitment and awareness. When the quarter century closed, it did so incredibly, swept along on a proposal by the secretary of the interior himself that the Hetch Hetchy dam finally be dismantled, allowing all of the valley to revert to its original condition.

Both mileposts, to be sure, were followed by their share of anticlimax and disbelief. Practically everything in the Leopold study had been urged by biologists before; what reason was there now to believe that those proposals would finally get priority? And as for tearing out the dam that had flooded Hetch Hetchy, that indeed seemed a plan almost too good to be true. Again preservationists could not help but wonder what the hidden catch might be. The Park Service itself seemed to have changed very little. Ideally it was supposed to be an agency with the highest of standards, a bureau committed to pushing its own management and the public in responsible directions. In practice, however, it was still very much the same, especially in its distrust of anything deeply scientific. Inevitably, the result was more vacillation and confusion, more buffeting by those external and internal forces that the Park Service theoretically should have controlled.

Preservationists who expected decisiveness again prepared for disappointment. And if actions spoke louder than words, that pessimism was fully justified. Even more suddenly than it had been resurrected, the plan to drain Hetch Hetchy died. Similarly, the Park Service's bold plan to restore Yosemite Valley became stalled, then was scuffled. Preservation, it seemed, was back to square one. Another era seemed to be closing precisely as it had begun—more visitors to take care of but otherwise so little yet resolved.

Like any cautious bureaucracy, the Park Service reacted slowly to any suggestions for needed change. Finally, during the late 1960s, portions of the Leopold Committee Report were adopted, most notably directives that fire should be restored to the giant sequoia groves. In contrast, fire on the cliffs of Yosemite Valley was finally to be abandoned. In 1968 came the abolishment of the firefall, ending the century-long tradition of crowd-pleasing spectacles. And growing crowds were precisely the reason the Park Service had been forced into that decision, for the agency itself could no longer ignore the obvious: the firefall simply attracted too many spectators, who brought too many cars and who left behind too much litter, automobile exhaust, and trampled vegetation. [1]

The preparation of yet another management plan was also begun in 1968. Preservationists' arguments remained the same—it was time to rethink the advisability of allowing essentially unlimited access into Yosemite Valley. Just two years later, in the so-called Fourth of July riots, the wisdom of increased restrictions appeared to be confirmed. Throughout the holiday weekend hundreds of youths, fed by resentment over the Vietnam War and other anti-establishment sentiments, had gathered in the park, threatening violence. On July 4 the situation erupted as rioting spilled over from Stoneman Meadow into nearby campgrounds and parking lots. In Stoneman Meadow proper, mounted rangers rode into a crowd of youths and pushed them back by force. Rock throwing, fights with rangers, and attacks on patrol cars continued throughout the evening. Even the national parks, it was apparent, were not invulnerable to urban tensions and social problems. [2]

There were few incidents more ugly and few more prophetic. Never before had attention been so diverted from the historical role of national parks as sanctuaries of nature. Traditionally, the Park Service had balanced that mandate with encouraging visitation. Here was troubling proof that crowds could be mean and not just well-meaning, that not every park visitor was interested in scenery and wildlife. Granted, the Park Service had done nothing to encourage rioters, but it had encouraged crowds. Finally, park officials conceded, substantive changes were necessary. In perhaps the most dramatic departure from the automobile-orientation of Mission 66, in 1970 the eastern third of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were closed to motor vehicles. Instead both areas would be served by public transportation, by trams and shuffle buses powered by clean-burning propane. The objective at last was to get people out of their cars and thereby to rely less on the solution, advocated earlier by Mission 66, of simply modernizing roads and expanding congested parking lots. [3]

The stage had once more been set for sharp disagreement regarding the purpose and future of Yosemite National Park. Debate intensified in 1971 when preliminary reports revealed that the National Park Service planning team had seriously reconsidered two controversial proposals for controlling park access. The first, a plan that would eventually eliminate automobiles from all of Yosemite Valley, won preservationists' ringing endorsement. Yet that proposal had been noticeably compromised by a second, namely the revival of the decades-old suggestion that increased visitation could best be offset by building some type of cableway system from the valley floor to Glacier Point. [4]

The latest projected route would carry passengers from Happy Isles up through the Merced-Illilouette Canyon to a terminus on Illilouette Ridge, then up to Glacier Point proper. Among those strongly opposed was Morgan Harris, a professor of zoology at the University of California at Berkeley. "It seems ironic," he wrote Park Service Director George B. Hartzog, Jr., "that we should be attempting on the one hand to remove automobiles from Yosemite Valley, while proposing on the other the introduction of man-made facilities in an even more sensitive location." Also a member of the Sierra Club, Harris assured Hartzog that getting automobiles off the valley floor had the club's full support. It was "most depressing" to realize that the proposed gondola or tramway "apparently had strong sponsorship and advocacy" from the director's own office, "the Superintendent of Yosemite Park, and even the Secretary of the Interior—supposedly the statutory guardians of our Yosemite heritage." [5]

The apparent seriousness of those endorsements undercut the standard qualification that the cableway had been proposed merely as a management alternative, a point the Sierra Club itself conceded in a 1971 policy statement. In the absence of unequivocal reassurances to the contrary, preservationists could only conclude that the so-called alternative was in fact the Park Service's preference. That cloud of suspicion continued to darken until 1973, when the Music Corporation of America, a Los Angeles conglomerate, purchased the Yosemite Park and Curry Company and openly announced support for further expansion of park facilities. Charges flew that MCA had pressured the Park Service to include development alternatives favorable to the company in the preliminary draft of the final master plan. Preservationists were incensed and in the storm of controversy that followed called for the preparation of another master plan, one entirely free of alleged company influence. [6]

As charged, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company opposed even the notion of limiting visitor access, especially by automobile. "Why is a primary goal to eliminate or substantially reduce automobiles from Yosemite Valley?" asked Edward C. Hardy, chief operating officer. "The costs of such a plan far exceeds any marginal benefits." Thus he attacked the master plan in a seven-page memorandum dated June 12, 1974, submitted on behalf of MCA to Leslie P. Arnberger, park superintendent. At all of the park's attractions, including Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, and the Mariposa Grove, congestion was a problem only because the Park Service had failed to build enough parking lots. "What is inadequate is the parking in these areas," Hardy observed, leading up to his solution. "Planning should focus on alternate travel options, such as the Aerial Tramway to Glacier Point and increased parking within the valley." [7]

Preservationists were right. The company was pushing, vigorously, to turn the valley into a staging area for a wide range of commercial activities focused on Glacier Point. The tramway alone would be a major profit center. The company, in either case, would have it both ways—cars in the valley and the attraction of a cable ride. "We submit," added Bernard I. Fisher, vice-president for business development at MCA, "that a 32-mile road from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point carrying thousands of vehicles polluting the atmosphere causes far greater damage to the land and mood of the Park than would an appropriately placed aerial tram-way." [8] Again there was no mistaking where Fisher's argument was headed. If in fact cars were to be abolished from Yosemite National Park, the company preferred that they be prohibited on the road to Glacier Point so as not to jeopardize the maximum use of an aerial cableway.

Leakage of these views to the press and conservationists precipitated a flurry of letters with complaints that MCA was trying to turn Yosemite Valley into a full-scale resort. The Park Service itself had already dropped further consideration of the cable car to Glacier Point as a management alternative. Yet MCA was still insistent. On July 29, 1974, Jay Stein, president of Recreation Services, wrote Howard Chapman, Park Service regional director, and urged that the proposal be restored to the draft and final master plans. Similarly, Stein proposed a serious review of additional facilities at Badger Pass, new parking lots for Yosemite Valley, new or improved accommodations at all major points of interest, and a reconsideration of winter closures of the popular Tioga Road. In brief, MCA's recommendations were indeed motivated by concern for achieving an even greater volume of year-round visitation. The filming in Yosemite of the television series "Sierra" in 1973 lent further credibility to preservationists charges that MCA's designs in the park were no different from those of its predecessor. [9]

Like the Hetch Hetchy controversy that opened the century, this latest debate was on the verge of generating thousands of letters, volumes of testimony, and other official documentation. In December 1974 the master plan was rejected and planning was thrown open to a drawn-out process of public comment and citizens' workshops. All told more than sixty thousand people participated, most by responding to a mailed survey in the form of a standardized planning kit. Separate portions of the package asked for choices regarding the future of park transportation, visitor use, resource management, and operations. The list of options for major sites in the park spanned a variable range of values, from providing stricter preservation through more limited access to allowing even greater expansion of existing facilities. In 1978 the results of those surveys were incorporated in a revised master plan; following two more years of comment and additional public meetings, the new general management plan was finally released on October 30, 1980. [10]

Reduced to its essentials, this latest debate about the future of Yosemite differed only by degree from similar controversies in the past. The question was unchanged: What should be the primary purpose of Yosemite National Park? If it should be preservation, should not everything tangential to that purpose be removed? In the common spirit of compromise, that proposal was rejected yet again, at least in Yosemite Valley and other developed areas. Thus the very existence of development continued to promote its self-preservation. So-called nonessential structures would eventually be removed; otherwise only slight reductions or readjustments would affect accommodations and visitor services. [11]

Expansion would be limited, but that option too remained. Basically, the park had escaped the development only of those structures that had never been built in the first place. To be sure, there would be no cable car to Glacier Point. Then again, Yosemite Valley would not be completely restored to an approximation of its appearance in 1851. Instead of guiding the park's undevelopment, the new plan merely suggested redirection. Tradition, quite obviously, had prevailed once again.

Beyond development, other issues of park management were no less bound by precedent and inconsistency. Especially when it came to managing wildlife, the Park Service, it could still be argued, lacked proper resolve. On November 5, 1970, for example, the minutes of a meeting held in the Yosemite offices of resource management conceded the fact "that the bear management program in Yosemite is lacking at present"; nonetheless, the recommendation was upheld that "until additional funding is available, the present program should be carried on." [12] How was it possible that thirty-one years after the death of Joseph Grinnell, the Park Service could admit, in effect, that its most important wildlife program in Yosemite National Park still lacked sufficient funding and the latest scientific information? How, as a result, could such a program even be considered credible?

The scandal broke in the fall of 1973 when newspapers throughout California published articles that finally revealed just how heavily bear management in Yosemite relied on the killing and disposing of the animals. Confronted with the evidence, government officials admitted that more than two hundred bears had been killed in the park between 1960 and 1972. However, the Park Service added, quickly defending that statistic, most had been "garbage" bears, those whose feeding habits especially posed a danger to park visitors. More difficult to explain were revelations confirming that the carcasses had simply been dumped off a cliff along the Big Oak Flat Road. Pictures taken at the base of the cliff, reported the San Francisco Chronicle, "showed bloody carcasses wedged in trees or collapsed on rocks where they landed after being thrown from above." Many had been skinned. "I am terribly concerned about the bear killing in the Valley," wrote P. F. Shenk, a frequent park visitor, summing up the reaction of many Californians appalled by the articles. "The bears have always been among the main attractions of Yosemite for me. Now it seems as though we put a label 'garbage bear' on an animal that is behaving only as nature intended, and ipso facto it becomes an enemy to be killed and dumped over a cliff." [13]

Predictably, the Park Service took refuge in letters supporting its actions, especially those letters arguing, in effect, that the Park Service, in killing Yosemite bears, had not gone far enough. "Get rid of more of them," a San Francisco resident strongly advised. "But you will have to be more discreet in disposing of them," he conceded. "Could not some institutions use that meat and tallow?" Mark Thomas, Jr., a San Jose attorney, also wrote "to support the action of the rangers." Only the previous summer he and his sons, accompanied by friends, had visited the Yosemite backcountry and had left with the conviction that bears "were unbelievable pests." "They destroyed much of our food. They were so brave that to get them to move out of the way yelling and whistle blowing would do no good, and it was actually necessary to throw things at them." Indeed, along the trails he overheard hikers swear "that next summer they would bring guns with them to protect themselves from the bears." The rangers were to be commended instead of condemned. "I certainly hope," Thomas concluded, "that none of the rangers nor the department suffers any detriment for having done a job that was sorely needed." [14]

As concerned preservationists had charged for the past fifty years, this very same callousness infected the Park Service itself. The still haunting observation was that the agency was supposed to know better, was supposed to educate the public rather than succumb to persecuting wildlife under the guise of visitor safety. That excuse too had been terribly abused and distorted. So Galen Rowell, the noted mountaineer and photographer, called in 1974 for courage to address the real issue. "Efforts to deal with the bear problem have been one sided," he observed, further establishing the basis for his rebuttal. Yosemite in 1973 had 2.3 million visitors. "Only 16 were injured by bears," Rowell noted, "and that represented an increase of more than 500 percent from 1972." Property damage in 1973 from 268 "bear incidents" totaled $24, 367, or "about 1 cent; per visitor, and zero warnings or citations were issued tourists for their infractions concerning bears." [15]

How, then, did the Park Service justify having killed more than two hundred bears since 1960? Once more it all depended on who was left in charge. "One of the few obvious correlations in statistics," Rowell added, carefully reviewing past trends, "is between the number of kills and the turnover of National Park Service management. While 39 bears were killed in 1963, only four were killed in 1969, when another regime managed the park." Even more revealing, those same discrepancies could be pinpointed within Yosemite's management structure. In 1972 and 1973, for example, "the Yosemite Valley District reported 173 property disturbances amounting to $17,353 damage." Meanwhile, the "huge Mather District, encompassing everything along the Tioga Pass highway, including Hetch-Hetchy and Tuolumne Meadows, reported 272 property disturbances worth $29,159." In the Yosemite Valley District, twenty-one bears were killed. Yet in the Mather District, even though the number of reported incidents and the amount of property damage was considerably more, "rangers killed none." "Why?" asked Rowell. "Because the ranger in charge of the Mather District believes bears should not be killed except in extreme circumstances." [16]

It was, in retrospect, another case of responsibility imposed on the Park Service from without rather than universally welcomed from within. Between Joseph Grinnell's science and Galen Rowell's expose, Yosemite National Park had aged by more than fifty years. For all Grinnell's scholarship, however, now supplemented by Rowell's passion, the inescapable conclusion remained: As a rule the Park Service would do nothing unless coerced into change. "Like our armed forces," Rowell concluded, "the Park Service is a powerful bureaucracy with strong resistance to change from its lower ranks and the outside." Granted, the agency had "many good people" and even "a healthy smattering of genuine brilliance." [17] The only problem, preservationists agreed, was that so few of those individuals topped the management ladder.

It was also, to be sure, a matter of one's perspective. Yet there had never been any question that ever since Yosemite Valley had first been set aside, the most influential barometer of a manager's success was the number of visitors passing through the park. It was the one kind of proof requiring no further explanation for management decisions that were otherwise difficult to quantify. Consequently, the historical gulf between preservation and recreation had begun forming from the outset, widening in practically every instance where protection of a resource might jeopardize traditional sources of support. Most important, people were the standard by which the government measured its success. Management would do nothing to disappoint the park visitor.

As Galen Rowell had confirmed, it was the level of appeasement that so troubled preservationists. In any dispute involving wildlife in particular, the Park Service seemed to practice a glaring double standard. Time and again bears that caused problems were linked to human sources of food. Obviously bears were attracted by the sheer abundance of foodstuffs and garbage, especially items left out in the open or carelessly thrown away. Park bears, in either case, were reacting to conditions brought about by human intervention. Yet whenever penalties were assessed, all seemed to fall on the bears, including the ultimate penalty of execution. "In situations involving humans and bears," Rowell bitterly concluded, "rangers have found it more convenient to pick on the bears. No one has to advise them of their rights or worry about due process of law." [18]

In the suggestion that animals, like people, were deserving of due process lay the fundamental difference between those who saw Yosemite as a national playground and those who considered it a natural refuge. Galen Rowell was just the latest in a fifty-year lineage of reformers insisting that the welfare of natural resources should be considered on a par with government, corporate, or individual self-interest. It was small wonder, given park history, that such sentiments were still revolutionary. The logical extension of that philosophy was to eliminate from Yosemite everything having nothing to do with furthering the protection of the natural environment. Or so the argument went, and, predictably, it had yet to be taken seriously.

Not in a generation had there been someone as articulate and convincing as Joseph Grinnell to point out the fallacies and inconsistencies in animal-reduction programs, especially programs biased toward the assumption that animals rather than people were basically at fault for confrontations. It was still all too easy to slip into an evasive terminology disguising the uncomfortable truth that the blame was often the other way around. As early as 1954, another perceptive visitor saw the real problem as simply lax enforcement of park rules and regulations. "A week or two ago I was traveling through the Kootenai National Park in British Columbia," the visitor indicated, "and noticed this sign: 'Penalty for touching or feeding bears maximum $500.00 and imprisonment.'" Apparently the Canadians took wildlife conservation far more seriously. A similar law in Yosemite Valley might also save people, the hospital, and the Park Service "a good deal of trouble." That law already existed, replied Ronald F. Lee, the Park Service's chief of interpretation, who then admitted its futility. "The enforcement of the regulation is difficult, however, in view of our very limited ranger force and the great number of visitors, as well as the multiplicity of other protection problems." [19]

Lee dodged the obvious question: When had the situation ever been different? For instance, how had bears been treated when the number of visitors had been lower? The answer, at least historically, was that for the better part of a half century the animals had been treated much the same. [20] The issue was not, as he implied, a simple matter of budgets, visitation, or personnel. Rather, as Galen Rowell reconfirmed nearly twenty years later, it remained a complex problem involving management attitudes as well.

By 1973, at least, public awareness forced the Park Service to react to scandal more swiftly and decisively. Finally, bear management in Yosemite would be handled through a combination of scientific research, public education, and stronger law enforcement. Trained scientists rather than park rangers were to be in charge. "As I am sure you realize," Superintendent Leslie P. Arnberger wrote the chief of resources management, Richard Riegelhuth, on May 22, 1975, "our Bear Management Program is one of the most sensitive operations underway in this Park." In other words, the Park Service could no longer afford its historical indifference and methodologies. "Our Bear Management efforts are being watched," Arnberger admitted, "with a great deal of intense interest by numerous individuals and organizations." That scrutiny, and not the bears, had obviously motivated his concern. To be sure, Riegelhuth should understand why "it is essential that the program be carried out with professionalism and that every action taken is fully justified and can stand the test of complete and full disclosure to the public." [21]

The situation, to reemphasize, was another example of reform motivated by the power of scandal rather than a deep sense of agency responsibility. The Park Service had finally moved decisively, but only under the pressure of adverse publicity. "I guess all our heroes have feet of clay," another critic wrote, summing up that observation. And from the pen of a California sixth grader came another bitter assessment. "Bears have a right to live just like you and me and maybe even more. At least they don't kill each other for no reason or pollute air and water like we do." John M. Morehead, Yosemite's chief ranger, signed the standard park reply. "You'd be surprised at how much damage a bear can do—many thousands of dollars a year and, although we are responsible for protecting wildlife, we are also responsible for protecting life and property of visitors to the Park." The young critic, his teacher, "and perhaps your whole class," Morehead concluded, "have based your entire opinions on only one side of the argument." [22]

Caught off guard by the intensity of the public's reaction to wildlife problems in Yosemite during the 1970s, the Park Service rediscovered, again to its bureaucratic dismay, that it lacked the necessary information to begin even basic reforms. Among those who addressed the problem straightforwardly was Richard Riegelhuth, chief of resources management. The issue of bears aside, the National Park Service just did not have sufficient data on most wildlife species. He confessed, "The research and management of wildlife species have suffered irregular attention over the years, depending on Park program focus." Consequently, there were "serious voids" in his office's files. Other data critical to management had probably been lost or misplaced. "Suffice to say," he concluded, "too few records of animal movements, distribution, densities, and behavior are now recorded in our files." [23]

Exactly fifty years earlier Joseph Grinnell and Tracy Storer had published Animal Life in the Yosemite; it was also forty years since George M. Wright had released his distinguished faunal series. In addition, more than a decade had already passed since the preparation of the Leopold Committee Report. Well might anyone have wondered why Riegelhuth, in his quest for information, would have to turn to former rangers for missing data about the park. "Should you have recollections, notes, or records assembled during your service in Yosemite," he wrote to at least ten such individuals, "that you believe may contribute fact, we would be pleased to make copies and return the originals to you. Of particular interest to us is information pertaining to the bighorn, deer, bear, mountain lion, and the rarer small mammal forms." [24] It was indeed the kind of request that in years past would have prompted Joseph Grinnell to ask, in reply, Why was that research apparently never even started, let alone carried forward to a meaningful conclusion?

Science, of course, had always been near the bottom of the Park Service's list of priorities. Scientists spoke a different language, one increasingly at odds with everyday management decisions. Park Service tradition was built on visitation, not science. Even to entertain the thought of limitations went against the agency's overriding philosophy. Time and again preservationists concerned about Yosemite Valley in particular heard the same rebuttal—the valley floor in the 1970s was far more beautiful than at any date in the past, especially the turn of the century, when horse-drawn vehicles had been the primary means of transportation. "Then the roads were old, unsurfaced, dirty in the dry season, the means of covering all vegetation with dust, and slippery mud channels in wet weather," observed Horace M. Albright, defending the modernization of Yosemite Valley as recently as 1975. In addition, critics should not forget the "barns, stables, fences, hay and manure piles occupying large areas, unattractive buildings, cattle and horses grazing on meadows; no adequate sanitation," and "camping permitted in all parts of the Valley." [25]

Thanks primarily to Park Service intervention, "all of these features of earlier years were gone—roads paved, new bridges built, sanitation facilities installed in camp grounds, sewer systems built, water lines renewed," and no grazing permitted "on the meadows except by native wildlife." Had Yosemite Valley been destroyed? Hardly, Albright concluded. "All visitor accommodations and other facilities, except the road system, were confined to the Eastern part of the Valley, and the Western part beyond the Yosemite Falls area was accessible only to picnickers, and visitors wishing to walk or ride in a wilderness atmosphere." [26]

Finally, by 1959 the old Yosemite Village, originally a motley collection of buildings fronting the south side of the Merced River, had been obliterated, and any necessary facilities, such as the village store, had been removed to locations of far less esthetic sensitivity. "I deplore the continual emphasis on overcrowding and impairment of the natural features," Albright therefore added to his concluding remarks. The fact remained: "Yosemite Valley today is far more beautiful than when our great naturalist explorer and writer, John Muir, saw it and in finest prose glorified it, or when President Theodore Roosevelt visited it in 1903 and enthusiastically praised it." [27]

Park Service tradition, Albright confirmed, leaned heavily toward public works. Yet his comparison distinguished between only two separate stages in Yosemite Valley's history of development and ignored that the valley prior to any construction had suffered from none of the esthetic impairments he had enumerated. Rather, in Albright's estimation, development was a given and therefore became a basis for comparison instead of an object properly targeted for exclusion. Granted, paved roads were better than dirt roads and modern sewage systems better than cesspools. The point he refused to acknowledge was that development itself, whether modern or crude, perhaps should never have been allowed inside Yosemite National Park.

Once development was accepted as legitimate or otherwise necessary, but a small step remained toward tolerating its expansion. Expansion, moreover, could be in one of two forms, either building new facilities or promoting additional services. Closely watched by preservationists throughout the 1970s, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company quickly dropped any outright defense of the former and pleaded instead for privileges aimed at redirection. The goal was still the same—to turn park visitors spontaneous actions into organized, paid events. On June 2, 1982, for example, Edward C. Hardy, president of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, wrote Robert Binnewies, park superintendent, requesting "permission to provide raft rentals for use on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. We believe there is significant demand for this type of activity, and that the activity is ideally suited to Yosemite," Hardy further wrote, justifying company self-interest with that now predictable brand of rhetoric. "We believe that providing a raft rental operation can improve guest safety in Yosemite National Park by assuring that guests are riding with puncture resistant rafts . . . and that all riders are equipped with Coast Guard approved life jackets." Understandably, the word profit appeared nowhere in his letter to mar the sincerity of his remarks. [28]

Regardless, his motive was obvious and so again was the question: Was commercial rafting in the best interest of Yosemite National Park? Superintendent Binnewies said yes and therefore approved an initial operation of fifty rental units. His decision, however, went against the reservations of both Charles W. Wendt, the chief ranger, and Richard Riegelhuth, the chief of resources management. "From a resource protection standpoint," noted Wendt in a lengthy memorandum, "fewer numbers of people on the river will mean a reduced amount of trash along the shores and less disturbance of the wildlife." Safety considerations were no less important. "Even with life vests people get into trouble and the persons in the rental boats, without experience, will still have problems and require rescue." Similarly, he argued, "the more spontaneous user who would rent rafts if they were available, tends to drink more alcohol, use more drugs, and is generally more disorderly from a law enforcement standard. Furthermore, they are dirtier from a litter standpoint, and more destructive from a resource management standpoint." And even if none of those concerns materialized, the "aesthetic standpoint" alone was reason to deny the request to start up the entire operation. Simply, did the National Park Service "want an additional flotilla of 50 boats 'doing' the Merced?" [29]

Ironically, just four years earlier, Edward Hardy himself had used Wendt's exact argument to defend the need for swimming pools in Yosemite Valley, specifically the three existing pools targeted for possible exclusion during planning deliberations. "The alternative is swimming in the river," Hardy protested, "and the environmental impact of that activity could be adverse in terms of bank erosion and water pollution. There is also the safety factor in that people are more likely to drown in the river than in guarded pools." [30] Suddenly, in the instance of rafting, he had reversed himself completely and now argued that increased use of the Merced River would not in fact lead to appreciable environmental damage or greater threats to visitor safety. The esthetic effect of the operation he conveniently ignored, along with any admission that his sudden change of heart may also have been motivated by profit.

The procedure, in historical perspective, had been no different for a hundred or more years. Concessionaires would do everything allowable to maintain and expand their operations. Thus whatever the issue, the argument for the moment was the one that seemed to work best. If the aim was to keep swimming pools, the Merced River was fragile or dangerous. If rafting appeared profitable, suddenly the river was durable and safe. Idealistically, the Park Service would then decide once and for all whether either rafting or swimming pools belonged in Yosemite Valley. And that, in the opinion of preservationists, was precisely the problem: Whereas the concessionaire always behaved predictably, asking time and again for the chance to turn a profit, the Park Service was woefully unpredictable, vacillating between departments or from one superintendency to the next on whether or not Yosemite's protection would be firm and uncompromised.

To be sure, the concessionaire's formula for management remained the simpler of the two—ask, ask again, and never take "no" for an answer. Inevitably, as a further result, new activities were likely to explode. Indeed, hardly had rafting been approved when Edward Hardy returned to the superintendent for permission to increase the size of the following year's fleet. In consultation with Hardy's staff, Superintendent Binnewies "agreed that 80 rafts would be an appropriate number at this time" and, in addition, reassured Hardy that "we are authorizing you to institute the raft rental operation on a permanent basis." [31]

Binnewies's approval, nevertheless, had still been given against the recommendations of resources management. Finally, in a confidential report dated March 1, 1986, the division identified twenty-four separate issues affecting Yosemite's air, water, vegetation, and wildlife. In Yosemite Valley the issue posing special problems was rafting on the river. Use of the Merced had already multiplied three- or fourfold in the brief period since commercial rafting had first begun. Originally, in 1982, there had been few private boats and only fifty commercial rafts. But that level had rapidly escalated. "On an average good weather day in the summer of 1985 there were about 450 rafts, carrying about 1350 people," the report noted. "About two-thirds of these rafts were rentals." Regardless of ownership, the rafts had identical effects. "The current high use levels have resulted in extreme crowding, aesthetic impairment for those wishing to view the Valley from the riverbank or from the Valley rim, litter problems in the river and along the banks, increased trampling and volunteer trails through meadows and erosion on riverbanks, and increased pressure to remove trees in the river on which rafts become entangled and those on the riverbank that may fall into the river." Thus the worst-case scenario predicted by resources management in 1982 was coming true. Indeed crowding was "so great," the report stated, "that at times 25 rafts are visible from Sentinel Bridge and rafts pass a given point an average of every 48 seconds." [32]

Accordingly, the division proposed limiting company rafts "to 90 per day and not more than 20 per hour," that out of a daily total of no more than 180 private and commercial rafts combined. Even if each floated the river twice, the limitation "would restore a minimum level of privacy and slow the rate of resource impacts until a more thorough assessment of those impacts can be made." Without those limits, the report concluded, issuing a subtle reminder about the alleged purposes of Yosemite National Park, "the visitor experience in central Yosemite Valley will continue to shift away from quiet appreciation of the natural beauty of the flowing river, the meadows and riparian vegetation, and the scenic vistas toward a more amusement park atmosphere in which the recreational activity itself be comes the focus of attention." [33]

Here again was the classic argument for a contemplative enjoyment of the park, and here again—in the Curry Company's proposition, its expansion, and the superintendent's approval of both—was another classic example of how completely the Park Service could succumb to periodic blandishments promoting organized (hence profitable) forms of recreation, even those known to compromise the integrity of the resource. In defense of raft rentals, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company underscored the portion of its agreement obligating the concessionaire to conduct a summer-end cleanup of the riverbed and embankments. But was cleanup preservation or just another stark admission that rafting had indeed gotten completely out of hand? "A decision needs to be made soon," resources management argued, further revealing the depth of concern that had provoked its report, "since resource impacts continue to compound with time." [34]

Granted, the division acknowledged, not everything was hopeless. Elsewhere in the park, most notably in the Mariposa Grove, the reintroduction of fire was strong reason for optimism. Until 1972, natural fires in Yosemite had been "routinely suppressed." The biological results had long before been noted: "a denser canopy; dense, stagnant thickets of understory trees; large accumulations of fuels; and species shift toward shade-tolerant trees with declines in shrubs and herbs." In 1970 prescribed fire finally "premiered as a management tool." Over the next fifteen years, "68 prescribed fires burned 26,550 acres." In addition, since 1972 natural fires caused by lightning had been allowed to burn in designated zones covering 78 percent of the park. "From 1972 to 1985, 292 natural fires burned 24,309 acres" the scientists disclosed. "About 26 natural fires burn each year in Yosemite." [35]

The reintroduction of bighorn sheep in 1986 was another apparent success. Turn-of-the-century hunting, as well as competition with domestic sheep, had cost bighorns their historical range in Yosemite; the many proposals to bring them back had never lost a sense of urgency or popularity. As George M. Wright had confirmed during the early 1930s, however, any reintroduction had to await the recovery of herds to the south, lest the remaining population be endangered by an insufficient number of healthy breeding animals. Fortunately, through the years the two native herds surviving in the Sierra continued to do well, finally allowing reintroduction to be attempted beginning in 1979. [36]

These positive trends were not discounted; they just seemed incomplete. And most, like the further designation of wilderness areas in 1984, generally affected more remote portions of the park. The bighorns faced a struggle for survival along the eastern fringes of Yosemite. Natural fires, however beneficial, were also basically restricted to high-country zones. What about Yosemite's heart? What about its "incomparable valley"? Did every living thing have to climb ever upward to find true protection? Did sanctuary belong only to those resources capable of surviving in higher and higher altitudes? There was no escaping biological realities. Yosemite Valley was vital; it was the center of the park. If sanctuary failed there, it would probably fail everywhere.

Then again, Yosemite historically had had two hearts instead of only one. Perhaps that "other Yosemite," the Hetch Hetchy Valley, could finally be drained and eventually be restored. Indeed no fantasy was dearer to the hearts of preservationists. But was it, in fact, just another pointless dream? In 1987 a hopeful answer came from a most surprising quarter. No less than the secretary of the interior, Donald Hodel, proposed that San Francisco find its fresh water elsewhere, allowing the O'Shaughnessy Dam to be dismantled and Hetch Hetchy to recover its wilderness charms. Preliminary studies were cautious, indicating that full restoration would probably require centuries. Regardless, preservationists were not surprised by the government's final verdict. San Francisco, it was obvious, vehemently opposed the plan. Predictably, as a consequence, the idea did not get past its initial bout of aimless if lively publicity. [37]

If Hodel had indeed been serious, the rejection of his proposal was just the latest example of the power that development wielded by the mere fact of its preexistence. In Yosemite Valley too, the question remained: Would Americans be willing to restore the valley floor beyond altering the locations of a few buildings or tearing down outmoded structures? In another moment of revelation, John M. Morehead, park superintendent, anounced in 1987 that further efforts to remove major facilities to sites outside Yosemite Valley seemed hopelessly impractical. Even in outlying areas, visitors would literally inundate transportation services and accommodations. That and similar recommendations to depend on staging areas, as enumerated in the 1980 general management plan, had been ill-advised. Accordingly, for all intents and purposes that plan was now defunct. [38]

What might take its place was pure conjecture. Yet if history was again any indication, the replacement would also be lacking in terms of preservation. Every search for management principles consistently protective of the resource had led to frustration and most certainly was inconclusive. Yosemite, even on the eve of its second century as a national park, was still inextricably bound by the compromises governing its first one hundred years.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap13.htm — 17-Mar-2004