The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Three:
Prophecy and Change

Barely had Yosemite Valley been surveyed as a park when it challenged a basic assumption of every park yet to come. As demonstrated by the lingering controversy over its disputed land claims, Yosemite's protection in name did not necessarily guarantee its preservation in actuality. Rather, considering the likelihood of just the opposite possibility, as early as August 9, 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted warned the Yosemite Park Commission to guard against any comforting but nonetheless misleading suppositions about the future of the valley. On the strength of his foresight his report would be hailed as a classic, a statement that literally anticipated the ideals of national park management. "It is the will of the nation as embodied in the act of Congress," he remarked, summing up the basis of his observations, "that this scenery never shall be private property, but that like certain defensive points upon our coast it shall be held solely for public purposes." The public interest in Yosemite Valley obviously resided "wholly in its natural scenery. The first point to be kept in mind then," he said, arriving at the heart of his report, "is the preservation and maintenance as exactly as is possible of the natural scenery." Allowances for structures should be made only "within the narrowest limits consistent with the necessary accommodation of visitors." Similarly, management should seek to exclude "all constructions markedly inharmonious with the scenery or which would unnecessarily obscure, distort, or detract from the dignity of the scenery." After all, Olmsted predicted, although visitation currently totaled only several hundred people annually, it would eventually "become thousands and in a century the whole number of visitors will be counted by the millions." The significance of this figure should be dramatically obvious: "An injury to the scenery so slight that it may be unheeded by any visitor now, will be one of deplorable magnitude when its effect upon each visitor's enjoyment is multiplied by these millions." The duty of the commission, it followed, was to protect "the rights of posterity as well as of contemporary visitors," for "the millions who are hereafter to benefit by the Act have the largest interest in it, and the largest interest should be first and most strenuously guarded." [1]

Of all the might-have-beens in national park history, the suppression of Olmsted's report was among the most significant. Two prominent members of the Yosemite Park Commission, Josiah Dwight Whitney and William Ashburner, apparently saw to it that Olmsted's report never reached the state legislature. Whitney, the director of the California Geological Survey, and Ashburner, also a geologist with the survey, possibly feared competition for limited state funds if Olmsted's request for thirty-seven thousand dollars to implement his plan was approved. [2] Not until 1952, under the auspices of Olmsted's biographer, Laura Wood Roper, was this most important document finally discovered, pieced together, and then published for the first time.

How the management of Yosemite Valley might have differed if Olmsted's recommendations had been heeded from the outset is a matter of speculation. But undoubtedly its vegetation, not merely its spectacular geology, would have received far better protection. "There are falls of water elsewhere finer," he maintained, obviously thinking of the sheer volume and sweep of Niagara, [3] "there are more stupendous rocks, more beetling cliffs, there are deeper and more awful chasms, there may be as beautiful streams, as lovely meadows, there are larger trees." In other words, Yosemite's "charm" did not derive from any single "scene or scenes." Rather the beauty of Yosemite Valley resided in the combination of many natural elements, of which its vegetation was no less significant than its geology. Granted, Yosemite was "cliffs of awful height and rocks of vast magnitude and of varied and exquisite coloring." But Yosemite was also cliffs "banked and fringed and draped and shadowed by the tender foliage of noble and lovely trees and bushes, reflected from the most placid pools, and associated with the most tranquil meadows, the most playful streams, and every variety of soft and peaceful pastoral beauty." It followed that "no description, no measurements, no comparisons are of much value." Every dependence on statistics fixed "the mind on mere matters of wonder or curiosity" and thus prevented "the true and far more extraordinary character of the scenery from being appreciated." Ultimately, the real test of management was whether the Yosemite Park Commission could maintain "the value of the district in its present condition as a museum of natural science." If not, Yosemite Valley faced "the danger, indeed the certainty, that without care many of the species of plants now flourishing upon it will be lost and many interesting objects be defaced or obscured if not destroyed." [4]

A further basis for objecting to Olmsted's report was now readily apparent. If preservation was to succeed, compromise, in his view, had absolutely no place in Yosemite Valley. Either "laws to prevent an unjust use by individuals, of that which is not individual but public property must be made and rigidly enforced," or the Yosemite Park Commission would be forced to yield "the interest of uncounted millions" to "the convenience, bad taste, playfulness, carelessness, or wanton destructiveness of present visitors." Similar restrictions, it went without saying, should also apply in the Mariposa Grove. The forest surrounding the grove itself was nothing out of the ordinary. The giant sequoias, on the other hand, were unquestionably unique. "Among them," he noted, "is one known through numerous paintings and photographs as the Grizzly Giant, which probably is the noblest tree in the world." Yet the "beauty and stateliness" of all the big trees equally delighted "one who moves among them in [a] reverant mood." To be sure, he remarked, knowledgeable travelers universally maintained "that they would rather have passed by Niagara itself than have missed visiting the grove." [5]

Olmsted's report, to reemphasize, ranks as a classic not only because he outlined strict principles of park management and visitor conduct but also because he believed park vegetation deserved special care. Granted, as a landscape architect he was already predisposed to consider the placement and manipulation of flowers, trees, and shrubs. Yet for Olmsted vegetation was far more than just a designer's tool. As part of any biological whole its absence would be sorely noticed. What Olmsted did not fully comprehend was the degree to which the vegetative cover of Yosemite Valley had previously been altered and manipulated by the Ahwahneechee Indians. Nor would he personally have any role in future management decisions; only three days after delivering his report he left Yosemite Valley, never again to return. Back in New York City where he resumed work on Central Park, he resigned from the Yosemite Park Commission on October 23, 1866. [6]

With Olmsted's resignation from the Yosemite Park Commission, a most influential and knowledgeable voice for preservation in Yosemite Valley had been all but silenced. In his absence, the priority of the commission shifted subtly but unmistakably from preservation of the park for its own sake to management in the interest of attracting more tourism. As Olmsted had maintained, visitation and protection could be reconciled, but only if strict rules of conduct and imaginative park design worked against abusive practices and behavior. Underscoring the sincerity of his commitment to public use, he proposed three thousand dollars for the construction of thirty miles of trails and footpaths; one thousand six hundred dollars for the construction of bridges; two thousand dollars for cabins, latrines, stairways, railings, and other tourist amenities; and twenty-five thousand dollars to aid in the construction of good access roads to the valley and the Mariposa Grove. [7] Obviously, Olmsted was no purist bent on prohibiting all but the robust and healthy from seeing Yosemite Valley and the giant sequoias. By the same token, he firmly believed that visitation without uncompromising standards of behavior would defeat the very purposes of park preservation.

Although the commissioners as a whole probably sympathized with his views, his departure and resignation from the commission left it without a conscience in succumbing to expedience. Almost immediately, Josiah Dwight Whitney and William Ashburner interpreted Olmsted's report as a possible competitor for the additional funding needed by the California Geological Survey. Even Israel Ward Raymond apparently sided with Whitney and Ashburner to suppress the report's submission to the California state legislature. When James Lamon and James Hutchings threatened an outright confiscation of Yosemite Valley in 1868, Whitney did join forces with Olmsted to have the claimants defeated in the United States Senate. By then, of course, Olmsted was both off the commission and safely across the continent, where his assistance could be either courted or politely refused at will. [8]

Meanwhile, the Yosemite Park Commission turned increasingly to publicizing the grant, an activity more in keeping with the social, political, and financial ambitions of Josiah Dwight Whitney and Israel Ward Raymond. For example, in his first report to Governor Frederick F. Low in 1867, Whitney announced the preparation of the "Yosemite Guide Book" and "Yosemite Gift Book." The former was intended as a general guide for tourists; the latter was to be a luxury edition of the same text and would contain twenty-four plates by the noted photographer Carleton E. Watkins. "It is believed that it will be one of the most elegant books ever issued from an American press," Whitney remarked, "and that it will have no little influence in drawing attention to the stupendous scenery of the Yosemite and its vicinity." [9] Promotion, in other words, was the volume's distinct aim. Had Olmsted been present, he undoubtedly would have conceded the park's economic attractions; he simply considered the "pecuniary advantage" of parks "less important" than their role in furthering human "health and vigor." Granted, he freely admitted, monetary considerations "likely" had first disposed Congress to establish the park. Consistently falling back on his basic principles, he nonetheless warned that without "proper administration," neither the monetary advantages nor the greater good of parks as reservoirs "of refreshing rest and reinvigoration" would be served. [10]

For Olmsted, preserving Yosemite's natural scenery was "the first point to be kept in mind"; for Whitney, it was merely "one of the most important duties of the Commissioners" (italics added). [11] The difference between the accents of both descriptions was subtle but significant nonetheless. Preservation, in Olmsted's view, was of top priority; according to Whitney, it was only one of several prime objectives. In either case, under Whitney's influence the Yosemite Park Commission gradually adopted a more pragmatic point of view, including publicity among its major obligations. For example, the Yosemite Book appeared in 1868, every bit as lavish and elegant as Whitney had promised. "The object of this volume is," he wrote, employing language highly reminiscent of Hutchings' California Magazine, "to call the attention of the public to the scenery of California and to furnish a reliable guide to some of its most interesting features, namely: the Yosemite Valley, the High Sierra and its immediate vicinity, and the so-called 'Big Trees'." [12] Preservation for its own sake was the last thing the commission wanted.

It was not that Whitney and his colleagues opposed Olmsted in spirit; it was simply that as politicians and publicists they opposed the landscape architect by degree. What indeed was the proper line between preservation and use? For the next century and a quarter, every controversy regarding the fate of Yosemite and its resources would hinge on this most fundamental and often troubling question. At least this much had been decided as early as 1868: private ownership within public parks was not acceptable as a basis for compromise. Throughout the Yosemite Book Whitney himself underscored California's obligations to the American people by virtue of its acceptance of the Yosemite Grant. California had "solemnly promised," he remarked, to hold Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove "inalienable for all time." Accordingly, the land claims of James Lamon and James Hutchings posed a serious internal threat to the principle of public ownership. The recognition of their claims in the valley would make it "the property of private individuals" determined to use it "for private benefit and not for the public good." But California "has no right to attempt to withdraw from the responsibility she has voluntarily assumed," Whitney argued. "This is not an ordinary gift of land, . . . but a trust imposed on the State, of the nature of a solemn compact, forever binding after having been once accepted." Yosemite Valley had never belonged to the state alone; rather it had "been made a National public park and placed under the charge of the State of California" (italics added). Californians only risked making "the name of their state a by-word and reproach for all time," he therefore concluded, "by trying to throw off and repudiate a noble task which they undertook to perform—that of holding the Yosemite Valley as a place of public use, resort, and recreation, inalienable for all time!" [13]

The firmness and clarity with which Whitney pronounced "National public park" further corroborates the interpretation that Yosemite and not Yellowstone is the actual birthplace of the national park idea. Between 1864 and 1868, proponents of the park consistently referred to California as the management authority only of a national "trust." Meanwhile, the future of the valley was still shrouded in controversy. Upheld in February 1868 by the California state legislature, Hutchings and Lamon had refused to yield to the Yosemite Park Commission. Instead they had asked the surveyor general of California for an immediate survey of their claims. Reluctantly he agreed; even more reluctantly, he laid out their claims to the valley not in customary blocks of land but, at their insistence, in widely scattered parcels and unusual configurations. Lamon claimed his property in three separate and distinct parcels; Hutchings insisted that his own claim be laid out in the shape of a cross, "extending from mountain to mountain," Governor H. H. Haight later reported, "and blocking up the valley." In a letter of explanation to Governor Haight, the surveyor general bitterly complained about the whole procedure and its probable effect on the future of the park. "If the grants are made to the claimants [by Congress]," Haight concluded, summing up both his concerns and those of the surveyor general, "others will make similar claims, and it would, in that event, be hardly expedient to expend public funds upon the valley." [14]

The Yosemite Park Commission saw no alternative but to take the claimants to court, seeking their final ejection from all park properties. Named as defendant in the test case was James Mason Hutchings. Hutchings stood firm pending the outcome in 1871 of another bill introduced in Congress to ratify the settlers' claims. Drawing on his experience as a writer and publicist, he attempted to overturn the decision made against him in 1868 by petitioning the Senate not to approve "wresting" him and his family from their "little homestead in Yosemite." Congress still was not moved, however, and the bill once more failed to pass. [15] Meanwhile, the state district court decided the case brought against him in his favor, but on appeal to the state supreme court the decision was reversed and the Yosemite Park Commission sustained. Hutchings in turn took his suit to the United States Supreme Court, which, in the opinion of Hutchings v. Low, finally and irrevocably ruled against his claim in December 1872.

Considering the origins of the national park idea, the decision of the Supreme Court is especially significant. Historians comparing the Yosemite Park Act of 1864 with the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872 have generally focused on the acts themselves rather than on the eight years of legislative intrigue in between. Essentially, the Supreme Court in Hutchings v. Low upheld the right of the federal government to designate the unsold, unsurveyed public domain for any purpose other than settlement, including for the establishment of national public parks. The preemption laws provided settlers only with the privilege of being the first to bid for land if it was in fact surveyed and then offered for sale. "It seems to us little less than absurd," the court remarked, "to say that a settler ... by acquiring a right to be preferred in the purchase of property, provided a sale is made by the owner, thereby acquires a right to compel the owner to sell." Congress, in other words, had full legal authority to grant Yosemite Valley to the state of California. California, on the other hand, did not have unilateral authority to revoke any portions of that agreement. "The act of Congress of June 30, 1864," the court reported, underscoring the point, passed title of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to California "subject to the trust specified therein." As a result, the "act of California, of February 1868," the court noted, mincing no words in its closing argument, was "inoperative" unless "ratified by Congress." But no ratification of the act granting restitution to Hutchings had ever been approved, "and it is not believed," the court remarked, "that Congress will ever sanction such a perversion of the trust solemnly accepted by the State" (italics added). [16]

Hutchings v. Low, in effect, established that national parks were indeed constitutional. The length and intensity of the debate, especially the reconsideration of the Yosemite Park Act by Congress in 1868 and 1871 and the appeal of Hutchings's claims all the way to the United States Supreme Court, further indicates Yosemite's significance in the evolution of national parks. The irony of the controversy was the degree to which the claimants benefited from simply having pressed their case. In 1874 the California legislature voted sixty thousand dollars to compensate Hutchings, Lamon, and several other claimants for their improvements in the park. Of this amount Hutchings and Lamon received the two largest individual awards, twenty-four thousand dollars and twelve thousand dollars, respectively. Yosemite Valley had been freed of private ownership; simultaneously, however, Hutchings's and Lamon's persistence had won them monetary reward considerably greater than what most American settlers would see in earnings during an entire lifetime. [17]

In retrospect, the elimination of private claims from Yosemite Valley only set the stage for another protracted controversy in national park history. In the eight years of debate preceding Hutchings v. Low, the United States had resolved that Yosemite was in fact a component of the national trust. Yellowstone, itself a beneficiary of this long debate, further defined and strengthened the precedent that parks, once established, ought to remain generally secure from private encroachment. It remained for the government to determine how individuals could still do business inside the parks. The arrangement finalized by Congress allowed licensed concessionaires to operate hotels, camps, toll roads, and transportation lines, provided the rules and regulations prescribed by government officials were consistently obeyed.

Among nineteenth-century Americans, no arrangement for resolving the conflict between the government ownership of parks and the nation's commitment to private enterprise made more sense. At the same time, no compromise between the protection and the development of parks was imbued with greater potential for damage to their natural resources. In theory, the government made strict rules, which concessionaires were obliged to follow. Yet in practice, the government's attempt to justify preservation by boosting visitation to the parks signaled concessionaires to negotiate for leniency as well as special privileges. Elected officials, after all, had determined that parks might bring prosperity to their surrounding communities. In coming to that realization, politicians revealed the vulnerable point in park leasing arrangements. By reassuring government officials of their own commitment to increased visitation, concessionaires were in a position either to bend certain rules or to argue for their abolishment altogether. Ostensibly, the overriding obligation of park managers was the protection of the resource. But in truth, both the government and concessionaires wanted the same thing—more visitors. For concessionaires, more visitation might lead to greater profits; for politicians, larger numbers of tourists held forth the promise of more satisfied constituents.

As Frederick Law Olmsted had warned the Yosemite Park Commission m 1865, any such shift in priority from preservation to the accommodation of development for its own sake threatened to accelerate environmental change in Yosemite Valley, especially through the displacement of its original vegetation. "To illustrate these dangers," he remarked, "it may be stated that numbers of the native plants of large districts of the Atlantic states have almost wholly disappeared and that most of the common weeds of the farms are of foreign origin, having choked out the native vegetation." [18] As Olmsted undoubtedly realized, a tide of exotic vegetation had already swept over California, beginning with Spanish exploration in the sixteenth century. In the final analysis, little could be done to prevent the same nonindigenous plants from eventually taking hold in Yosemite Valley. No less than in the sixteenth century, the common means of seed transport and deposition persisted, most notably dissemination by the wind, in clothing, and through the feed and fecal matter of horses and other livestock. [19] The importation into Yosemite Valley of exotic-laden grass and grain alone foretold inevitable changes in the composition of its vegetation. Conceivably, some changes could have been predetermined as early as the Mariposa Battalion's first encampment on the valley floor in March 1851. Only the general lack of major disturbances to the native vegetation between 1851 and 1865—disruptions allowing exotics to gain a visible hold in Yosemite Valley—prevented the extent of their presence in the future from being fully appreciated. [20]

As Olmsted maintained, strict enforcement of park rules was the only means of preventing undesirable changes to the natural environment. Inevitably, the Yosemite Park Commission would increasingly find itself torn between its duty to protect Yosemite Valley and its obligation to make the valley more accessible. The key, again, to striking the proper balance was strict observance of park objectives. Gradually, however, the commission came to see this as an uncompromising point of view, and noticeably swung in favor of promoting visitation. The result, as Olmsted had predicted, was accelerating levels of biological disruption and change.

Among the more visible changes, the overgrowth of Yosemite Valley's meadowlands by an increasing number of trees was especially dramatic. "The valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park," noted Lafayette Bunnell in 1889, recalling the expedition of the Mariposa Battalion in 1851. "There was then but little undergrowth in the park-like valley, and a half day's work in lopping off branches . . . enabled us to speed our horses uninterrupted through the groves." Like a growing number of knowledgeable Americans, Bunnell attributed the valley's openness to fires set annually by the natives "to facilitate the search for game." Galen Clark, appointed state guardian of the Yosemite Grant in 1866, corroborated Bunnell's observations in a letter to the Yosemite Park Commission in 1894. "My first visit to Yosemite was in the summer of 1855," he reported, further establishing himself as one of the valley's earliest explorers. "At the time there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall." In fact, he maintained, the extent "of clear open meadow land . . . was at least four times as large as at the present time." Like Bunnell, Clark credited Indians with maintaining the valley's open appearance. For "their own protection and self-interests," he noted, the Indians annually set fires throughout the entire valley. The practice not only denied potential enemies more places for concealment but also provided "clear grounds for hunting and gathering acorns." And even when "the fires did not thoroughly burn over the moist meadows," Clark concluded, "all the young willows and cottonwoods were pulled up by hand." [21]

As Galen Clark and his contemporaries had come to understand, the manipulation of forests and grasslands by Native Americans had been nearly universal. Far from a random practice, the use of fire in particular helped encourage the propagation of desirable plants and animals. [22] The Ahwahneechees especially prized the black oak for its acorns; without fire to eliminate its competitors, its numbers would have been considerably reduced. The black oak thrived in open sunlight, in the absence of shade tolerant vegetation. The annual fires did no harm to mature stands of the trees; on the other hand, the seedlings of pines, incense cedars, and other competitive species seldom survived the flames. [23]

Following the expulsion of the Ahwahneechees from Yosemite Valley in 1853, burning continued to be practiced periodically by the few Indians who occasionally returned to settle there or to hunt food and gather acorns. As a result, the vegetation in 1865 probably appeared little different than it had in 1851. In a rare moment lacking his unique gift of foresight, Frederick Law Olmsted accused the Indians of setting destructive fires. Similarly, he recommended that any road laid out to the Mariposa Grove should also "be carried completely around it, so as to offer a barrier of bare ground to the approach of fires." [24]

Olmsted's concern for fire suppression was to be expected in an age of wooden structures and inadequate building codes. The beneficial aspects of fire so well known to the Indians also made little sense to cultivators of differing persuasions. With the settlement of Yosemite Valley by James Lamon, James Hutchings, and several other claimants, the meadows were gradually taken over for cattle and horses. Lamon also brought in the first apple, pear, plum, and peach trees, whereas Hutchings planted an orchard in 1866. [25] Predictably, the maintenance of livestock and orchards called for fencing and barns. The point is that the more Yosemite Valley was readied for tourists, the less its claimants, concessionaires, and guardians welcomed fire as a natural and beneficial occurrence.

By the early 1870s, as a result, perceptible changes in the appearance of the valley floor had begun to occur. According to Hutchings, visitation increased dramatically between 1864 and 1870, when 4,936 people came to the new park, as opposed to 653 between 1855 and 1863. [26] To meet the growing demand for visitor services, permanent valley residents stepped up their farming and construction activities. Most notably, additional portions of the meadows were plowed, fenced, planted, or grazed. In Olmsted's view, better access into the valley would have allowed all provisions and visitor necessities to be supplied from outside "at moderate rates." Even as conditions stood, he undoubtedly would have objected strongly to any alteration of the meadows. [27] But Olmsted was gone. Meanwhile, although the seeds of exotic plants would have found their way into Yosemite Valley regardless of any precautions, the disruption to existing vegetation and soils caused by plowing and grazing definitely accelerated the entire process of biological change.

As people familiar with the valley during the 1850s continued to report, after 1870 it changed most dramatically in its forest density. This common observation of travelers and publicists was further corroborated by Yosemite's artists and photographers. For example, Thomas A. Ayres's sketches, prepared during his sojourn into the valley with James M. Hutchings in 1855, depicted a landscape far less cluttered with shrubbery and trees. Similarly, Carleton E. Watkins's photographs, taken between 1861 and 1866, demonstrate conclusively that the valley floor was generally free of dense undergrowth and thick stands of conifers. [28] In later years, biologists attributed the rapid invasion of pines and cedars not only to the elimination of periodic burning but also to the compaction of the meadows, caused by plowing and grazing. By destroying established grasses, grazing and plowing allowed more seedling conifers to gain an advantage. The elimination of fires was apparently of greater significance, however, since many young pines and cedars had obviously taken root in the meadows years before extensive plowing and other modifications were begun. [29]

In its own anxiety to increase visitation without providing state-supported access, the Yosemite Park Commission encouraged an escalation of the problem. Frederick Law Olmsted had proposed in 1865 that the park commission not only should improve roads and trails within the reserve but also should request twenty-five thousand dollars to improve access to the valley and the Mariposa big trees. The threat his recommendation might have posed to continued funding for the California Geological Survey was enough to convince Josiah Dwight Whitney and William Ashburner to suppress his report. In either case, the commissioners insisted that it was not "any part of their duty to improve the approaches to the valley or Big Trees," as Whitney argued in 1867, justifying his opposition to Olmsted's report as simply an honest effort to save public funds. Building roads could "safely be left to the competition of the counties, towns, and individuals interested in securing the travel." [30] Unfortunately, in the absence of more reliable transportation to and from the park, the commission in effect had no alternative but to allow valley residents and visitors to release their livestock in the meadows.

In addition, pending the resolution of the valley's outstanding land claims, the California state legislature had appropriated nothing for the grant since 1866, not even enough to pay Galen Clark, its first resident guardian. By 1870 his annual salary of five hundred dollars was already four years in arrears. Even Josiah Dwight Whitney and William Ashburner considered such levels of fiscal conservatism much too extreme. But in formulating their argument for improving the grant, they, unlike Olmsted, relied on its economic potential. For Olmsted, that consideration was at best only secondary; it was not, in any case, a primary reason for establishing public parks. In contrast, Ashburner reported to the state legislature in 1871 that Yosemite's annual value had already risen to a quarter of a million dollars. As a result, evidently it was now advisable to remove the "embarrassing and vexatious restrictions to travel" within the park, especially the trail and road tolls imposed by private entrepreneurs. Only then did he dismiss "the mere pecuniary considerations" of his report, maintaining that "the State should have a pride in treating this property—its magnificent public park—in a liberal spirit" not restricted "to the mere question of dollars and cents." [31]

Nonetheless, having resorted once to the argument, the Yosemite Park Commission found good reason to rely on it indefinitely. Throughout the 1870s the commissioners invoked the economic advantages of scenic preservation to coax additional management funds out of a tight-fisted legislature. Similarly, visitation figures buttressed the commission's request for higher levels of support; nearly twenty thousand people came to Yosemite Valley during the decade, up fourfold from the number of visitors between 1864 and 1870. [32]

The effect on the resource was still most apparent in the meadows, where tourists and valley residents alike fed, watered, and rested their horses. Dairy herds and cattle for slaughter were also introduced to the valley. Similarly, the inauguration of regular stage service midway through the 1870s put added pressure on scarce supplies of hay and grass. Residents simply plowed and fenced more of the meadows, sowing them with popular varieties of nonnative grass and grain. As a result, native grasses and wildflowers gradually gave way, retreating to those portions of the valley least used and visited. [33]

With increasing portions of its meadows thus put to use, Yosemite Valley by 1880 was certainly not the park Frederick Law Olmsted had envisioned in 1865. In his opinion, sensitivity to the natural scene was the guiding principle of good management. Anything that compromised the original appearance of Yosemite Valley warranted intense scrutiny simply as a matter of course. It follows that if Olmsted had been asked to decide the future of grazing in the park, his position on the issue would have been clear and outspoken. [34]

Possible comparisons of Yosemite Valley to a farm instead of a preserve convinced the Yosemite Park Commission that something indeed had to be done. But instead of inviting Olmsted back to the park, the commission asked William Hammond Hall, the state engineer, to report on the growing problems of protection and management. Hall claimed to be influenced by Olmsted's work and philosophy; in fact, however, no two people were often farther apart when it came to insisting that the use of public parks yield to the needs of preservation. Hall visited Yosemite Valley in 1881 and filed his report to the commission on May 20, 1882. "No attempt should be made to 'improve' Yosemite Valley," he began, seemingly embracing Olmsted's guiding philosophy. But Hall in fact applied the words improve or improvement to a long list of public works, "works necessary," he argued, "for the preservation or promotion of the use of the valley." Granted, public works were "by no means improvements to the valley"; they were, nonetheless, "necessary evils, which occupation and use bring in their train or force in their advance." [35]

Unlike Olmsted, in other words, Hall accepted increased development of the park as both inevitable and legitimate. Tourism, as the impetus for development, was the unavoidable result of Yosemite's own fame and rising popularity. It followed that although the development of the valley must be controlled, it must still be allowed. Inevitably, the contradictions in Hall's report were serious and inescapable. Given his basic premise, time and again preservation lost while development steadily gained. The issue of structures, for example, elicited the following response: "The only good excuse there can be for putting a house of any kind in the Yosemite Valley is that it will afford a shelter, a convenience, or material comfort of some kind to those who come to view the great natural effects and features of this place." Apparently houses, in Hall's view, were simultaneously frivolous and necessary, on the one hand a distraction yet on the other a prerequisite for a better enjoyment of the park. Hall immediately amended his statement to include "hotels, dwellings, stores, shops, and other structures" as requirements for genteel sight-seeing and amusement. Here again he broke faith with his own preceding statement, offering no "good excuse" why stores and shops in particular were vital park establishments. Instead he returned to his earlier rationale that all structures were "only tolerated features"; accordingly, they "should not be prominently located or conspicuous in themselves." But immediately he followed the qualification with another dramatic contradiction. Suddenly the "ideal house for Yosemite Valley" was both large and conspicuous. It "must be of stone," Hall wrote, "its location near the base of the valley walls, with forest trees around and a fine view off in front; its planning spacious, and its construction massive" (italics added). Further imagine "a hotel of such character," he wrote, his excitement now obvious, "with a wide portico and a great reception room, fireplaces each as big as an ordinary boudoir, and inside house finish of plain hardwood; outside of stone and tiles; the yard disposed and cultivated to appear as a bit of the natural woodland scenery with its Spring dress on." Only a structure of such magnificence might tempt the visitor "to prolong his stay to enjoy, if nothing else, the fitness of his immediate surroundings as accompaniments to the natural features of the place." [36]

In the space of barely a paragraph, Hall's projected accommodations for Yosemite Valley had mushroomed from houses as "shelter, a convenience, or material comfort" into grandiose buildings obviously intended to become park attractions unto themselves. In these and other instances, he had departed almost completely from his original pronouncement suggesting that buildings should be incidental and as inconspicuous as possible. His hotel especially emerged in his mind's eye as a retreat where visitors, perhaps bored with the scenery, could still appreciate, "if nothing else," the fact that the structure so perfectly blended with its surroundings. By now the very real differences between Olmsted's philosophy and Hall's were dramatically obvious. Olmsted, as a landscape architect, thought first of protection. Hall, as an engineer, believed foremost in construction.

Now fully committed to promoting Yosemite Valley for greater visitation, the Yosemite Park Commission clearly preferred Hall's 1882 report over Olmsted's original of 1865. Hall included the obligatory statements about protecting park resources; it was simply that his report, unlike Olmsted's, struck a less restrictive balance between preservation and development. The deterioration of the meadows, for example, impressed Hall as just another challenge for his engineering expertise. "The finer forage grasses are being thinned out," he wrote, admitting that overgrazing was contributing to the problem; "the coarser and more robust or hardy grasses and weeds, able to withstand the trampling and cropping, are taking their places." The total area of the meadows had also decreased, "while young thickets of forest or shrub growth are springing up instead." Yet he did not recommend that grazing be eliminated from the meadows nor that annual fires be restored; instead the meadows should "be cleared, perhaps plowed, reformed, and resown." Additional lands suitable for grazing should also "be cleared and brought under cultivation," perhaps "by irrigation as grass meadows" sufficient in extent to overcome "the deficiency in the forage supply." [37] Here again, Olmsted's distinctive blending of enjoyment with discipline was noticeably absent. Hall instead proposed a popular alternative to increased restraint. However restrictive in its own right, his plan for Yosemite Valley intrinsically accommodated more visitation and development.

Adherence to Hall's recommendations for the valley threatened to accelerate the biological changes already in progress. Additional roads, trails, fences, and building sites provided the levels of disturbance so necessary for exotic vegetation to take root. Elsewhere, native grasses were plowed under and more portions of the meadows resown with timothy, Kentucky blue grass, and other popular alien species. Meanwhile, pines and cedars continued to encroach wherever opportunity afforded, since little except fire and pulling up seedlings by hand had kept these and other trees periodically in check. [38]

As more of the valley closed in, the natural wonders themselves disappeared behind screens of trees. Again Hall's solution was technical rather than biologically informed. Certainly the Yosemite Park Commission "should be safe from censure," he wrote, "if, in opening out the views . . . you apply the axe right freely." Granted "there is much prejudice against cutting down fine trees," he confessed, "but you must look to the ultimate result, and be governed accordingly." [39]

Once more Hall professed to see a bright future; in truth the complexities of park management were largely beyond his grasp. Although Frederick Law Olmsted had greater vision by training and experience, he was given only a brief hearing before his ideas were generally suppressed. No less than in the twentieth century, restraint and discipline in the interest of posterity was not a popular argument in 1865. Hall, in contrast, told the Yosemite Park Commission what it wanted to hear. Visitation could be accommodated and preservation yet advanced. Yosemite Valley could in fact be more things to more people a good deal more of the time. To change the valley while meeting the demand was not to abandon park principles; rather change, in Hall's reassuring words, was both inevitable and predictable. Development of the valley had been forced on the commissioners; they were blameless for succumbing to "necessary evils." Yosemite Valley, as public land, must accommodate the public, including by adding those facilities that appeased popular social tastes. Thus use, rather than the resource, moved ever closer to dominating the park and its future.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap3.htm — 17-Mar-2004