The Embattled Wilderness
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Reassessment and Future

Every conflict in Yosemite's history, and therefore every suggestion of those conflicts yet to come, can be traced to some compromise of the ideal that a national park first and foremost should exist for the protection of its natural heritage. Even as that ideal evolved, it faced two major obstacles. First, the standards of biological conservation were not original to Yosemite, certainly not in the minds of visitors at large. Spectacular scenery initially drew people to Yosemite, and scenery embellished with accommodations and services seemed perfectly acceptable to early park visitors. Second, park legislation provided, in effect, for a competing rather than complementary set of management values. When visitation was minimal, that duality between access and preservation could more easily be overlooked. Meanwhile, however, the precedent had been established. Development was inside Yosemite, where it could not help but exert pressure on the goals of preservation.

From the outset, preservation had failed to win unquestionable legitimacy. Whatever was natural or original to Yosemite did not automatically have priority over anything introduced or artificial. Supposedly, naturalness distinguished national parks from every other classification of public lands and resources, not to mention from the forces of civilization itself. The mere presence of development, especially in Yosemite Valley as the heart of the park, arguably broadcast a different message—that no natural resource was special or distinctive enough to warrant that degree of commitment to unswerving protection.

Preservation, it seemed, was an ideal. Undoubtedly it demanded too much, insisting that people come to see the resource only and ask nothing more of Yosemite than what it had been offering for thousands of years. The purposes of Yosemite were inspirational, scientific, and educational in nature. Only by adhering to those standards, not by trying to satisfy every public whim, would Yosemite's natural heritage receive all due consideration.

In that case preservation made unpopular demands, beginning with insistence on humility and total self-restraint. Inside Yosemite, every outside standard of conduct had to be open to question, for if social and personal behaviors were the same both inside and outside the park, there might well be no park, at least not one where natural conditions clearly prevailed. Roles had to be changed, perhaps entirely reversed. Every honest effort for protection rested on accepting standards of biological rather than social equity. Park animals, for example, would not be labeled good or bad; those terms were strictly human and loaded with social biases. Similarly, the suggestion that park animals were innocent or guilty according to legal custom strained every limit of biological credibility. People would have to have the courage to accept certain risks when entering natural environments, much as they accepted the everyday risks of their fast-paced civilization. Otherwise, growing levels of visitation possibly threatened everything the park was supposed to represent, encouraging instead the opposite impression that Yosemite was indeed just another grand resort.

Much of Yosemite's first century as a national park witnessed that struggle for meaning and consensus, for the recognition of its distinctive qualities apart from anything distracting or intentionally commercial. It was small wonder that research scientists were no less controversial than preservationists and that often the two groups were really one and the same. Science added clout to preservationists' emotions, underpinning those ideals with hard data rather than repetitious good intentions. Research science made it all the more difficult for proponents of development to stay in firm command, to justify, for example, eliminating predators, controlling bears, adding parking lots, or realigning roads. At the very least, scientists embraced preservation for the security it afforded their favorite research subjects. To be sure, Park Service scientists themselves were generally committed to a strict interpretation of the so-called Organic Act, which had established the Park Service on August 25, 1916. Jan van Wagtendonk, for example, a Yosemite research scientist, argued in March 1986: "A reasonable interpretation of the Organic Act indicates that Congress intended the Secretary of the Interior to protect natural conditions in parks, as an absolute duty, and to only allow use consistent with that protection. It is questionable whether the Service should determine public desires and attempt to accommodate them" (italics added). [1]

Inside any bureaucracy, even a little such criticism went a very long way. Granted, the Park Service had a sprinkling of research scientists such as Dr. van Wagtendonk, at least in the larger and more visible parks. The Park Service also cooperated with academic scientists in opening the reserves to a variety of seminars, classes, and specialized research projects. Yet the gulf between science and management was still very real. Although scientists might see the parks as great outdoor laboratories, Park Service tradition still had more in common with recreation than with research or preservation.

The Park Service could be pushed slightly one way or the other, but generally it stuck with what it knew, and what it knew best was people. Tradition, in turn, led to further rationales for management policies as they had evolved, most notably the argument that only small portions of Yosemite had been extensively developed. "The National Parks were not created just to hold every acre of their lands in exactly their state when reserved." Thus Horace M. Albright, co-founder of the National Park Service and its renowned second director (1929-33), defended the development of Yosemite Valley as late as 1975. National parks "were created 'for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,'" he added, further paraphrasing the common wording of early enabling acts. "The people must be given fullest consideration up to the point where natural features of a park might be impaired." [2]

In the eyes of preservationists, anything distracting was definitely an impairment, especially, as in Yosemite Valley, when located among the grandest features of a major national park. In 1987, for example, guests checking in at Yosemite Lodge received the following reminder with their room key: "The Mountain Room Bar is the perfect place to rendezvous before and after dinner. Enjoy cocktails and spectacular views of Yosemite Falls from the patio in summer or hot drinks by the fireplace in winter." Nor was that all. "A bigscreen TV," the announcement concluded, "provides added excitement to major sports events." [3]

For more than a century, preservationists had questioned the very process by which something as commonplace as a big-city barroom had won entry into such an uncommon resource. Yosemite Falls, they argued, should be entertainment enough without adding commercial distractions, especially televised sporting events and alcoholic beverages. Perhaps, as advertised, cocktails were "as cool as the mists off Yosemite Falls." [4] But that too was marketing puff and not preservation. The beneficiary was the concessionaire and not the park resource.

Indeed Edward Hardy, president of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, defined Yosemite National Park as "a destination resort." True, it was also called a national park. "As such," he confessed in March 1986, "it is subject to more regulations, policies, and sensitivities than in most other resorts." But there it was again—the word resort instead of park. He almost seemed disappointed that the distinction still had to be made. His employees, however, should have no troubling doubts. "Individuals fortunate enough to work in a destination resort enjoy a variety of benefits," he remarked. "Among those in Yosemite are the beautiful surroundings and vast recreational opportunities." For Hardy there seemed to be no difference between the two, no threat to the natural beauty through the vigorous promotion of organized recreation. "Our first responsibility is to our GUESTS," he declared, further implying that most of them wanted company services exactly as offered. "Additionally, there is the responsibility for a private business in a national park to operate in support of the National Park Service goal—to provide for the use and enjoyment of the Park while protecting the Park resource for future generations." But his own priority was dramatically clear. "The guest is our reason for being here and quality guest service is critical." The resource was entertainment. As such, it was there to serve business, not the other way around. [5]

Extrapolating Hardy's definition into the twenty-first century suggested that Yosemite National Park in the future would look much like it had in the past. Development might not swell appreciably, but neither would it visibly retreat. Besides, every effort would still be made to expand park facilities, again relying on the strength of the argument that to turn anyone away from Yosemite would be to deny that person a sacred right.

In preservationists scenario, levels and means of access would be determined solely by the welfare of the resource. At a minimum, visitors should be willing to leave the trappings and prejudices of civilization behind. Perhaps one answer, then, was more public transportation. Unlike private access, public transportation called for more forethought and planning on the part of the visitor. Choices and decisions would have to be made, for instance, on whether it was more important to bring along the family stereo or another change of clothes. Mandatory public transportation would be a responsible social filter, allowing everyone to have access but nonetheless directing each visitor to ask a most important question: Is the privilege of seeing Yosemite recreation enough? [6]

People seeking organized recreation would be asked to head elsewhere. Similarly, every duality in the management structure would be fully eradicated, allowing no business to compete for attention with the natural environment. The few real necessities of any visitor's experience, namely food, lodging, and perhaps camping equipment, could be provided by nonprofit foundations operating strictly as adjuncts of the National Park Service. The criterion of every product or service would be a compatibility with the goals of preservation. The purposes of Yosemite, as an uncommon resource, would remain strictly educational, scientific, and protective. [7]

Predictably, the Park Service was quick to argue that those goals were already being realized, that indeed the agency had never departed from them in the first place. The Park Service, in effect, hoped critics would forget its history. Granted, some noteworthy changes had recently been made, among them prescribed burning in the Mariposa Grove and sincere (if again belated) attempts to reduce the possibility of confrontations between visitors and wildlife. The painful revelation was how slowly, and under what circumstances, the Park Service had moved to inaugurate a few reforms. As early as 1933, in Fauna of the National Parks, George M. Wright and his colleagues had laid down exacting but fair principles for wildlife management in sensitive areas, including Yosemite. Yet not until the 1970s did wildlife management in general, and bear management in particular, even begin to approximate the standards justified, in absorbing detail, by Wright and his coauthors. "The fallacy of spreading an inviting feast for bears and then 'taking them for a ride' to remote sections is evident," the biologists had written. "The bears travel in a vicious circle, but obviously it is man who keeps them running on that path." The solution was obvious: "If man is to live in close proximity to bears he must protect his property by devices which bears can not break." But of course "bear-proof refuse containers and food safes" would be "an expense," although one no less important than "road construction and police protection." This much was very evident: "If food is not available around human habitations, bears will not stay there long." [8]

In the end, however, scandal—more than biological common sense—provoked genuine reform. A pile of bear carcasses at the base of a cliff along the Big Oak Flat Road was exposed by the national media in 1973 and did far more to restructure bear management in Yosemite than did any ecologist's pleas. For much the same reason, the most effective reformers were people outside rather than inside the National Park Service. George M. Wright, Harold C. Bryant, and Carl P. Russell, among other committed scientists, did pursue Park Service careers, and highly successful ones. But again, these men were the exceptions. Their avoidance of misleading stereotypes, such as "garbage" bears, "killer" rattlesnakes, and "blood-thirsty" lions, reflected considerable sensitivity and training. They were also fortunate to have had Joseph Grinnell as a friend, confidant, and teacher and, equally important, to have received periodic endorsements from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Grinnell also extended research space, financial assistance, and conceptual advice. Even the distinctive faunal series, begun in the early 1930s by George Wright and his colleagues, rested in large part on Grinnell's earlier work and ideas.

The requirements of biological sanctuary were consistently clear and straightforward—people were welcome, but the resource must come first. Beyond simply admitting crowds of visitors, the National Park Service should be educating resource stewards. Yes, bears could be dangerous, but generally only if provoked. The danger was also relative. As of 1988 no visitor in Yosemite's recorded history had ever been killed by the common black bear, and the grizzly in Yosemite was long since extinct. [9] Undoubtedly many more people had been killed or injured on highways leading into Yosemite than had been harmed by wildlife—or any other natural phenomenon—inside the park. No less than James Mason Hutchings, the leader of the first party of tourists into Yosemite Valley in 1855, met his death in 1902 along the Big Oak Flat Road, where he was killed when his horses suddenly bolted, throwing him from his wagon to the ground. [10] For the next three-quarters of a century, accidental drownings, automobile and motorcycle wrecks, drunken driving, climbing mishaps, and overexertion killed literally hundreds of other park visitors and residents. Bears, to reemphasize, killed absolutely no one.

Yet any concerned visitor, reviewing the files at Yosemite park headquarters, could easily draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Even with better funding and trained biologists, bear management in Yosemite still relied heavily on killing "problem" bears. As of October 18, 1988, for example, eight animals had been put to death in that year alone, and several weeks remained before the bears would be hibernating. [11] The deaths, however justified, were still visible proof of the failure of sanctuary. Park resources, and not visitors, continued to pay the ultimate price for every lapse in sound judgment and equitable rules of conduct.

The first biologists to seek reform, among them Joseph Grinnell and George M. Wright, themselves had conceded the necessity of killing individual animals that had habitually become aggressive. [12] As scientists of conscience, however, they still asked that biological reasoning everywhere substitute for momentary expedience and emotion. Thus Grinnell and his followers kept stressing education, even to the point of insisting that every park visitor learn the basics of resources and ecology. Stronger ethics and greater awareness would have to be taught. The prerequisite for responsible behavior was a better knowledge of the environment. "To educate people to this point of view, for their own safety and pleasure, may take several years, but there seems to be no other course," Wright and his colleagues observed in 1933. "It is easier to make the human adjustment to a new circumstance than to coerce the animals." Park visitors, accordingly, had to be contacted and informed. [13]

The assumption was basic—people should accommodate the resource. And that was asking a lot of an agency still so committed to accommodating people first. Granted, some of Yosemite's original distractions, among them the firefall and the bear show, had eventually been abolished. Others, like the cable car to Glacier Point, had been seriously considered but never actually built. The point was that an evening in Yosemite Valley was still likely to remind perceptive visitors of a night spent in any city or resort. Rangers patrolled park highways much as policemen cruised city streets, checking for speeders, drunken drivers, and the occasional stranded motorist. Robbery and rape were no longer uncommon. The worst-case scenarios might in fact be exceptions. Or so the Park Service, and especially the concessionaire, consistently argued. Then again, by 1987 Yosemite Valley's jail had been expanded from sixteen to twenty-two beds while, nearby, construction had also been completed on a new courthouse for the magistrate. Something, it was safe to argue, was visibly out of control in Yosemite Valley, if by the term national park all visitors should expect the best and not the worst of every human endeavor. [14]

Further borrowing from Garrett Hardin's thesis, the tragedy of the commons, we might see the problem simply as one of easy and unrestricted access. There was still no effective social filter, no physical or mental barriers, to make visitors ask themselves the question, Is the privilege of seeing Yosemite recreation enough? Rather, opponents of change still successfully argued that change was too expensive or, even if cost-effective, then much too impractical. For example, estimates for completely restoring Yosemite Valley by removing its major buildings and facilities ranged in the hundreds of millions of dollars. [15] And what would be the fate of those historic structures which themselves were now clearly identified with the park and its past? Conceivably, future generations of visitors would also value those buildings for their own sake, regardless of their location or alleged intrusion on the environment. Certainly structures of such style and elegance as the Ahwahnee Hotel would, if torn down, never be replaced, even on lands just outside the national park.

The problem involved more than buildings, preservationists conceded; it remained one of compatible user standards. If in fact people were universally conscientious about the natural resource, where they ate or slept might have no lasting influence. But if more and more visitors, by constantly gravitating toward any distraction or commonplace amusement, regularly displaced others more committed to the environment and its needs, then indeed Yosemite's distinctive base would continue to be compromised.

That might, as was often charged, sound selfish or elitist. It also might, as preservationists rebutted, be the salvation of Yosemite. Every institution is somehow selfish and selective, if only by practicing one kind of activity to the exclusion of every other kind. For Yosemite to remain distinctive management must practice—not just preach—those forms of behavior ensuring that distinctiveness. Every landscape shared differences; few rose to such uniqueness. That uniqueness, in 1864, had allowed Americans to herald Yosemite as a symbol of national pride. By the 1920s visitors were finally hearing more about plants, animals, and Yosemite as a refuge of biological diversity. The message had been changing, but the place was always the same. It followed that future generations might repeat the experience, finding new knowledge and values undreamed of by Yosemite's previous visitors and guardians.

If so, the gift of preservation is still essential to every future opportunity. Each succeeding generation, like Yosemite's first, must pass the park along, "inalienable for all time." Education, it also follows, is therefore preservation's strongest ally. So often have the standards of preservation been challenged and debated that the idealism of the movement has never been fully sustained. Historically, nonetheless, the moment educators adopted Yosemite National Park, preservation everywhere won greater legitimacy. Once the public was encouraged to learn about natural resources and not merely to observe them, the future of Yosemite was that much brighter and unquestionably more secure.

The theme, if straightforward, remains simple and eloquent. Yosemite is too important to be just another place. Civilization has many undeniable advantages, yet even the most inventive civilization has never built a Yosemite. Yosemite by every imaginable standard is one of a kind. In that perception, and no other, lie the only tried and true principles for guiding the future of the park's natural heritage.


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