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A vision sustained; Yosemite Valley provides a perfect place to study the National Park Service's challenge to maintain a balance between enjoyment and preservation. (Forum).

For anyone who cares about the planet's future, sustainability is the key. It may have been possible at one time to live off the capital of the land, to leave the world a little less able to support those who came afterward. But the planet cannot maintain this level of use forever. We have to find a sustainable lifestyle to have any hope at all for the future. The same is true for national parks.

The basic idea for the parks from the beginning was to preserve them for the people's enjoyment. It became obvious, however, that this was not going to work as a stand-alone guide if a person's enjoyment consisted of breaking off pieces of Yellow-stone's geyser cones for souvenirs.

As stated in the act establishing the National Park System, the National Park Service seeks "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The problem is that we have gone overboard in accommodating the visiting public.

Early Park Service directors Stephen Mather and Horace Albright believed any development that would enhance a visitor's enjoyment was necessary. With an increase in environmental consciousness after the mid-20th century, the primary pressure in park planning has been to remove excessive development, but closing a road or tearing down a building has proven much more difficult than building them in the first place.

In October 2000, I attended a hearing on the Yosemite Valley Plan in Pasadena, California. When I suggested that too many people and too many cars crowded into Yosemite Valley during the summer months, I was heartily booed by an audience made up largely of RV owners and campers. In January, while showing slides on Yosemite and talking about the plan to a Sierra Club audience, I was admonished by a member for supporting a plan that was too user friendly. This is business as usual for the National Park Service, which is often forced to walk a fine line among various special interests.

Yosemite Valley seems the perfect place to study the Park Service's eternal search for balance. With its awe-inspiring beauty, its fabulous weather, its perfect "living space" in a flat-bottomed valley with a river flowing through it, Yosemite has attracted a seemingly endless number of people. It has also, thankfully, attracted more than its share of environmentalists fighting the degradation that excessive numbers can cause, starting with John Muir.

Although Yosemite was the first federal area set aside for protection in 1864, the early caretakers of the valley felt the environmental battle had been won by protecting it from commercial exploitation, and just about anything was allowed. Eventually farming in the valley was eliminated, and no new hotels were being built, but by the late 1960s, the unofficial motto "parks are for people" was in full swing. Many protested against tourist overuse, but not until 1970 was a strong attempt made to curb that overuse.

The first time I saw Yosemite Valley in 1947, I was blinded by its beauty and couldn't wait to return. Just 20 years later, the valley had become "Yosemite City." As former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt put it years later: "the area is equivalent in size to Central Park in New York City but with more roads, more automobiles, and more development." Over a thousand buildings stood in the valley, the campgrounds contained wall-to-wall tents, and visitors without "sites" slept in their cars or in the meadows. There was crime and smog. It ended, appropriately enough, with a riot in the heart of Yosemite Valley on July 4, 1970, when a motorcycle club's members tried to set up camp in Stoneman's Meadow and the Park Service tried to remove them. The Park Service admitted that use in the valley had a limit and would spend the next three decades trying to restore Yosemite's natural environment.

Initially the restoration went smoothly. The Park Service established a fixed number of campsites and stopped overflow camping. It closed roads and initiated a shuttle bus system. It stopped the firefall (a nightly event during which hot coals were pushed over the cliff at Glacier Point) and closed the golf course in the valley, all with little protest.

By 1980, a general plan had been created that would remove most of the auto traffic in the park and reduce the number of buildings. Implementation of the 1980 General Management Plan almost came to a halt, however, under Interior Secretary James Watt, who served under President Reagan in the 1980s and shifted the agency's focus from resource protection to visitor enhancement.

Then came the flood. On January 1, 1997, a freak winter storm flooded Yosemite Valley. By the time it receded two days later, the flood had caused $176 million worth of damage to highways, sewer systems, campgrounds, and housing. Reeling from the damage, the Park Service nevertheless saw an opportunity to accomplish long-sought goals, especially when money to fix the damage was appropriated by Congress. Much of the infrastructure of the valley, located in the floodplains or rockslide areas, would be relocated or simply removed from these areas. The Park Service started to create the Yosemite Valley Implementation Plan.

The key point in the plan was the restoration of some 200 acres between Camp Curry and Yosemite Village. These two campgrounds and part of a third one, all of which were washed away in the flood, would not be reopened, and roads through two of the meadows would be closed. This caused an uproar from campers and helped lead to two more planning efforts: the Merced River and the Yosemite Valley plans.

The final version of the Yosemite Valley Plan was completed by November 2000, and the "record of decision" was signed December 29, ending the planning process. The "new" plan added some campsites (including more walk-in sites) and retained some parking in the central areas while removing a controversial new parking area near El Capitan. It restored the central area between Yosemite Village and Camp Curry, required many visitors to use shuttle buses during the most crowded part of the season, and converted the northside road into a bicycling and walking path.

Opposition still exists. Many would like to see the campgrounds rebuilt in the floodplain, no roads closed, and a constantly rising visitation. The plan's full implementation will depend on people continuing to push for it, supporting environmentally conscious candidates for office, and ensuring good financial support for all parks. If so, visitors may not find the Yosemite Valley of the future quite as "convenient" as in the past, but the valley they do find should represent what national parks are all about: one of the most beautiful places in the world cared for so lovingly that future generations can expect to see it in its exquisite natural perfection, forever.

BOB R. 0'BRIEN is emeritus professor of geography at San Diego State University and has recently published a book: Our National Parks and the Search for Sustainability.
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Author:O'Brien, Bob R.
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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