Yosemite National Park Salvatore DePoala 107-58-8435 Final Paper History 390 Ronald Helfrich The alpine Yosemite Valley is located within California s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Yosemite was carved by glacial ice. The valley s towering granite walls and rushing waterfalls provide for some unique scenery. This natural beauty has long been recognized as worthy of preservation. The exact form that this preservation should take has also been a source of ongoing controversy. The National Park Service s mission is to conserve the parks natural and historic resources, but the service must allow public use of this land. This split agenda has often been a source of conflict public access versus preservation. Yosemite National Park has begun to suffer from overuse. Environmental deterioration caused by overcrowding and pollution inspired the 1980 Yosemite General Management Plan (GMP). However, the Plan s recommendations have been largely ignored. Only in more recent years have the problems of America s National Parks begun to receive revived attention. Yosemite Valley is located at an elevation of 4,000 feet and is approximately 7 miles in length and 1 mile wide. It is the nation s seventh largest federal park outside of Alaska. In 1864, an act of congress ceded the valley, and also the nearby Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, to the state of California. Congress original intent was to let California “have and hold (the park) for all time as a public trust.” That same year, Frederick Law Olmstead delineated the state s responsibilities in a report to the park commission. Olmstead emphasized the “preservation and maintenance” of resource “as exactly as possible.” These actions eventually made Yosemite the United States first protected park. The need to preserve wilderness areas was first recognized by early conservationists such as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt towards the end of the 1800 s. These leaders sought to set aside lands that were “splendid and unique.” The Organic Act of 1916 incorporated their ideals. This legislation created the National Park Service. The Organic Act outlined the Park Service s mission toward the nation s parks. It s mission is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Congress has never been able to clearly define the way in which the national parks should be enjoyed while still preserving their natural resources. In many parks this vague policy has created heated debate. The conflict between preservation and public use has overshadowed much of Yosemite s history. In 1956, Congress approved a 10-year, $725 million improvement program called “Mission 66.” This project built new roads and parking lots on the site. This in turn, attracted an increasing number of visitors with automobiles to the park. Most conservationists felt that Mission 66 encouraged massive park use at the expense of Yosemite s natural attributes. The environmentalist agenda was not clearly recognized until about the early 1960 s. In 1963, a study undertaken by zoologist, A. Starker Leopold, recommended that the National Parks be managed with “as little interference with natural systems as possible.” Leopold insisted that the parks should represent a “vignette of primitive America.” The report eventually led to renewed ecological awareness. It also initiated numerous environmentally oriented policies. The policies included the following: the termination of pesticide use, the elimination of exotic plants and animals, and the restoration of former will predator populations. In the Yosemite Valley preservationists began to rethink the park s policy. They struggled to define the park s primary purpose. It soon became obvious that unlimited access was not a good idea for the park s preservation. So in 1970 motor vehicles were banned from the eastern portion of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Instead the plan for these areas provided public transportation. This transportation was in the form of propane powered trains and shuttle buses. Despite these reforms the problems related with overcrowding at the park continued to grow. Even though many of the early conservationists might have thought that they had preserved the nation s parks forever, in reality they had only just begun the process. Yosemite remains a perfect example of a national park “under siege.” The park happens to be at the center of an entire ecosystem threatened by urban development. More than 30 million people from California live within a day s drive from the park boundaries. During the last several decades, visitation has increase dramatically. In the past ten years annual visits have risen by more than 37 percent. In 1991, the total number of visitors amounted to roughly 3.5 million persons. The degradation of the Yosemite Valley s environment has practical become an established custom. According to the Yosemite National Park General Management Plan (GMP), “the valley is congested with more than a thousand buildings stores, homes, garages, apartments, lodging facilities, and restaurants that are reflections of our society; the Valley floor is bisected by approximately 30 miles of roadway with now can accommodate a million cars, trucks, and buses a year.” During the park s peak times like Memorial Day weekend, Yosemite Valley mimics Los Angeles at rush hour. The rangers estimate that an auto enters the valley every five seconds. That amounts to seven hundred cars per hour, and six to seven thousand cars per day. Using an average of 2.9 passengers per vehicle, this equals 20,000 visitors per day or 60,000 for this tree day weekend. Under these conditions gridlock and air pollution become tremendous problems. Although traffic congestion can be controlled by diversions and increased traffic control, the valley s roads sometimes resemble parking lots. Besides the traffic, Yosemite Valley also hosts more than 2 million overnight guests each year. The valley has become a virtual town. An example of this are the 2,000+ valley employees and dependents. There is also lodging for 4,000 people and camping space for 4,500. The valley s buildings include motels, tent cabins, restaurants, gift shops, liquor stores, and a video outlet. These various concessions are all operated by the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. The concessionaire s parent company is Music Corporation of America, and entertainment conglomerate. In 1989, the corporations revenue totaled about $3.4 billion. The Curry Company s concessions include 99 rooms and 24 cottages of the Ahwahnee Hotel, 495 rooms and cabins of Yosemite Lodge, 628 units at Curry Village, 302 units at Housekeeping Camp, 13 retail stores and gift shops, 4 bars, 2 cafeterias, and 2 ice cream parlors. Therefore, Yosemite s ongoing commercial exploitation has always been in the company s interest. Yosemite Valley s over development has caused countless social problems. Now, rangers must patrol the park s highways looking for speeders and drunk drivers. Also, serious crimes like rape and robbery have become more common place. In 1987, the park had to renovate its jail. The total number of beads had to be increased from 16 to 22. As the park s overuse goes on the pollution has also begun to increase. Air pollution sampling stations scattered around Yosemite are beginning to detect high levels of particles that deplete the ozone layer and cause acid rain. These levels are often in excess of state and federal standards. According to Leonard McKenzie, the head of park interpretations, ponderosa pine trees are already beginning to show the effects of ozone poisoning in some areas. Despite the damage being inflicted on Yosemite, there are many hurdles in the park reform process. A major problem is lack of consensus. There is a tremendous split among the participating parties as to which course of action is appropriate. The preservationists would like to see the park s pristine character completely restored. They point to the Organic Act which emphasized the need to have Yosemite passed to each succeeding generation “inalienable for all time.” According to these preservationists , public access to the park should be determined entirely by the valley s welfare. Their argument is that Yosemite s most important purposed are inspirational, educational and scientific. Complete preservation has always been more ideal than the harsh reality. The preservation of the natural or original aspects of Yosemite National Park does not have priority over things that have been introduced or artificial. Total preservation requires too much. It believes that visitors should ask nothing of Yosemite. The preservationists demands are often in the minority. The park has been a highly developed recreation area for decades. According to Horace M. Albright, co-founder of the National Park Service and its second director from 1929 to 1933, national parks “were created for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Albright also believed that the people, not the resources, must be given the most consideration in regard to park policy. The public access opinion holds that every effort should be made to expand park facilities. They believe that to turn even a single visitor away is to deny them their right as a U.S. citizen. In 1990, Runte stated that people should accommodate the resource. If you require visitors to use public transportation it might force them to use more thought and planning. Instead of having these large scale commercial enterprises on the valley bottom, visitor s basic necessities (food, water, shelter) could be supplied by smaller non-profit organizations. Under these conditions every product or service offered within the park boundaries could be evaluated and adjusted for compliance with the park s preservation goals. This type of scenario restricts the visitor s recreational experience to seeing Yosemite and it limits human impact on its natural environment. Opponents of complete preservation argue that these strategies are not practical. They argue that the necessary changes would be unpopular and fairly expensive. An example of this is the cost of removing Yosemite s major buildings. The price ranges upwards in the hundreds of millions of dollars range.
The greatest single effort to come to a compromise between preservation and public access in Yosemite Valley was the creation of the Yosemite National Park General Management Plan (GMP). The GMP represented a virtual conservation mandate from Congress. It emphasized that the National Park Service s primary responsibility was “to perpetuate the natural splendor of Yosemite and its exceedingly special valley.” The GMP actually made resource protection a higher priority than resource availability. The public s enjoyment, education, and recreation ranked second after the issue of the park s preservation. The plan s main objective involved eliminating all nonessential facilities and reclaiming the valley. The plan s ultimate goal was to redirect development to park s outer perimeters and remove all automobiles from the valley. These elimination s were to be matched by additional exchanges elsewhere. The GMP also called for a decrease in drive-in camping. This would mean that such campsites would be removed from the valley. Eventually though, the number of total campsites would gradually increase by 200. Among the GMP s different guidelines the concessionaire was required to reduce its overnight accommodations by 17% in the valley and 10% park-wide. These new changes were aimed at reducing the total number of overnight visitors in the valley by 1,356. At the parks peak capacity, this would amount to about a 15% reduction. The entire park as a whole would eventually come to have an increase in the number of overnight visitors. This increase was estimated at the amount of 268 campers for a net gain of 1.7%. Another feature of the GMP included moving the park headquarters. The headquarters and other administrative and maintenance facilities for both government and concession operations were to be relocated to a more distant outside area. Also, about 1,000 government, concession, and service employees would be transferred to these outlying areas. These changes were to be followed by the removal of over 1,000 parking spaces from the valley and the enforcement of a new auto carrying capacity policy. The maximum capacity on day use in Yosemite Valley was to be lowered to 10,500 visitors. Various projects recommended by the GMP included the improvement of public transportation. The current shuttle bus system was going to be redesigned to provide service from outside parking areas. Also, the GMP stated that a study would have to be implemented to “find a method to totally eliminate cars and other obtrusive vehicles.” By 1980, estimates of the cost of the completed implementation of the Yosemite National Park GMP ran about $150 million. This plan further forecaster that these changes would take place over a ten year period. Unfortunately, the GMP fell prey to political conditions. Under President Reagan, many of the nation s resource agencies experienced a general decline. Then secretary of the Interior, James Watt, maintained that these new proposals were too ambitious. Eventually, as a result of budget constraints, much of the Yosemite National Park GMP was never actually realized. Highly visible park changes such as one way roads, numbered campsites, and permits to enter wilderness areas came pretty quickly and easily. However, these other reforms included a golf course, as well as the expansion of the valley s shuttle service. Despite a public expense of $75 million on the GMP projects, many of the park s major problems remain. The GMP s more effective, costly, and less obvious changes have been harder to achieve. An example of this would be the repeated postponement of employee housing and the closing of commercial concessions. Instead of an actual reduction in overnight visitor accommodations in Yosemite Valley, the past 10 years has allowed the number of these facilities to increase. It seems that the only thing actually accomplished over the past decade has been a “rehabilitation of the status quo.” In August 1989, the National Park Service released a document entitled, “Draft Yosemite General Management Plan Examination Report.” This report marked a dramatic shift in attitudes. It did not support the plan that preserving the park resource is more important than providing for visitor access. This new document “spoke of fine tuning a balance between the two conflicting objective.” In recent years things have been looking better for Yosemite s preservationists. Most environmental groups approve of President Clinton s national parks policies. According to Karin P. Sheldon, President of the wilderness Society, “He has appointed top-rate people and drafted a sensible budget.” Also, Interior Secretary Babbitt has promised a substantial increase in the National Park Service budget. These new changes have also led to a National Park Week proposal. This event will boost Park Service moral and will bring greater attention to these controversial park issues. Even though Yosemite has problems, one thing that can be said for sure is that the environmental destruction that has occurred has not yet become irreversible. The park has not had a problem with losing mass acres of habitat. If further air quality deterioration occurs this might cause this habitat to be lost. The complete elimination of autos from Yosemite Valley is still considered to be a fifty-year goal. As the National Park Service ponders Yosemite s options, it has taken on the opportunity to evaluate various public transportation proposals. One proposal, submitted by transportation designer, Christopher Swan, envisioned a solar powered railroad for the park. This non-polluting, battery-powered train would use ordinary tracks. A photovoltaic skin covering the train would provide for electrical lights, refrigeration, and heating. These cars would each be powered by several electric motors. The system would be driven by rail stations covered with photovoltaic cells at intervals of ten miles. Swan claims that the total cost for the project would be $2.2 billion. A prototype of a 7-mile train could be constructed in Yosemite Valley for only $20 million. Swan claims that the major obstacles to his solar powered railroad are not the technical aspects, but the political and financial opposes. I feel that the country s national parks are extremely important. They are more than just convenient and inexpensive places for the public to vacation. These are areas were learning and an appreciation of nature can be developed. Their existence should be protected so that future generations will be able to experience these unique ecosystems. These valuable resources are certainly worthy enough to be deemed necessary for preservation. Endnotes John G. Mitchell, “Uncluttering Yosemite,” Audubon 92 (November 1990): 74-95. Ibid. Bruce Babbitt, “Our National Parks,” National Geographic 186 (0ctober 1990): 74-94. T. H. Watkins, “Marketing Yosemite,” Wilderness 54 (Fall 1990): 22-23. “Background: Early Problems,” CO Researcher 3 (May 28, 1993): 469. Ibid. Babbitt, 12-13. “Yosemite Falls Short of 1980 Goals,” National Parks 64 (March-April 1990): 11. Dan Blackburn, “Of Bears and BMW s: Upscaling Yosemite,” California Journal 23 (June 1992): 315. Richard Reinhardt, “Careless Love; The Pitfalls of Affection in the Incomparable Valley of Yosemite,” Wilderness 52 (Summer 1989): 17-26. Mitchell, 74-94. Ibid. Michael Bowker, “A Solar Solution For Yosemite,” Technology Review 94 (November-December 1991): 22-23. Alfred Runte, Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 219-227. Mitchell, 74-94. Watkins, 22-23. Runte, 219-227. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Mitchell, 74-94. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. William R. Lowry, “Promises, Promises,” The Brookings Review 12 (Fall 1994): 38-41. Reinhardt, 17-26 Mitchell, 74-94. Ibid. Ibid. “Current Situation,” CO Researcher 3 (May 28, 1993): 471. Mitchell, 74-94. Bowker, 22-23. Bibliography Babbitt, Bruce. “Our National Parks.” National Geographic 186 (October 1994): pgs. 2-19. “Background: Early Problems.” CO Researcher 3 (May 28,1993): pgs. 465-471. Blackburn, Dan. “Of Bears and BMW s: Upscaling Yosemite.” California Journal 23 (June 1992): pgs. 315-317. Bowker, Michael. “A Solar Solution For Yosemite.” Technology Review 94 (November-December 1991): pgs. 22-23. “Current Situation.” CO Researcher 3 (May 28, 1993): pg. 471. Lowry, William R. “Promises, Promises.” The Brookings Review 12 (Fall 1994): pgs. 38-41. Mitchell, John G. “Uncluttering Yosemite.” Audubon 92 (November 1990): pgs. 72-89. Reinhardt, Richard. “Careless Love; The Pitfalls of Affection in the Incomparable Valley of Yosemite.” Wilderness 52 (Summer 1989): pgs. 16-27. Runte, Alfred. Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Watkins, T. H. “Marketing Yosemite.” Wilderness 54 (Fall 1990): pgs. 22-23. “Yosemite Falls Short of 1980 Goals.” National Parks 64 (March- April 1990): pg. 11.