Photo credit: Flock/bandada by Flickr.com user Rafael Edwards

Dispatches from the National Parks: Yosemite

Dispatches from the National Parks, is a periodic blog by Robert B. Keiter, author of To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea

On my recent trip to Yosemite National Park, the scenery was stunning, as always, while the volume of visitors and automobiles was stunning too, particularly in Yosemite Valley. The Valley is not only the “heart of the park” but an understandable beacon to most park visitors, who are drawn to such classic sites as Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall. On my visit, the sheer granite walls thrust straight up from the valley floor, flush in sunlight, and the Merced River meandered tranquilly along its own erratic course through the abutting pine forest. It is no wonder John Muir, Frederick Law Olmstead, and their disciples sought to preserve the area as a park for public enjoyment, just as it is no surprise this iconic park is enmeshed in an ongoing controversy over how many people and automobiles and how much development the Valley can accommodate.
Yosemite Valley, June 2009. (cc) msauder @ Flickr.com Yosemite Valley, June 2009. (cc) msauder @ Flickr.com

While traversing a few of the Valley's myriad trails on this warm summer morning, I was struck by the number of visitors obviously enjoying the setting, whether by hiking, walking, running, biking, horseback riding, rafting, swimming, or just lazing in a lounge chair—all of whom were obviously enjoying themselves and none of whom seemed troubled by their nearby counterparts. Many were availing themselves of the Park Service's shuttle buses that were regularly disgorging passengers at well-marked trailheads. At the same time, I was struck by the diversity of park visitors, as evident from their appearance and the foreign languages being spoken, no doubt a commentary on California’s growing diversity as well as the park's international appeal. A day later, outside the Valley, I was again struck by the ubiquitous automobiles that lined the park roads in the Tuolumne Meadows area, which hosted an assortment of day hikers, backpackers, rock climbers, fishermen, swimmers, waders, and photographers. In short, people and cars are everywhere in Yosemite, making it one of the most challenging parks for promoting access while still protecting park resources.
They Paved Paradise and Put in a Parking Lot (cc) Thomas Hawk @ Flickr.com They Paved Paradise and Put in a Parking Lot. (cc) Thomas Hawk @ Flickr.com

In my book, To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea, I recount the multi-decade controversy over Yosemite Valley and the Park Service's efforts to manage visitation in a way that safeguards this iconic setting while still facilitating public enjoyment. In response to a federal court order, the next stage of this controversy is now unfolding with the release in January, 2013, of the Park Service's draft Merced Wild and Scenic River Management Plan, prepared after the court chastised the agency for compromising the river's "outstandingly remarkable values" and directed park officials "to deal with and discuss the maximum number of people" in the Valley’s river corridor. Under the revised plan, Yosemite officials have once again stopped short of establishing visitor or automobile limitations in the Valley, choosing instead to address overcrowding by changes in transportation patterns and "robust monitoring" to detect any future adverse impacts. In fact, the plan increases the number of parking spaces, lodging facilities, and campsites in the Valley while reducing commercial services and restoring 203 acres of meadow and riparian habitat. Perhaps most tellingly, the Park Service observes that the plan ensures "Yosemite will continue to make a strong and positive contribution to local and regional economies ... most prominently in gateway communities." The simple truth is that Yosemite, with its 4 million plus annual visitors, is a people park, one that has continually tested the Park Service's consummate people management skills. Most park visitors are plainly not deterred by the tide of humanity that greets them in the Valley, and it is still possible at certain locations and times to claim some solitude and respite on the Valley trails away from the roads and parking areas. At the same time, though, it is evident that park resources have been damaged by the crush of visitors. And it is clear that commercial pressures have regularly been brought to bear as the agency has wrestled with how to manage the sheer volume of people who keep coming to the park and spending their money to the benefit of park concessioners and gateway community merchants. It remains to be seen whether the current Merced River plan proposal, which once again backs away from establishing daily visitor or auto limits, will meet the agency's twin obligations to conserve park resources in an unimpaired condition and to preserve the river's outstandingly remarkable values.