Amid the debate over the proposed Tuolumne River and Merced River Plans in Yosemite National Park, two questions remain unanswered.
In years of development and tourism in Yosemite Valley, what have we lost? And what have we gained?
Yosemite Valley has a long history of one set of people evicting others in an ongoing exercise in how best to utilize the spectacular, one-of-a-kind glacial valley.
The first humans in Yosemite Valley were the Ahwahnechee, who lived there for about 8,000 years. Every year, they lit fires to thin the valley floor vegetation, promoting oak tree growth to secure their acorn harvest, and discourage rival tribe ambushes.
In the mid-1800s, profit-driven white people who built roads, planted orchards, and grazed livestock evicted them.
Even after President Abraham Lincoln granted Yosemite Valley to the State of California for use as a protected park in 1864, logging, mining, and grazing continued in the surrounding areas.
Then John Muir publicized grazing damage to subalpine meadows, sparking the inclusion of the Valley’s environs in the park.
Today, after years of damage and debate, an amorphous, faceless combination of government agencies and litigation has arrived to define the next phase in Yosemite’s history.
At the center of the debate are the proposed “Merced and Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River Plans” (see p.1).
So for whom are we restoring this place? And what will it look like?
Are we restoring this place for the benefit of all the people Yosemite Valley has touched over the years, or are we restoring it out of a sense of self-righteousness—repairing the damage that should never have been done?
Both are noble, but both are moot.
The damage is done. We have lost the pristine, uncut wilderness that Yosemite once was, take your pick of 200, 8,000 or 13,000 years ago.
But we have gained a venue, easily accessed by a wide range of people. A place for folks to roll down their windows and see something that is non-urban and astonishing.
For seasoned visitors to the park, we know not to go to Yosemite Valley in July or August if we are looking for peace, quiet, and solitude.
But that also is a great time to sit by the river and watch families play, to breathe the mountain air, and enjoy a barbecue as the sunlight creeps up the Valley’s steep walls.
Today, we have an opportunity. We can minimize future impacts, repair current facilities and structures to meld better with the environment, and make them more efficient.
We can allow people to come and wonder at the marvels of our natural world, and sleep beneath some of the biggest, steepest rock faces in the world and imagine the glaciers that carved it.
In a national park, the priority—and the discussion—should be how to make the best visitor experience, not how to best abide by this and that law, act, or court ruling.
This discussion, if it is true and honest, will inevitably create policy that will protect the environment of Yosemite National Park for the John Muirs of today, and the Ansel Adamses yet to come.
This discussion is important.
We cannot let the wheels of legislation or the courts trample the interests of those who love, have loved, and will love Yosemite National Park.