National Geographic : 1985 Jan
Muir could hardly have imagined Yosem ite's modern troubles and dangers. He himself lived with the pulse of wild ness-exulting in the crash of earthquakes and avalanches, climbing to the swaying tops of trees during violent windstorms, clinging at the edge of roaring waterfalls, confronting bears or rattlesnakes without flinching. He would be dismayed at what he could encounter here today-an anomaly of unprepared humanity, an assault of city people on his once virgin wilderness, an al most urban scene of congestion, accidents, overcrowding, and, yes, crime. Superimposed on Yosemite's poetic to pography, the turmoil and cacophony can seem like trauma in paradise. I was experi encing it all for the first time. And watching a harassed Park Service trying to protect Yosemite forever. The trouble began some decades ago, an ongoing struggle to determine whether this park (and others) can be preserved, happily visited by the millions annually who have a right to come, without turning Yosemite into something approaching a Disneyland. The problem is how to guarantee some sense of solitude for tomorrow, while coping with the crowds of today. Crowds, and com mercial operators who provide them with everything: tourmobiles, bicycles, horses, and river rafts; swimming pools, ski lifts, a golf course, and an ice rink; backcountry tent camps, housekeeping cabins, a luxury motel, and $120 hotel rooms; hiking boots, backpacks, and a climbing school; grocery stores, cafeterias, and cocktail lounges with large-screen TV; film processing, Yosemite T-shirts, and souvenirs made in China. For many years the pattern was for more and more people. More hotels and motels. More fun and games. Entertainment in stead of wilderness. Even proposals for an aerial tramway, to scar the cathedral sky with cables to the valley rim. One develop ment plan was scrapped when the public, led by irate conservation groups, rose up in letter-writing wrath. Photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams, whose superb pictures of Yosemite are world renowned, participated in the campaign. "We won some battles," this patriarch of the park told me just before his death last year at age 82. "But the war isn't over." Now guiding the park's future is a general management plan, to be implemented over 10 to 15 years. Among its goals: designation of 89 percent of Yosemite's 760,917 acres as protected wilderness, never to be devel oped; relocation of many Park Service and concessionaire's buildings outside the park boundaries; cutting back cabins and over night facilities other than campgrounds. The eventual aim is to eliminate private ve hicles altogether from congested Yosemite Valley, now beset by an average of 14,000 visitors daily from June through August. OBERT O. BINNEWIES is the latest park superintendent appointed to cope with this human tide. A former vice president of the National Audubon So ciety, he does so with a slight conservationist tilt and an easy, open smile. "We had to slow down the stampede, even cut some people off at the pass," Bob said. "Our free shuttle buses have reduced the traffic jams. Our advance reservation system works. Even for campsites and per mits to hike into the backcountry. Most peo ple now realize they'd rather wait, to enjoy a quality experience, than fight for a campsite or have to line up at an overused toilet." I knew what Bob was referring to. Not many years ago, as one old hand put it to me, "So many campers arrived every night, lash ing onto each other's tent poles in the dark ness, that when somebody would strike his tent in the morning, the whole campground would fall down." "Our new plan at least holds the line," Bob Binnewies continued. "We're reducing some of the pressures and some of the com mercialism. We're transferring some staff outside the park. The Curry Company is too. Between us, we've got 3,400 employees and dependents. Part of the overcrowding enemy was us." The Yosemite Park and Curry Company is today owned by a southern California en tertainment and recreation conglomerate, MCA, Inc., and it holds the sole contract for all accommodations and services in the park. Even in John Muir's day there were cries against "money-changers in the temple." Commercializers operated rival hotels and restaurants, even charged visitors to walk up their private trails, double if they rode Yosemite-Forever?