As the smoke clears, the Rim fire has exposed a fundamental question for me: What's my connection with Yosemite?
Like many others, I watched the news about the fire growing and devouring acre after acre. Even for a farmer who is familiar with the size of an acre, the expanse of the blaze made me numb. A quarter million acres burned — 400 square miles.
As the fire consumed part of Yosemite, something was triggered in me. "Our" Yosemite was threatened. Though the major tourist areas of Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows were not threatened, our national treasure was burning.
But when I looked around, very, very few people in the central San Joaquin Valley seemed overly concerned. Other than those in the immediate mountain area and working at the scene, no one felt frightened or injured by the fury of the blaze. To many, Yosemite was far away, distant and unconnected.
How close does something need to be for us to claim it as "our own?" How far do affinity and empathy extend?
We do share geography with Yosemite. Though it's up in the mountains, the Valley's air quality affects our neighbors. Everything from our air pollution to acid rain, we in the Valley have a direct effect on the ecosystem of the Sierra. And conversely, I could smell the Rim fire from our farm outside of Fresno, along with millions of residents in the Valley. (And we were fortunate, the prevailing winds took most of the smoke north and northeast. Suddenly, Reno schools were affected by smoke and ash). We all share the air in one way or another.
The Valley watershed begins in the Sierra — the water from the dramatic waterfalls and rivers winds down into our lands. Typically, we simply wait for the liquid gold to come spilling down for our thirsty fields and cities. The Rim fire exposed the delicate balance of relationships — suddenly San Francisco worried about its "neighbors" at the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, the primary source of the city's drinking water. Even now, there are concerns that the fire has left behind barren soils that may contribute to erosion, silt and debris that can pollute water for both ag and domestic use. (Preliminary surveys are positive and erosion may not be a major issue). We quickly forget that our water primarily comes from elsewhere.
We still utilize old classifications — mountain people, flatlanders, city folk — as if we're different tribes. We still see differences.
During my last visit to Yosemite, I was struck by the numbers: over 4 million visitors a year. We forget the impact from the thousands of cars that contribute to air pollution during our hot summers. And we sometimes ignore the economic benefits of this tourism — all those cars and people do stop and eat, buy provisions and some require lodgings.
But do we welcome the 4 million visitors to the Valley? We in the Valley believe the vast majority simply pass through our lands, so we pay little or no attention. We expect them to drive by, and they do. We rarely pause to think of ways we may be connected. Could there be a relationship between an organic peach and a mountain meadow, a farm and a forest? Can Valley produce belong as part of Yosemite's cuisine?
Many visitors to Yosemite fall in love with the place. They have a passion for the land and begin a lifelong affair. Yet they have no relationship to our Valley lands outside their car windows during the drive up the hill. Likewise, many in the Valley have never visited Yosemite.
Perhaps this will hit home with policy issues. The use and regulation of Valley water may be determined by the Yosemite voting block in a future water bond initiative. Or the building of high-speed rail will open a more efficient and less polluting corridor for Valley traffic. (This may be pushed by Yosemite, too — parking in the park is already a major problem). A new transportation and hospitality industry may grow in our Valley towns.
Why don't we share an identity with Yosemite? Some criticize the park system as being elitist — saving a cathedral for those who can afford to journey there. The majority of park visitors do not reflect California — most are white and not poor. Many communities of color and the poor have and may never develop a culture of camping and hiking in nature.
A cultural shift must transpire and create a collaborative model. I believe one is gradually unfolding. The Rim fire ironically demonstrated the first step. Satellite images of the smoke provided us an image of "our neighbor," which isn't so far from us. New communications — from media stories to photos and images — can create a heightened empathy. A greater connection can result in a greater consciousness. We live in a shared geography and economy with Yosemite.
Will we begin to call this national park "our" Yosemite? How can our Valley connect with Yosemite Valley? Did the Rim fire burn in our hearts, too?