For much of the late 1970s, the National Park Service went to extremes to draft a master plan that would guide Yosemite National Park through the years. Thousands of park loyalists were involved in that effort, and hearings and planning sessions were held throughout California.
Yosemite Valley was the spiritual home and cradle of the American preservation ethic. Countless suggestions were advanced, including banning cars, removing buildings and restoring natural systems.
The park was a national shrine and citadel, and it was no place for small dreams. After much hand-wringing and controversy, the 1980 general management plan was adopted with the aim of “de-urbanizing” the park and providing the guidelines for a more natural park experience.
Under then-Superintendent Robert O. Binnewies, several buildings were removed. It was an auspicious start.
Then things went terribly wrong. The Yosemite Park & Curry Co., the park concessionaire and MCA affiliate at the time, saw the management plan as a threat to its bottom line – and Binnewies was terminated under some spurious, trumped-up charges.
After that, it was downhill for the management plan and the concept of a more natural park. Today, the de-urbanized Yosemite is in shambles. Echoes of “Disneyland North” or “Yosemite World” once again rumble through the land. Some park veterans admit that Yosemite Valley is a “lost cause” and they are just trying to preserve the rest of the park.
What happened? After spending countless millions of dollars and a couple of decades of dreaming and planning, MCA and the Reagan White House – and a compromised National Park Service – torpedoed the dream of a restored Yosemite.
Gradually the dots came together. Binnewies and his stewardship were sent packing, and the Yosemite Master Plan was shoved to the back burner.
Back in his Hollywood days, Ronald Reagan had Lou Wasserman as his agent. Now, fast forward to the Reagan White House. Wasserman and his MCA hirelings didn’t need an appointment to see the president.
Today, Yosemite Valley lies far removed from the vaunted general management plan. Instead of removing facilities, the park service adds more. Through a succession of park superintendents and an indifferent public, the “nibbling away” at the Yosemite dream continues.
Those concerns are evident today as one walks through the urban jungle of Yosemite Valley. A more natural park has become little more than wishful thinking.
The ongoing construction of a new restroom facility near Ahwahnee Meadow is a case in point. While the project ostensibly complied with the management plan, the prolonged review transcended the intent of the plan.
The transformation of the area across from Camp Four into an unplanned parking lot is a blight upon the land. The relocation, instead of removal, of the tent cabins from the rock fall area is another indignity to the spirit of the master plan. More facilities will only demand even more.
A more natural park … dream on.
The new concessions contract with Aramark – with an estimated value of $2 billion – underscores that premise. Against ever-increasing park visitation, that new contract should have required a gradual reduction in the number of overnight units – a staged reduction – that would, perhaps in a century, offer a more natural Yosemite Valley.
Overnight accommodations need to be moved outside the park to the gateway communities.
Back in 1990, Herb Ewing, a third-generation “Park Service brat,” saw the gradual erosion of the preservation mission. Park use and visitation began driving park management. He believed that the Park Service had become lost in the wilderness of Washington, D.C., and had become part of the bureaucracy.
Money and commerce became the master plan. The park’s founding mission of preservation was pushed aside.
It was a hundred years ago when Stephen Mather and Horace Albright – both graduates of the University of California and Yosemite advocates – lent their collective energies and personal wealth toward the creation of a new American institution: a National Park Service. As the first two directors, they saw the future – and it was the preservation of the best of America.
Yosemite was central to their efforts to create a greater national park system of the nation’s most significant lands and cultural areas. Essentially, the park charter was to hold these national treasures inalienable for all times while providing for reasonable public use.
Today, park apologists claim that the agency suffers under a dual or conflicting mission – that is, preserving the park while providing for visitor use and enjoyment. The park sets quotas for its wilderness areas but no limits on its cash registers.
Binneweis’ heart is still in Yosemite. In his book, “Your Yosemite,” he maintains that the national parks have become the pawns of the politicians and money changers.
Later this year, the National Park Service will mark its 100th year under the lofty banner that it was “The best idea this country ever had.” With the approaching centennial, the Park Service need to revisit its stated mission. That is:
“to regulate the use of the … national parks … (whose) purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Unimpaired – Yosemite is not. Compromised – the National Park Service is.
Gene Rose is a former Fresno Bee reporter and photographer who covered the Sierra and has written several books on Yosemite.