The National Park Service is destined for trouble is a statement that's been true for the last 90 years. At its inception in 1916, the Park Service was tasked with the impossible, to manage park lands concurrently for conservation and recreation. Consider this well known passage from the 1916 Organic Act which created the agency, "the fundamental purposes of the [parks], is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife 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".
It is difficult to imagine management objectives so opposite from each other, but there is it is in black and white. Sandwiched between the words "conserve" and "unimpaired" is the stated desire for parks to "provide for the enjoyment" of the people. How can that be done? Even the simple act of creating a road and a parking lot fundamentally alters the natural landscape of which the parks have been charged with protecting. Obviously, compromise must play a key role in park management. But that thin line between public use and park protection has been the crux of many park management debates for the last 90 years.
Take for instance a current issue in Yosemite National Park (www.nps.gov/yose). Yosemite has been an icon of rugged American beauty since its first protective land grant in 1864. Located within the short 7 miles of Yosemite Valley are landmarks you may know by name, places like Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and El Capitan are just a few. So when the National Park Service plan to fix a road damaged by major floods appeared to some outsiders like new commercialism in the valley floor, immediate objections were made. The park plan allows for new construction at a lodge and new road construction to fix a decades old bottleneck on the only road which leads out of the valley near Yosemite Falls. A group of concerned citizens have sued saying this plan would ultimately put commercial development interests ahead of the natural health of the Merced river ecosystem. In other words, the plan would throw the balance between visitor enjoyment and natural conservation way out of whack.
With a history of more than 150 years, you can be sure that Yosemite has been no stranger to controversy. One of the first outsiders to celebrate and document the wonders of Yosemite was a fellow named John Muir. Muir's love for and travels through Yosemite are legendary (and surprising); he claims to have body surfed an avalanche from near the top of the valley! A stronger park advocate was never known. When the idea that a dam would be built to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite for city drinking water, Muir took action. It would seem so obvious that damming a river violates radically the notion of providing unimpaired protection of a park valley. But one of the arguments for the creation of the dam was that the valley would see more recreational use as a lake. Muir, and his newly formed Sierra Club, argued that once drowned, Hetch Hetchy's natural soul would be lost under the water. Said Muir, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man". The fight against the dam lasted for 10 years before construction was completed in 1923. The dam still exists today, as does the controversy surrounding its existence.
Another interesting protection versus recreation story occurred high on the cliffs above the campgrounds of Yosemite Valley. There used to be something called a "fire fall", an event which took place each night near Camp Curry. The event was super simple, and incredibly popular. A huge fire would be built at the top of Glacier Point. At 9 o'clock someone would loudly announce, "let the fire fall", and the fire would be pushed over the cliff's edge and allowed to cascade off the granite face. It was a nightly tradition lasting for over 88 years. At some point, the man made attraction didn't conform to modern interpretations regarding the conservation edict of the parks. In 1968 the last of the fire falls fell, in part because the attraction caused traffic congestion and meadow stomping from curious onlookers gazing up from the valley floor.
With a long history of park debate, how does the modern-day Yosemite road controversy resolve? You'll have to ask a judge for the answer to that one. The courts have at separate times halted park construction, and then, most recently, allowed emergency parts of the road construction to continue. The Park Service has since appealed the case to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue will eventually be resolved, but as long as the parks are asked to manage for both land conservation and visitor enjoyment, courtroom battles will remain part of the landscape within the National Park Service.
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