Planning a visit to Yosemite, along with the four million other people who spend time in the park each year? Catch it while you can: the Parks Service is contemplating some radical changes to how the park is operated, and that includes limiting the way people access and use Yosemite in the interests of protecting it. Discussions about the park’s future have raised some complicated emotions for parties on all sides, and as is often the case with conservation measures, some people think the proposal goes too far, while others argue it doesn’t go far enough.
What is clear is that Yosemite is heavily congested, especially during the summer months, when tourism rates are high. Yosemite is a beautiful and critical part of our national heritage, and has become an important ecological symbol as well — many people try to make a visit to Yosemite at least once in their lives, especially if they live in the American West, and iconic parts of the park such as Half Dome are very recognizable as pop culture symbols, even for people who haven’t been there. Visitors from outside the U.S. also flock to Yosemite, given its fame and importance.
All those visitors take a heavy toll on the park. As people walk, ride bicycles and horses, swim, and engage in other activities in the park, they threaten the ecosystem and disrupt the natural environment. Since Yosemite is in part a nature preserve, foresters and rangers are concerned that prioritizing human use could have serious consequences for the park’s long-term future, not just as a place to conserve for its intrinsic value, but also a place that future generations will want to visit, for the same reasons that we do today.
Some of the changes include closing down commercial enterprises in the park itself as well as reorganizing traffic. Inevitably, this will likely cut down on the number of visitors to the park, which is part of the goal; fewer people means a lower environmental impact. Reducing the activities permitted would also cut down on that impact, protecting resources that are extremely fragile as a result of too much traffic and hard use. This could also prove helpful for the plants and animals of Yosemite, which struggle in an environment where they are forced to fight with humans for basic resources.
The National Parks Service has a complex role in the United States. As administrator of parks like Yosemite, it’s responsible for conserving and protecting some of the nation’s most beautiful and precious natural resources, not just in an economic and environmental sense, but also a cultural one. America’s national parks are crown jewels of a rich and complex cultural heritage, featuring beautiful and rare geological formations, animals and plants that cannot be seen anywhere else — and often live in fragile and sensitive environments that are highly vulnerable to human interference.
Yet, even as the National Parks Service needs to protect these resources, it also needs to open them up to human visitors and uses, because this is part of their mission as well — and there’s no point in preserving a resource that no one gets to appreciate. Much like museum managers, the National Parks Service has to preserve and protect while showing off the things entrusted to its care, and it can be a delicate balancing act.
The plans for Yosemite illustrate the see-saw between protecting parks and making sure that people get to use them, and often ultimately making decisions that don’t make anyone happy. Some environmental advocates say the park’s managers should be more aggressive with their plans for Yosemite and the Merced River, while conservative activists believe that the measures are too extreme, and constitute pandering to the liberal left.
In the end, the final decision may result in litigation and other challenges, and will be, at best, a compromise, but it will also hopefully result in some permanent changes to make Yosemite more sustainable, as one thing is certain: the park cannot continue to be used in the way that it is currently used if it’s to be enjoyed by future visitors.
Photo credit: Paul Sullivan