Park's mission has changed

Guest CommentaryAugust 20, 2013 

I shouldn't have done it. It made me sad all over again. On the way into work this morning I walked through the Rivers Campgrounds, once the scene of so many happy campers. In the soft light of early morning I could almost smell the bacon frying and murmurs of people waking to find themselves in the middle of Yosemite Valley.

Now there are just paths through the trees instead of roads. Only vague outlines of a few campsites are visible. In a way it was almost like walking through a graveyard. Ghostly visions of families gathered around the picnic table, giggling and laughing kids being cajoled by older siblings, the rustling of the tent flaps. Steaming mugs of coffee shared between neighbors discussing yesterday's adventures. So many people doing what a National Park is supposed to be all about.

There are only locked gates where the entrances used to be. The 1997 flood covered most of the ground. It was called a 100 year flood, the highest water ever seen in the Valley's recorded history. With the exception of an occasional spring runoff, they've been dry ever since. I can't help but think of the millions of people who could have camped here had they not been closed.

Group camp has also been closed. It was used primarily by inner city kids from church groups, YM&WCAs, Scouts, and others. They rarely had any outdoor experience. There are so many memories of going through that camp in uniform and talking to the kids and adults about bears, lions, snakes and their other fears. They might as well have been in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. To them it was usually the first and possibly only experience in such a wild place.

Camp Four, the traditional climber's camp, would also have been closed if it wasn't for strong opposition from the American Alpine Club. They were apparently well organized and influential enough to stand up to the National Park Service.

This park's mission seems to have changed. There now seems to be more emphasis on returning the land back to pristine condition than accommodating the visitor. Of late, those who seem to have the most say in these matters tend to come from the well educated, mostly affluent strata of our society. There are a host of credentialed experts to support their point of view — which flatly stated is slanted toward purely wilderness values. "Restoration" is the action word and justification.

Keeping people out of and off the land helps it to be "restored" to its more "pristine" condition. They are absolutely correct. Without people Yosemite would be a pristine wilderness.

Who speaks for the campers? Who speaks for the average, hard working citizens — families that no longer have the chance to spend a night out in paradise? They don't belong to "clubs" or "societies" or "friends of ..." or "conservancies." They may try to get one of those precious, ever dwindling number of sites yet to fall victim to "restoration," but demand is very high and chances are low.

Everyone who has been "bitten" by Yosemite has their idea of what's best for the park. Usually it centers around preservation of their personal, epiphany moment. We all have our own way to connect. Parks are us. We come to explore, find romance, get married, conceive, bring our children and some even die here. I won't go in there again. It's far too sad. I can only hope that someday the trend toward "restoration" will include the visitor's park experience as something to be valued and preserved.

— Michael Durr is a retired Yosemite National Park Ranger who lives in Ahwahnee.

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