Congested Yosemite in ‘Delicate Balancing Act’

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August 5, 2013 by   1 Comment

Editor’s Note: The following analysis is courtesy of

Planning a visit to Yosemite, along with the 4 million other people who spend time in the park each year? Catch it while you can: the National Park 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 Park 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 Park 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.

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One Response to “Congested Yosemite in ‘Delicate Balancing Act’”

  1. Derrick Crandall on August 5th, 2013 1:27 pm

    Sorry, but this analysis just does not square with facts. Visitation to national parks nationwide is below levels of the late 1980’s, despite a US population growth of 35% and an increase in the number of units of the national park system to 401 from fewer than 350 over that same period. And at Yosemite, visitation is down from the 1990’s AND there are better controls in place to deal with autos and RVs in Yosemite Valley, including a free hybrid tram that lets you park and then get around easily.

    All is not well with our national parks, but any suggestion that our parks are being overrun by visitation or that we can’t better manage visitors — when they come, what they do, where they go within the park — is doing a serious disservice to the legacy we share of our national parks. The National Park Service leadership clearly understands that — they are teaming up with the National Park Foundation and others, including the National Parks Conservation Association, to put in place a outreach and promotion campaign for the agency’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

    Readers should know that overnight RV stays in national park campgrounds have declined by 50% since 1989, the average length of a national park stay has dropped 17%, that the visitors to our national parks today fail to reflect America today — in our ages, our ethnicity, our places of residency.

    The NPS of tomorrow needs to invited and welcome all Americans and then help visitors have experiences that make them future park champions and ambassadors.