August 25, 2003

Deciding what to tear down at Yosemite

Published in the Sacramento Bee Editorials Section, Aug. 25, 2003 (also in the Fresno Bee in a slightly longer version; this is an incorporation of the two)

In the Yosemite wars, the middle ground remains ill-defined while those on the fringes pop away at cultural icons.  Proponents of the Yosemite Valley Plan, adopted in 2000, seek removal of beloved stone bridges; now the plan's opposition has targeted a similarly beloved landmark:  the Sierra Club's LeConte Memorial Lodge, built while John Muir was president of the club. 

While the anti-lodge iconoclasm generates notoriety for U.S. Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, who is leading the charge against the Yosemite plan, it also estranges those in the middle who might otherwise choose sides. Radanovich on July 15 introduced a bill in the House countering the 2000 plan by restoring Yosemite Valley campgrounds lost in a 1997 flood, banning shuttle buses to deliver visitors to the valley floor and removing the LeConte lodge to reduce the "human footprint."  "They're talking about a quality experience for a few people in the Sierra Club. And that attitude is why the LeConte Memorial has to go," he said.

The LeConte Memorial has graced Yosemite Valley since 1904, its cool, granite edifice welcoming Yosemite's walkers, bikers and shuttle-busers to browse the little library or attend interpretative and musical programs.  In a clumsy way, Radanovich has made a point with his legislation to remove this familiar old friend.  

The mission statement (www.nps.gov/legacy/mission.html) of the park service begins, "The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations." Certainly, memorial lodges and stone bridges do not occur naturally, and thus "impair" these otherwise natural sites. But when natural and cultural resources are in conflict, we have to choose which to impair - a stone bridge or the river habitat, the LeConte Lodge or the forest.  Our very access creates impairments -- hiking trails or not; roads or not; hotels and campgrounds or not?

What really are the "values of the national park system" (which they also seek to preserve unimpaired), and how can this system apply its values to such a paradoxical mission statement? The dilemma is that whatever action park service officials take, they lack a well-articulated philosophy with which to defend their decisions. 

Our lovely old LeConte Memorial is a symbol of all that impacts Yosemite for the sake of human values. Impact may be for "good" or "bad," but it is still impact. It is in the quantifying of impact and cultural value that there exists no good touchstone. The result is an inconsistency in the decisions about what to preserve or remove in Yosemite. This may be why management plans for Yosemite continue to be vulnerable to attack.

We need to clarify the decision-making process.  Here’s one possibility: First, devise a rating system for impact. Second, devise a way to measure the cultural value of whatever is creating the impact. Impact, for example, could be measured in terms of recovery rate (how long would it take, naturally or with assistance, to erase the impact?) and magnitude (how obvious or ubiquitous is the impact and does it impede or create a lot of something?). Cultural value can be rated through public input, as it has to some extent through the current planning process. The ratio of the two ratings could then determine the action to be taken.  Such a flexible system might well replace present ungainly all-encompassing management plans that continue to defy consensus and die by attrition.

We must also acknowledge that practically all of us will tolerate some impairment of Yosemite for the sake of our own cultural values. Few would suggest that we remove the historic chapel from the edge of a Yosemite meadow.  Fewer still would wish to remove the strips of compacted soil - hiking trails - that both blemish and provide access to Yosemite's wilderness.

Radanovich's impractical proposal may have a practical function after all if it prompts us all to accept and balance the intertwining of our cultural values with the natural landscape.