Much has been made on these pages and elsewhere about balancing the preservation of national park lands with allowing the public to enjoy those lands. And it must be a careful balance.
Go too far in the preservation mode and you exclude folks from viewing some of the most incredible landscape on the continent, if not the Earth. Allow unfettered "enjoyment" and you run the risk of trampling that very landscape.
How do you achieve a well thought-out balance? Can you?
Those are just two of the questions arising in the wake of a federal judge's ruling last November that the Park Service erred in how it approached development of the Yosemite Valley. And until such questions are answered and the Park Service adopts a suitable plan for protecting the Merced River corridor, U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii has ordered a halt to a number of construction projects on the valley floor.
In a story examining the ramifications of that ruling, The Associated Press questions whether it will have a significant impact on how the Park Service manages visitor access throughout the park system.
Ultimately, the case may come down to the challenge facing all of
America's parks: Should they remain open to everyone, or should access
be limited in the interest of protecting the very wilderness they aim
to preserve?, writes the AP's Garance Burke.
What are we to make of that question? Should it be construed to mean this ruling somehow could result in a blanket access ban to park lands now open to the public?
My thinking is that the judge is asking the Park Service to come up with a management system that allows folks into the park, but in a manner in which they don't overrun it. But that doesn't seem to be the Park Service's interpretation, as demonstrated by these two paragraphs of the AP story:
Officials are appealing the suit, fearing it could force the National Park Service to limit the number of people allowed into Yosemite each day, a precedent they don't want to see echoed in other parks.
"I don't think we've ever had a ruling with these kind of implications," said Kerri Cahill, a Denver-based planner for the Park Service. "It's going to have a direct influence on the public who care about these places."
It should have a direct influence on the public that cares about the park system. The simple fact is that we need to be better stewards of our public lands. In Yosemite's case, if that means spreading out the visitation instead of cramming it into two or three hectic summer months in the name of preserving the valley's incredible landscape for future generations, is that so terrible?
Can Americans accept such restraint? We are, as I think our behaviors reflect, by and large the "instant gratification" society. We want things now and on our terms. We've grown accustomed to indulging ourselves, driving the biggest, most fuelish automobiles in the world, perfecting fast food, and gobbling up resources at an incredible rate, damn the cost.
Park spokesman Scott Gediman calls the plaintiffs a "fringe group" pushing a radical agenda.
"They want us to set a quota for the number of visitors coming into the park," he said, "which is something we just don't want to do."
Quotas have been discussed in the past for the Yosemite Valley. Indeed, back in 1980 the Park Service actually set a limit for daily access to the valley floor: 18,241. But the agency failed to adhere to the quota because, Gediman told the AP, the park didn't have enough rangers to allocate any to count the number of heads coming into the park.
Is that a reason to allow the valley to be overrun? Sounds to me like it's a reason for the Park Service, which is mandated to preserve these lands as well as provide for the public's enjoyment of them, to allocate more rangers to Yosemite.
And really, hasn't the Park Service already addressed similar situations? Look at how permits are doled out for rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon: by lottery. To travel into the backcountry of Yosemite and Yellowstone lottery systems are in place for some of the peak periods and most desirable locations. Why? To protect the resources.
Visit Zion National Park in the peak summer season and you'll have to take a shuttle bus into Zion Canyon unless you have a room reservation at the Zion Lodge. Is that limiting access? Controlling access for sure, but not limiting it, I would think.
Too, shuttle systems also operate at Bryce Canyon and at Acadia, although they're not mandatory. But perhaps they should be. And I'd venture that quite a few folks wish a public transportation system would soon arrive to solve the madness of driving onto the Grand Canyon's South Rim in summer.
But we are a litigious society, determined to try to leverage the solution we want in court if it can't be done any other way. A case in point is Yellowstone with its snowmobile imbroglio. And now Yosemite Valley, which, if I'm not mistaken, actually has been a battle waged longer than Yellowstone's snowmobile dispute.
All of Yosemite, and specifically the valley floor, is an incredible natural resource, one that rightly should be preserved for future generations to enjoy and marvel at. And to do that, we must accept constraints in how we enjoy the park today.