How's that saying go, the more things change, the more they stay the same? That certainly seems to be the truth in the case of national parks jammed with automobiles.
In 1971 the writer John McPhee wrote a profile for The New Yorker of George Hartzog, who at the time was just the seventh director of the National Park Service. The story, obviously pieced together with a series of interviews conducted over more than a few days, moves from the director's Washington office, to Capitol Hill, to Sandy Hook (before Gateway National Recreation Area existed) even to the Buffalo National River (before it gained its "national" status, that is).
Along with providing some wonderful insights into both Director Hartzog and the politics involved in running the National Park Service, Mr. McPhee's article, simply titled Ranger, sheds light on what Director Hartzog thought of car-crammed national parks. The case at hand involved Yosemite National Park.
...the Yosemite's problem is population pressure as expressed in the invading automobile, and if solutions can be found there, where the pressure is most intense, the solutions may be applied throughout the National Park System. Yosemite Valley has a flat floor and sheer granite walls. It is about six miles long, and has been penetrated by a roadway from the west. Driving into it is like driving up through a drain and out into an exaggerated bathtub. The vertical walls of the valley in places are three thousand six hundred feet high, and for an automobile there is only the one way in and out. With its pluming waterfalls, its alpine meadows, and its granite pinnacles, the Yosemite is in all likelihood the most exquisite cul-de-sac on earth, and each year about seven hundred thousand cars go in there.
"The automobile as a recreational experience is obsolete," Hartzog says. "We cannot accommodate automobiles in such numbers and still provide a quality environment for a recreational experience." Accordingly, (Supt Lawrence) Hadley will ask Congress for three hundred thousand dollars so he can close at least a part of the valley to automobiles and carry people through the closed area in chartered buses. Hartzog says that eventually he would like to block cars from the valley altogether and possibly build a funicular that would lower people into the Yosemite from the rim. To transport people around the valley floor, he contemplates the use of electric trains, which would run on rubber tracks. As Hadley and Hartzog talk, it becomes increasingly apparent that everything they are saying rests on the assumption that the visiting public has the right to be carried from place to place -- that the right to vehicular transportation, privately or publicly provided, now comes under less question than the right to freedom of assembly or freedom of speech.
..."We want to give people a park experience, not a parkway experience. We need to limit access to parks and wilderness. We've simply got to do something besides build roads in these parks if we're going to have any parks left. We need controlled mechanical access. We can put parking lots outside the parks, then take people in with public transportation. When you get too many people, simply shut off the machinery. If we get rid of the automobile, we can have more people."
You can find the rest of the article in Pieces of the Frame, a collection of Mr. McPhee's articles that also includes a wonderful piece on canoing rivers and one on firewood.