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A View From The Overlook: How Hard Can It Be?


Yosemite Valley, as viewed and photographed from Inspiration Point, is one of iconic, instantly recognizable sights of Planet Earth’s geography. Excited park visitors will call out to the park ranger, “Have I seen this before?” The patient ranger will smile and politely agree that very probably the park patron has seen photographs or videos of this scene.

There is simply nothing quite like the Lost World symbolism of that view. The eye is drawn to the great gray cliffs and the soundless descent of Bridalveil Fall, the softening effect of the forests, and the gate-like presence of Half Dome. Once you see it, you will never forget it.

Unfortunately, closer inspection of Yosemite Valley, the infrastructure behind the trees, so to speak, reveals a threadbare patchwork of missed opportunities. One of the great dreams of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups is the restoration of Yosemite Valley to a condition free of the schlock of industrial tourism and National Park Service infrastructure and as close to the 1851 point of European discovery as is humanly possible.

Alternate Text
Can the Yosmite Valley be returned to the way it looked when Albert Bierstadt painted it in 1864?

How Hard Can It Be?

The great sculptor Michelangelo was asked how it was that he was able to carve his masterpiece “David” from a single block of marble.

Michelangelo deadpanned, “It’s really very simple; all you have to do is chisel away all the marble that isn’t 'David' and then you stop!”

So, all you have to do is remove all the man-made objects and infrastructure that is not Yosemite Valley and then you are done; a task simple enough for the dimmest federal bureaucrat. You simply bulldoze and cart away everything that is not “natural.” That is, the jail, the various hotels and lodges, giftshops, grocery stores, restaurants, NPS offices and NPS housing (including, believe it or not, the superintendent’s house!), the maintenance garage, the bank, the liquor stores, the ice skating rink, the tennis courts, the horse stables, the three swimming pools, the roads, and the bridges, the powerlines and telephone poles.

Then you are done and can go home. Depending on the amount of funding, we should be able to get the job of infrastructure removal done in one summer season, two at the most.

How hard can it be?

Pretty darn hard as it turns out.

John Muir was indeed correct when he said Yosemite Valley was “One of God’s most sublime temples.”

Now the problem with God’s Temples, whether located in Palestine’s Jerusalem or California’s Sierra Nevada, is the temple concessioners; you can’t run a temple without ‘em. Or so it is said.

Consider the minutes of the April 5th, 33 AD meeting of The Jerusalem Temple Concessioners Association, recently discovered in a cave near the Dead Sea: “Friends and fellow businessmen, we are gathered together to discuss what steps can or should be taken against that damn carpenter from Nazareth who is currently raising hell with our concession in the Temple. He and his crazy, ne'er-do-well, and probably subversive, followers are telling the public that we don’t belong in the Temple! That we are defiling the Temple by doing a needed public service like changing money or selling sacrificial animals at a very reasonable price! I am going to recommend to the Roman authorities that this busybody be terminated as soon as possible! Remember! We’ve gottith a contract!”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The moral of the story is, don’t mess with Temple Concessioners even if you’re God Almighty!

Fast forward a couple of thousand years to Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada and we get to Ms. Barbara Moritsch, a natural resource ranger who wanted to reform the Yosemite Valley Temple and restore its natural rhythms. After all, how hard could it be?

Preservation's The Problem

Ms. Moritsch came well-recommended, having served in Sequoia, Kings Canyon,and Death Valley before accepting a position in Yosemite. Barbara was just chock-full of clever, innovative ideas on how Yosemite Valley could be at least partially restored to the period of BC (Before Cash). Alas for Barbara, while she was a good field biologist, she did not grasp the concept of Money Ecology, the seamless, natural flow of money and power between the National Park Service and its concessioners. Anything that is seen to potentially disrupt this symbiotic flow will be instantly attacked.

That “anything” happened to be Barbara.

According to Barbara, she was called into the chief of resource management’s office, where the Chief told her, “You are too preservation-oriented in your view toward resource management. That might have been OK in Sequoia, but Yosemite is different. I’m letting you go.”

Barbara was hurt and confused. All she had been doing was attempting to restore the Valley. After all, how hard could it be?

She did some research on how hard it could be, and that research melded into a very readable history of the various attempts to restore the valley as well as suggestions as to how that might be accomplished: The book is entitled The Soul of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, and Saving The Valley’s Sacred Wild Nature.

Pick it up at your library or bookstore, it is well worth your time.

The question still remains, “How do you preserve a talismanic mountain valley in a pristine state of nature while at the same time attending to the needs of millions of visitors and making oodles of money for the park concessioner and providing the necessary park infrastructure?"

Well, I don’t know, neighbors! But here is a somewhat controversial thought from the THUNDERBEAR ASSOCIATES, an environmental study group. The THUNDERBEAR premise is based on the wisdom of the National Rifle Association. You will recall, of course, that the NRA believes that the answer to the gun problem in the United States is MORE guns!

THUNDERBEAR ASSOCIATES believes that the answer to people and infrastructure in the Yosemite Valley is MORE people in the valley. Rather than a measly 4 million visitors a year to Yosemite Valley, the valley should be capable of handling over 40 million visitors a year, creating profits beyond the dreams of avarice for both the Concession and the NPS!

“But 40 million visitors would completely destroy the valley!” you say, understandably outraged!

The World's Largest Mall

But not if the visitors and the valley infrastructure were buried 50 feet underground. The surface would be restored to roughly 1850, the time of Chief Tenaya (There would be continuing debate on whether the Ahwahnee Hotel and a few other historic structures should remain. Everything else would be underground.)

What we are talking about is the Yosemite Mall; a mile-wide and seven-mile-long mall beneath the floor of Yosemite Valley. It would be, by far, the largest mall in the world, larger than the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, larger even than the Dubai Mall in the United Arab Emirates, which at 55 square hectares is currently the largest mall in the world. The Dubai Mall attracted 54 million visitors in 2011, surpassing New York’s Central Park (38 million) and Times Square (39.2 million) as well as Niagara Falls (22.5 million)

The Yosemite Mall would have unlimited possibilities: Not only tennis courts and a double Olympic-size pool with wave-making machine, but also the world’s only underground golf course, located conveniently under the Ahwahnee Hotel. All NPS and concession infrastructure, including the 1,200 retail outlets and other activities, would be located underground in the mall.

The surface of Yosemite Valley would be painstakingly restored to its 1851 status. Needless to say, no mechanized vehicles would be allowed. Transport would be by horse, carriage, or Shank’s Mare. With automobiles removed, the Valley would again be huge, a one-by-seven-miles scenic swath of hiking trails.

"Outrageous! Sacriligious! What would John Muir say?" you demand.

Muir, being an innovative inventor and successful Republican businessman, would probably be wondering how he could invest in Yosemite Mall.

Besides, unlike today’s schlock jungle of industrial tourism and government buildings, you would not have to visit Yosemite Mall in order to visit Yosemite Valley. You would first drive your car into the world’s largest underground parking garage where you would park. Shuttles will whisk you to a Decision Point where you will make a choice: one sign will direct you to YOSEMITE MALL and all its shopping and recreational pleasures, another sign will direct you to YOSEMITE VALLEY, where an escalator will lift you to the joys of God’s pristine Nature.

Undecided? No need to fret! There will be unobtrusive, well-concealed, escalator connections every mile or so, should you tire of either Mammon or Nature!

How hard can it be?

PJ Ryan is a retired 30-year NPS veteran having served at Jewel Cave National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Navajo National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Joshua Tree National monument, John Muir NHS, Jean Lafitte NHP and the Washington Office of the NPS. You can read more of his thoughts on the parks at Thunderbear.


Hello Ron. I worked for the NPS in 1979 at Yosemite because of you. I met you while passing through Yosemite via Tuolumne in 1978 while hiking the entire PCT from Canada to Mexico. I met you at the Tioga Lake Resort cafe. I think you were having lunch with old Ferd (RIP). You talked me into applying to work for NPS the next year. My cabin mate was Colin Campbell. He had just graduated from Cal Poly SLO. I hear he stayed in the NPS and went on to attain big positions in the NPS. He was just a hayseed tobacco chewing cow"boy" when I shared a cabin at Mather with him.

The NPS was not a good fit for me because of the bureaucracy and I locked horn with Wendt(sp?) and Benowese(sp?). Wish I could have worked for you in backcountry. I knew/know that entire park like the palm of my hand, more so than 99% of the rangers.

Anyway, it was an experience I do not regret. I ended up starting three companies and raising four kids, my youngest now a decorated Iraq War hero.

Last time I was in the Yosemite high-country solo (I was always solo) was October of 2004 to celebrate my 55th B-Day by hiking from Tuolumne to Rock Creek via the JMT and Mono Pass. Before I left the parking lot near the Tuolumne RS I asked the rangers when Tioga Pass would close. They said I had over a week. I planned 5 days of hiking then a friend would drive me back to get my car, so I had plenty of time according to the rangers. But four days into my trek a storm hit and a foot of snow was dumped, chasing me out of the high-country. When I got my ride back to Tioga Pass the gate was closed. I had to wait there for an hour before a ranger showed up and took me to get my car. The jerk wrote me a citation that cost $170. Yes, $170 is chump change to me, but it was the principle of it.

My Yosemite has slowly been ruined by the bureaucracy. How fondly I recall the 1960s/70s when I never took out a wilderness permit because I always travelled cross-country where the "tourist" hikers never ventured. Just have to vent my spleen here.

Good to see you're still among the living, Ron.

John, your post very helpful and educational for me , thank you. I must admit I forgot about the "Administrative Procedures Act", need to review the wording on that. I will also look up 16 USC 55. John, thank you again and thank you for all your efforts involving our National Park issues. Very best.


We don't know "what is says in the way it was meant when it was written." None of the words were defined, and still are not. The interpretation evolves. And, all of the crucial words like "conservation," "use and enjoyment," and "unimpairment" are very fuzzy and non scientific terms. Your wanting to go back to the those writing the legislation I am afraid won't work because those people did not define the words. But as I have said, court have affirmed that they impose a preservtionist duty on the NPS. It remains for the rest of us through persuasion and given the fact that the NPS is a stakeholder agency to make our case.

Maybe what we really need is some clairvoyant judges. I'll nominate the lady who runs the palm reading establishment on Washington Boulevard here in Ogden. Her sign advertises "Contact with the Departed."

How things originally were written, like Section 2 of Article I of the Constitution. It designated "other persons" (slaves) to be added to the total of the state's free population, at the rate of three-fifths of their total number, to establish the state's official population for the purposes of apportionment of Congressional representation and federal taxation. Damn those johnny-come-lately's with their Thirteenth Amendment, freeing the slaves from "what it meant when it was written".

Kurt - those that follow what is says - and only what it says in the way it was meant when it was written.


Kurt - those that follow what is says - and only what it says in the way it was meant when it was written.

Hello Ron, nice to hear from you.

Well, you are correct in what you say. I know because of your experience you know all of this, but I'll state for any possible benefit for others. First, you are correct that legal precedents are not set in stone as you suggest. They can be overturned by subsequent court decisions or by subsequenct legislation. They also can be ignored if an agency does not have an appropriate budget to carry out a court decision. And, the can be ignored because the agency does not like the decision and therefore sometimes just waits to see if the court or plaintiffs pursue the matter (Look at 16 USC 55 for any example. This has been established as "good law" but ignored. If you are not familiar with it I urge you to read it. It contains an "eye opener").

Having said this, what I was trying to say is that the wording of the Organic Act (Section 1) remarkably has been affirmed and reaffirmed probably six or more times by Congress in its exact wording, since 1916 and including recently (I am too lazy to look up the exact number), and (very) numerous times by courts. I suppose, so far, as much as legislation can be cast in stone Section 1 USC 16 is an example.

Except, you are correct that despite the legislation remaining governing, there is wide latitude for politics. I tried to hint at this by mentioning the Administrative Procedures Act, which grants a huge amount of discretion to the NPS that (and now I seem to be arguing with myself) it can almost negates the legislation, at least at times. This is one reason why the Yosemite GNP has gathered dust for 33 years. In other words, all the NPS has to do is offer a reasonable grounds for not carrying it out yet. (It will be another matter when it commits to action contrary to the GNP)

As I understand the two conflicting Yellowstone cases, the one that went against the NPS was because the agency explicitly acknowledged that preservation would be harmed, and this is disallowed by the Organic Act and was mentioned by the judge. The case that ruled in the NPS's favor did so, in part, (my interpretation) because the NPS gave reasons for levels of snowmobile use, i.e., it did not admit to harm of preservation and it did not violate rules on being arbitrary or capricious.

I hope this is not terribly confusing. You raise interesting and challenging points and it is difficult for my limited brain to explain myself in a minimum of words.

Be Well


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