Ever since Frederick Law Olmsted visited Yosemite Valley in August of 1864, Americans have debated its proper use. In 1990, my account of that debate appeared as Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness. As with Barbara Moritsch in The Soul of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, and Saving the Valley's Sacred Wild Nature, I hoped good history would spark reform.
Apparently, the “right” people in the National Park Service never read my book, in which case Ms. Moritsch’s book should not be necessary. Seriously, why is development still calling the shots in Yosemite Valley rather than protection of the resource?
The uniqueness of this book lies in exploring that question by taking us behind the scenes. These are not just historical examples; they are rather living examples of what has happened in the park these past 20 years. All of it makes for a riveting, if troubling, read.
A trained biologist, Ms. Moritsch rose through the ranks of the National Park Service pursuing her passion for natural beauty and wild things. At Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, and Death Valley National Monument (now a national park), she cut her teeth as a seasonal ranger. A summer at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite’s high country earned her still greater experience and respect. Invariably, her affection for the agency grew. Then it happened—her “dream” position—a chance to work with the natural resources division in Yosemite Valley. Could life be any sweeter, she asked? This was where she had camped with her family as a child—where her love for the national parks had formed. Like John Muir, she was finally home.
Home to a madhouse, she soon discovered. For the first time in her career, her skills and motives were openly challenged. Then the shoe dropped; Yosemite's chief of resources management fired her, apparently for having done her job too well. “You are too preservation-oriented in your view towards resource management,” he explained. “That may have been okay in Sequoia,” he added, “but Yosemite is different.” Although Ms. Moritsch did not know it then, that single, disheartening phrase—“Yosemite is different”—was the true inspiration for her book.
Vindicated by a second appointment to Yosemite Valley in 2002, Ms. Moritsch still found herself at odds with management. “The Yosemite Way,” as others described it, demanded loyalty to the hierarchy, not the resource.
In perhaps her most telling example, she details what happened during the redevelopment of the Yosemite Falls viewing area and parking lot. First came the cutting of dozens of ancient trees. Ms. Moritsch, now serving as resource liaison, hoped to mitigate the damage as best she could. Unfortunately, the Park Service seemed more interested in the revenue, having arranged for a private contractor to buy the trees.
On the day he came to retrieve them, they remained on the opposite side of a rain-swollen Yosemite Creek. No existing footbridge would hold the weight of his loader. Undeterred, the Park Service allowed the loader to cross the bed of the creek. As it slipped deeper into the mud and gravel, then clawed uselessly at the bank, a frantic Ms. Moritsch demanded that the contractor “get out, now!”
However, it already was too late. Not only was the loader stuck, it had started spilling oil. “It was just a small spill,” she was later told. Next came a shocking email from the park’s contract officer, reprimanding her “for impeding the contractors in their work.”
The point is that the resource liaison, i.e., Ms. Moritsch, was the one not being allowed to do her job. Undoubtedly, Park Service insiders have already labeled her as “disgruntled.” At best, a review committee will now be formed. The point is that the Park Service is out of excuses; finally, “the Yosemite Way” has gone on much too long.
If the best the Park Service can muster is to treat Ms. Moritsch like a common whistleblower, its centennial will mean not a thing. The agency was formed to defend what Ms. Moritsch asks it to defend—the law and spirit of our national parks. If those qualities cannot be found in Yosemite Valley, it follows they have disappeared everywhere else.
Will this book finally motivate the proper soul-searching? Once again, it all depends.
The problem is exactly as Ms. Moritsch describes it in her concluding vision for the future of Yosemite Valley. It is no longer the vision Americans are taught to want.
“Imagine a deep grassy valley where the safety, health, and well-being of mountain lions, bears, gray squirrels, beetles, and all the more-than-human beings are as important as human safety, health, and well-being,” she writes. Years ago, all across the land, most environmental teaching further added “the rights of rocks.”
What happened? Postmodernism happened. The word exceptional was no longer allowed. Suddenly, no idea was better than another idea. There was no such thing as an “exceptional” country, state, institution, or individual.
Forty years ago, turning my own eyes west to California, I could identify a dozen distinguished scholars of the national parks in its major colleges and universities. No more. There is the deeper problem with the National Park Service and the public now visiting parks. They no longer hear that a vision is totally necessary for anything idealistic to survive.
Simply, a respect for the national parks must be taught. Now that fewer scholars are upholding parks—instilling cultural discipline—the national park idea is rocked by lesser values. Forgive me, of course. A sacred tenet of our postmodern mishmash is that no one is supposed to judge. Rather, we are supposed to make allowances for poor ideas lest those holding poor ideas lack self-esteem.
And so poor ideas flourish, especially in a bureaucracy, where unwarranted self-esteem abets mediocrity. There is even a scholarly essay questioning parks by the historian William Cronon. Just think about his title for a moment: The Trouble with Wilderness or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Read it along with Ms. Moritsch’s book. Probably no essay did more to erode a commitment among colleges and universities to teach wilderness as a national ideal.
In short, there is a deeper explanation behind Ms. Moritsch’s revelations. Her idealism and passion were doomed from the start. No vision for bears or mountain lions, or grassy valleys, can survive our new narcissistic age. It takes restraint—true cultural discipline—to bypass the marketplace in managing nature. I respect that William Cronon is at least half right. People make parks, not nature. A park in that sense is indeed artificial, but so is imposing the marketplace over every piece of land. That is the cultural failing that makes for the management failings so poignantly detailed in this book.
Ms. Moritsch may take little comfort in realizing that the windmill she attacks is bigger than any of us know. At least she attacked it; she did her part. Now the preservation of Yosemite is up to us. Will we dare say again—insist again—that the national park idea is “exceptional?” Unless we do, count on Yosemite Valley—and all of our great national institutions—to wither away before our eyes.