One Hundred Hikes in Yosemite

Humans in Yosemite—The Postwar Years

After VE and VJ days, America engaged in a pursuit of the good life, and this included traveling in ever-increasing numbers. About 2/3 million tourists visited Yosemite in 1946, and by 1954 the number had grown to 1 million. In 1956 the National Park Service embarked on a 10-year "Mission 66" program, whose goal was to "assure the maximum protection of the scenic, scientific, wilderness, and historic resources of the National Park System in such ways and by such means as will make them available for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." By the end of this program, in 1966 (the 50th anniversary of the NPS), Yosemite was receiving about two million visitors a year.

Hikers and car-campers continued to inundate Yosemite in following years. On the three-day "summer" weekends—Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day—as many as 50,000+ visitors, half of them youths, crammed into Yosemite Valley. Whereas campers used to leave their belongings out on tables day after day, to do so now was to invite theft. By 1970 the Valley scene had become ugly, with thefts, drugs, rapes, fights, riots, and even murders.

However, 1970 also marked the start of a series of projects based on research done in the Mission 66 program. One was to remove vehicles from the congested east end of the Valley and replace them with a free shuttle bus system. With the start of the third millennium, they will be removed from all but the westernmost part of the Valley, and then, hopefully, will be completely removed a few years later, once alternative public transportation has been set in place. Realizing that a complete ban on vehicles was years away, the Park Service took an intermediate step to reduce the Valley's noise and violence. During the early and mid-70s it gradually converted the campgrounds over to a fixed-site plan, which reduced the camper population to several thousand instead of tens of thousands. Tranquility began to return to the Valley.

And what of the backcountry? Likewise, it too had a population explosion, driven in part by lightweight backpacking technology, which made carrying food and gear into the wilderness easier than ever. The backcountry, like Yosemite Valley, developed local areas of congestion—mostly in Little Yosemite Valley and at easily reached lakes off the Tioga Road. The wilderness permit came to the Park in 1972 as an initial step to monitor use. In succeeding years, rangers attempted to direct hikers away from popular destinations, and soon initiated a quota system, which set limits to backcountry sites. The quota system spread through the Sierra Nevada, to the satisfaction of many, but to the annoyance of others. For example, on any given day only a trifling number of hikers can ascend Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the Lower 48 States. In contrast, anyone can ascend Mt. Kosciusko, the highest summit in Australia. Why? The Aussies built a first-class trail, and a number of outhouses, to handle the traffic. And in Austria the mountains have hundreds of heavily used "huts" that have minimal environmental impact. Thus while we Californians can visit many foreign countries and have ready access to their mountains, the reverse is not true for foreigners coming to the Sierra Nevada and expecting to hike say, the John Muir Trail.

During the 1970s the number of Yosemite visitors temporarily stabilized at about 2-2 1/2 million per year. However, the '80s saw an upswing, which continued into the '90s, when annual visitation hovered around 4 million per year. How could the Park Service address the needs of all these visitors and still protect the natural integrity of the Park? Back in 1980 a range of solutions was proposed in the General Management Plan (GMP). However, given the Federal deficit, the GMP was unaffordable. Still, during the '80s some points in the GMP were implemented, including: the asphalt parking lot in front of the Visitor Center was removed; several miles of bike paths were constructed; sewage treatment was upgraded; the warehouse and reservation functions of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company were relocated to Fresno; most of the Park was given wilderness status; and bighorn sheep were introduced back into the Park. But most of the plan was not implemented, and in 1989 the Park Service produced the Draft Yosemite GMP Examination Report, which stated why the 1980 GMP wouldn't work and why it should be changed. Predictably, this enraged certain environmental groups. However, the GMP had treated the Park as a closed system, which it is not. Any grand solution for the Park, for the Lake Tahoe Basin, for the Mother Lode, or for any other designated area must address a much larger area, and must address it in great complexity. A start in this overdue, holistic, ecological approach was made in the mid-90s with the publication of the 2800+ page Status of the Sierra Nevada, a Congressional study by the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, based at the University of California, Davis.

The Park celebrated its centennial as a national park in 1990. It was not the Park's best year. January brought a flood of letters, mostly negative, on the Draft Yosemite GMP Examination Report. In March a rockslide briefly closed Highway 140. The Tioga Road, opened on May 17, was twice closed by late-season snow. July 14 saw a downpour in Yosemite Valley. Then from August 7 through 21, lightning-caused fires ravaged western Park lands, burning over 24,000 acres and destroying most of the homes of the private inholding known as Foresta; Yosemite Valley visitors had to be evacuated. On October 1, the Park celebrated its official 100th anniversary. However, because of Federal budget uncertainties, Park campgrounds and visitor centers were closed for two days. As part of the 1990 Centennial Celebration, three speeches were presented by noted speakers. Rather than being celebrations, they were criticisms of what was wrong with the Park, with pleas to return it to its natural condition.

The Park—particularly Yosemite Valley—can never be returned to the pristine condition seen by its discovers, the Indians. However, certain beneficial changes can be made, and are being made, thanks in particular to the Yosemite Fund, which in its first 10 years, 1988-1997, raised $11 1/2 million for about 100 projects. What the Federal Government could not do, the private sector did. Mother Nature also helped, with "the flood of the century" in the first few days of January 1997. Expensive damage to structures on the Valley floor ensured that they would not be rebuilt. To preserve Yosemite National Park in the third millennium will require the cooperation of all branches of the government and all aspects of the private sector, including input from communities along the highways to the Park. One hopes the Park can be managed in such a way that it will instill in each new visitor the same awe and reverence that were experienced by those who first laid eyes on it.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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