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The Soul Of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, And Saving The Valley's Sacred Wild Nature

Author : Barbara J. Moritsch
Published : 2012-03-01

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. 

A critically-acclaimed historian of the national parks, Alfred Runte lives in Seattle. In April 2011, he was inducted into the College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame at Illinois State University (his master’s degree institution) “in recognition of exemplary achievement” as a teacher and public scholar. He also holds a B.A. from the State University of New York at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Gonna have to read that book.  Sounds like not much has changed in YOSE since the early '70s.

I will certainly be reading the book; "Yosemite is different" is an understatement.  From the damming of Hetch-Hetchy to the banal circus that one finds in the valley, Yosemite gets treated more like commercial land than a National Park.  There is development at other parks, no doubt, but very few of them reach a level of chaos that is found in the valley floor.  When I was last there two Marches ago, there was an art fair, vendors selling all sorts of products from Monster energy drink to time shares, and crowds of people more interested in all the junk than in simply looking up and marvelling at the forests, meadows, and cliffs all around them.  In one instance, some inquisitive little kid wanted to go in the museum at the visitor center, but his parents dragged him back to get his face painted as a Ninja Turtle instead!  
In contrast, other high traffic parks like Zion, Shenandoah, Rocky Mountain, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon (have not been to the south) also have development, but the atmosphere is serene and focused on the, you know, actual location.  The kitsch is kept outside of the actual parks and benefits the wider regional economy, which is great.  Yosemite, though, struck me as being on the road (slowed down, perhaps) to becoming something more like what Niagara Falls has become: A natural wonder that exists for commercial exploitation.  

Yosemite Valley isn't unique. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is very similar in the scope of commercialization. They have some 50s/60s era buildings (Thunderbird and Yavapai Lodges) that stick out like a sore thumb compared to the rustic architecture that's found in the rest of the South Rim. Hang out long enough in the Old Faithful area and you'll get the same feeling.

Besides that, it's easy to get away from it all in Yosemite. The trails aren't completely barren, but go far enough (past Nevada Fall or any of the trails in the high country, and Yosemite Valley seems like a distant memory. I remember stopping by at Tenaya Lake, and it was serene and peaceful, with fewer than a couple dozen people enjoying the lake.

Now NPS has approved construction of 7 acres of new development along highway 41 for an environmental education campus.  Naturebridge is an excellent operation, but adequate program infrastructure has existed for decades; this new development in the park is a monument to hubris and money talking. 

as a 35 yr. USNPS "alumni" on the east coast it would be diffcult to find a NPS site without more commercial power than resource preservation influence. is resource preservation/protection ever noted in the present election cycle? until the NPS gets some good marketing/educational abilities...well, i as was often told at my parks by an uneducated public "the water is wet, the grass is green and the sky is blue. the parks are doing fine."

there are few if any NPS sites that don't give "money" a big say. just look at present politics. natural or cultural resourses are seldom an issue. possible dynamic indirect consequences to park resources in the future are rarely considered.

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