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Learning: It's Wild

September 27, 1987

Looking up at majestic El Capitan or watching the sun set over the Tuolumne River's Grand Canyon are rewards in themselves for a visit to Yosemite National Park. But listening to one of the park's ranger-naturalists also adds a dimension that enriches while it informs. More naturalists than ever before worked in the park's back country this season--a happy outcome of higher fees that visitors paid to enter Yosemite and other national parks.

The naturalists personally introduce visitors to the park, as to a friend, explaining what the rangers seek to protect and how the visitors can help. Carl Sharsmith, who has worked out of Tuolumne Meadow for more than 50 years, is an alpine botanist. He teaches a simple lesson: look down--you might see something. Sure enough, there are wildflowers there that we never saw before.

Carla Neasel, Dick Ewart and other ranger-naturalists worked around five High Sierra camps and other popular back-country areas this season, trying among other things to reduce the conflict between black bear and human being. In campfire talks at Glen Aulin camp, for example, Neasel used humor and practical advice on ways to keep bears away from food--and people away from bears.

The program seems to work. Two nights after Neasel's campfire chat telling backpackers to lock up their granola and other snacks in Glen Aulin's stone kitchen, a bear cub broke in the dining-room door and, finding no loose food, fled out a screened window. Except that the bear went away hungry, no one was the worse for it.

The National Park Service, for which the rangers work, was able to rotate five naturalists through 10 sites in Yosemite's back country this year because the park received an extra $913,000 from the increased fees. The money was divided among maintenance projects, research, resource management (things like preserving trees and protecting fisheries) and park interpretation. Because more people go to Yosemite Valley than to the back country, much of the money is directed to general valley needs.

Congress can learn as much from the rangers as visitors do, and it needs to listen. The authority to collect the higher fees at Yosemite, and new entrance fees at other national parks, will expire Sept. 30. The House has passed a measure that would make permanent the fees and the system for distributing them. Similar legislation has been delayed in the Senate because of its Energy Committee's difficulty in reconciling what it wants to spend with what its Budget Committee has told it that it can spend.

Once that is done, Congress is expected to complete work on the fee system. While it should insist on accountability from the park service on how the money is spent, it must also maintain the incentive that the parks have to collect the fees by allowing them to spend the money on the projects that they deem important, like telling campers how to handle bears.

People generally don't mind paying these fees if they know that the money comes back to the parks. Visitors to Yosemite and other parks know that they have one of the best bargains going: the chance to learn more about the land and animals around them in spectacular natural classrooms.

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