In the last weeks of its first century, Yosemite National Park captured the nation's attention with great fires. It will be tragic irony if these lightning-generated pyrotechnics, as natural to the Sierra Nevada as waterfalls and granite, deflect our thoughts from the real, man-made threats facing one of America's most beloved places.
A visit to Yosemite Valley this year will overwhelm you with souvenir tributes to the park's centennial. Alfred Runte's dark history stands in stark contrast: His celebratory effort broods over the past century's battles between the forces of vision and those of exploitation. Runte calls himself an "environmental historian." Author of "National Parks: The American Experience" (1979), this academic-without-portfolio offers a free-wheeling, controversial and scholarly critique of Yosemite's first 100 years.
The official touchstones of Yosemite's history are its discovery by whites and the rapid extirpation of the native Ahwahneechees led by Tenaya in the mid-19th Century; the Yosemite Park Act of 1864 establishing a protected reserve of the Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias; its expansion and full-fledged establishment as a national park in 1890; John Muir's heroic but failed campaign to save Hetch-Hetchy Valley from damming in 1913, and lastly the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916. But although he acknowledges these historical markers, Runte is after subtler, and ultimately more important, game.
"Among all of the debates affecting America's national parks, the most enduring--and most intense--is where to draw the line between preservation and use." Runte's first sentence signals his anthem. His improbable heroes are a line of scientists tracing their heritage to Joseph Grinnell of the University of California's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley.
In Runte's eyes, these men--beginning with Grinnell himself in the early days of the national park--saw Yosemite as a great reserve of wild nature, a source of scientific information and understanding. They used reason to campaign patiently for what we today would call the "wilderness ecosystem" model of a national park. "And so to Berkeley professors, students and alumni went the honor of founding Yosemite's 'university of the wilderness.' From its graduates, Grinnell now looked forward to the evolution of a new public consciousness of the importance of national parks as refuges for biological diversity."
Runte's villains are an even longer line of despoilers and developers who saw money to be made in Yosemite and largely accomplished their mission. Their progenitors were the first to build hotels and plant orchards to service Yosemite's pioneer visitors in the 1860s, and fought tirelessly to maintain and expand their claims on park land. Runte sees an unbroken line of concessioners leading to the mighty Yosemite Park and Curry Co., Yosemite's sole proprietor of bed, drink and lodging, today a wholly owned subsidiary of the Music Corp. of America (MCA). Runte hyperventilates between his lines when he reports Edward C. Hardy, president of the Curry Co., calling Yosemite a "destination resort."
And just where does the National Park Service and its predecessor stewards of Yosemite fit in Runte's scenario? They are the largely unimaginative pawns of politics, conservation's eunuchs, seeking always for compromise drawn from the seemingly contradictory aims of the National Park Service Act: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Every compromise, finds Runte, has taken Yosemite further from its wild beginnings. Referring to Horace Albright, the Park Service's co-founder: "Park Service tradition, Albright confirmed, leaned heavily toward public works . . . in Albright's estimation, development was a given and therefore became a basis for comparison instead of an object properly targeted for exclusion. . . . The point he refused to acknowledge was that development itself, whether modern or crude, perhaps should never have been allowed inside Yosemite National Park." Runte effectively uses a long, detailed section on the history of bear management in Yosemite to illustrate how natural resources have suffered, rather than inconvenience visitors or proprietors.
There is, oddly enough, a minor fourth element in "The Embattled Wilderness"--park visitors. In the grand play between preservationists and developers, both of whom claim to be serving some public, the Park Service ineffectually acting as umpire, Runte's grandstands are largely silent. In truth, none of the principals in this heroic drama can claim to represent the real wishes of Yosemite's millions of annual visitors, or the values of its 200 million owners.