The mission of the National Park Service has been inherently contradictory since its establishment by Congress in 1916: to conserve federal lands while maximizing public enjoyment of them. This has frustrated both those who want the parks pristine and those who want comfortable lodging and other amenities -- to say nothing of the park managers who try to satisfy these competing interests.
An immediate case in point is the much-heralded, and somewhat maligned, approach to the base of 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park.
Here's the conflict in microcosm: How to make the falls pleasantly accessible to more than 1 million visitors each year without trashing the natural setting.
The $13.5-million renovation was financed by the nonprofit Yosemite Fund and designed by architect Lawrence Halprin. The half-mile loop pathway to the falls is lined in places by low granite walls with occasional benches at key viewing spots, a picnic area, a rustic timber-and-granite restroom building and a bus stop. The broad trail is accessible to wheelchair and baby strollers.
On a recent day, the falls were in splendor, fed by the melting of a massive snowpack, the sort of display that moved naturalist John Muir to rhapsodize about "dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray." Visitors strolled comfortably along, oohing and aahing, thoroughly enjoying the view and experience.
Still, critics deplore the new path.
"They are messing with Mother Nature," longtime Yosemite visitor Angela Caldera of La Habra told The Times' Eric Bailey. "Don't they think the park on its own, the falls on their own, are enough to generate awe?"
Actually, the new lower falls approach is tasteful and muted, providing just what's needed to handle the crush of tourists at the valley's most popular spot. For most, this is as far from a road as they will get during their Yosemite visit. At the end of the trail, they experience the power and grandeur of the falls unimpeded by unnatural structures.
What if the area were left entirely natural? The approach would consist of ruts in the earth, dust in summer and mud in winter, with exposed roots tripping the unwary. Vegetation would be trampled, forcing the Park Service to close the trail periodically to allow nature to recover. Even the environmental purists wouldn't be happy then.