Magazine article Sunset

The People's Playground

Magazine article Sunset

The People's Playground

Article excerpt

Will Yosemite's popularity be its undoing? Will gridlock and crowding spoil its startling grandeur? The National Park Service, turning 100, grapples with finding a balance between preservation and recreation in this Sierra Nevada showcase.

MY 5-year-old son Otto fidgeted. The drive from L.A. was long, and he'd lost patience with his coloring books and toys. "Where are we going again?" he asked. [paragraph] "To the best park ever," I said, and I meant it. [paragraph] From the waterfalls to the craggy peaks, from the lonely backcountry to the giant sequoias, Yosemite has always been my "do it all" national park. The idea of a park to end all parks seemed to calm my son, and once we got to Yosemite, he marveled at the towering trees and thrilled at the 4,233-foot length of the Wawona Tunnel. He was less excited by the length of our search for a parking space in Yosemite Village. [paragraph] Finally, we were on foot, following signposts across the valley floor. The trail skirted Cook's Meadow, a meticulously restored open space that had been the site of repeated development in Yosemite's first decades. "This is what this park is all about," I told him, "protecting what lives and grows here." [paragraph] He frowned and stared up at the panorama surrounding us. I pointed toward Glacier Point, high above us, and asked him to imagine what it would be like to stare down from there. [paragraph] "What would you look for?" [paragraph] "Playgrounds," replied my city kid. "How can this be a park? There aren't any playgrounds."

THE QUESTION OF PLAYGROUNDS (what they are, what they should be, who uses them, and how they balance recreation with preservation) is the central question faced by Yosemite and the 407 other units of the National Park Service as the system kicks off its centennial celebration. When the service was formed in August 1916, it had responsibility for 35 national parks and monuments. In that founding year, the parks had 358,000 visitors; in 2014, that number was 293 million. Mammoth crowds led to the closing of an entrance to Arches National Park by the Utah Highway Patrol last Memorial Day weekend; bottlenecks at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon are nearly as breathtaking as the gorge itself; and Rocky Mountain in the west and Great Smoky Mountains in the east routinely have bumper-to-bumper traffic that makes their roads feel more like crowded city freeways than any kind of scenic byway. At the same time that gridlock is a challenge, the parks also need to attract a more diverse cross-section of Americans to stay relevant. Toss in the huge wild card of climate change and its threat to ecosystems and ice packs and it's clear that the stewards of the park system face some far-reaching decisions.

The tension between celebration and preservation is not new. When Congress passed a bill ceding the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to California in 1864 (and making Yosemite a kind of ur-national park), the Yosemite Grant proclaimed that the park's land would be "for public use, resort, and recreation" and that any concession incomes were to "be expended in the preservation and improvement of the property."

The language of that founding grant, fewer than 500 words all told, is pretty broad--and different audiences and generations have interpreted it differently. Settlers ran cattle through the valley; entrepreneurs bored through giant sequoias to create tourist-friendly tree tunnels; park staff poured hot embers over the edge of Glacier Point, creating the astonishing, popular, and wholly unnatural Yosemite Firefall, which ran from 1872 to 1968.

The building of a paved road system and the 1933 opening of the Wawona Tunnel created easy access to Yosemite Valley and the park's most iconic features--Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, Bridalveil Fall. This majestic and miraculous swath makes up less than 1 percent of the park's 1,168 square miles but acts as a temporary home to more than 4 million annual visitors. …

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