Yosemite is a Cal­i­for­nia metaphor: Over­crowded, re­stric­tive, beau­ti­ful

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JOE MATHEWS Spe­cial to The Bee Joe Mathews writes the Con­nect­ing Cal­i­for­nia col­umn for Zócalo Pub­lic Square.

The road to Mari­posa Grove in Yosemite Na­tional Park is closed to cars, and the shut­tle bus wasn’t run­ning. Would the Three Stooges — my sons, ages 10, 8 and 5 — agree to a 2 ½ mile up­hill hike to see Yosemite’s sig­na­ture se­quoias?

This month I made my first trip to Yosemite as a fa­ther, won­der­ing if my city slicker boys — they like read­ing, cof­fee shops and rid­ing the LA. Metro — could han­dle a visit to the Sierra wilder­ness.

I shouldn’t have wor­ried. To­day’s Yosemite has been changed so much by record crowds, and the lim­its put in place to con­trol those mobs, that it no longer feels like a place apart. As Cal­i­for­nia has be­come the state with the high­est ur­ban pop­u­la­tion den­sity in Amer­ica, Yosemite — with its crowded main val­ley, choked trails, and tough traf­fic — fits right in.

For gen­er­a­tions, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice has been try­ing to re­duce the im­pact vis­i­tors have on the park — and with good rea­son. We hu­mans have been lov­ing Yosemite to death, bear­ing gifts of ev­ery­thing from pol­lu­tion to non-na­tive plants.

But the park’s ef­forts to re­duce im­pacts have fol­lowed a familiar Cal­i­for­nia il­logic: that re­stric­tions on growth will solve the prob­lems of growth. Just as Cal­i­for

nia’s lim­its on traf­fic and hous­ing haven’t pre­vented in­creases in peo­ple driv­ing or seek­ing hous­ing, Yosemite’s var­i­ous lim­its on vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing hik­ing per­mits and reser­va­tion sys­tems, haven’t re­duced the num­ber of peo­ple who try to get there.

In­deed, vis­its to Yosemite have soared to more than 5 mil­lion peo­ple an­nu­ally. In the sum­mer, the mas­sive crowds can cre­ate traf­fic jams worse than any­thing you’ll find on the 405.

I took my fam­ily — Three Stooges, my wife, her par­ents — to Yosemite at a time when you’re sup­posed to visit: early spring, be­fore the hordes de­scend and turn the val­ley into a park­ing lot. But the spring im­poses its own lim­its on vis­i­tors. Some trails were im­pass­able be­cause of snow. Half Dome Vil­lage was shut down for re­pairs from win­ter storms. Mean­while, the park had put up sign­ings warn­ing vis­i­tors to stay away from El Cap­i­tan be­cause of nest­ing pere­grine fal­cons.

Roads like Tioga and Glacier Point were still closed for the sea­son. So, ex­cept for the se­quoia groves, we spent al­most all our time in the crowded val­ley. The 2 ½ mile Mari­posa Grove trek would be the long­est hike we man­aged — and com­plet­ing that one in­volved en­dur­ing some Stooge whin­ing. Oth­er­wise, we kept things short, with small walks up to Mir­ror Lake (with its awe­some Half Dome views), through mead­ows, over to Yosemite Falls, and into the other-worldly mists of Bri­dalveil Fall.

Just like back home, we were never far from a Star­bucks, this one in the Yosemite Val­ley Lodge. And to get around the val­ley, we squeezed into the free shut­tle buses, which must be the most crowded pub­lic tran­sit in Cal­i­for­nia, even more cramped than BART at rush hour. 21st-cen­tury Yosemite is not for claus­tro­phobes.

My fa­vorite part of Yosemite’s wilder­ness might have been the lack of re­li­able In­ter­net ac­cess; my phone only re­ally worked in the vil­lage. By the sec­ond day, my two older boys, miss­ing their In­ter­net video games, started ask­ing when we could “re­turn to the Wi-Fi world.”

I had re-read some of John Muir’s work be­fore the trip, but the nat­u­ral­ist who pro­tected Yosemite has never felt more dead. Muir en­cour­aged di­rect con­tact with na­ture — he climbed an ice wall be­neath Yosemite Falls, rode an avalanche, and ex­plored ev­ery inch of the place. In to­day’s Yosemite, you’re con­stantly re­minded to stay on the trails, be­cause your very pres­ence in the place, com­bined with the car­bon-pro­duc­ing ex­is­tence of hu­man­ity, is dam­ag­ing.

The ef­fect is to re­place some of the won­der Yosemite in­spires with guilt: Should we even be here in the first place?

The most re­cent man­age­ment plan for the park, from 2014, is full of de­tailed reg­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing cap­ping the num­ber of peo­ple in Yosemite Val­ley to just over 20,000, but me­dia re­ports sug­gest that ac­tual at­ten­dance of­ten ex­ceeds that. The park, un­for­tu­nately, lacks a truly for­ward-think­ing plan, ei­ther to make it vastly wilder or more ac­ces­si­ble.

Per­haps the Park Ser­vice could dust off old plans from the 1980s that suggested tear­ing down build­ings, pro­hibit­ing ve­hi­cles, and re­ly­ing on fu­tur­is­tic trains to move peo­ple around. Or maybe hu­man­ity and Yosemite, like part­ners in a rocky mar­riage, need a break from each other.

Clos­ing the park for a stretch — five years, 10 years? — would draw protests. But it would give the park a lit­tle time to heal, and to de­velop ex­ten­sive plans to bet­ter pro­tect this won­der­ful Cal­i­for­nia place from my fam­ily and yours.

BRYAN PA­TRICK [email protected]

Hik­ers make their way up the trail to Ver­nal Fall in the background at Yosemite Val­ley on Aug. 10, 2011.

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