The Yosemite Principle

Camp 4 Line up

The wilderness experience at Camp 4 (Source: withoutbaggage.com)

“Climbing El Cap is fucking dope. But you can expect to be pissed on by another party at least once. Maybe even shit on. It’s part of the experience.” – Genuine conversation with an unnamed Californian.

I’ve never been to Yosemite, and there’s a good chance I never will. That’s a real shame, and I know that. The climbing may be of interstellar quality, but everything else I hear about the Valley repulses me in almost every way… Overcrowded campsites? Climbers defecating on each other? Congested roadways? Over 4 million visitors every year… FOUR FUCKING MILLION?!

No thanks. It’s all yours. I hear Cochamo is lovely this time of year.

I think that John Muir is probably turning so hard in his grave that he’s practically a lathe by now. I doubt he’d have written so much as a single word if he’d had even an inkling of the fate that would eventually befall his beloved Yosemite. It is hard to imagine that the actions of humans could possibly dull the timeless grandeur and natural splendour of the Valley, but somehow we’ve managed it. This is why we can’t have nice things.

The problem is that we’ve simply loved Yosemite to death. In enhancing the park’s accessibility for the millions of visitors it receives each year, Yosemite’s natural heritage has been damaged. There shouldn’t be a National Park in the land that has any need for gift shops, a courthouse and a model railroad to haul obese tourists. If you grew up in the area, it’s likely that you’ve come to accept this as normal and you don’t realise how truly fucked up the situation is.

And Yosemite isn’t alone. This problem is far from an isolated incident. There are plenty of parks across the country that have been trampled underfoot by exponential growth of users. It’s quite simple really. The quality of one’s wilderness experience within a National Park deteriorates in direct proportionality with the number of visitors the park receives. We can call it “The Yosemite Principle”.

The Yosemite Principle

In 2015, I spent 3 months climbing whatever I could between Las Vegas and Alaska, spending time in various National and State Parks, as well as BLM land. Far and away, my favourite period during this journey was a week spent in Maple Canyon. One of Utah’s hidden gems, it plays second (or possibly fifth) fiddle in comparison to the Beehive State’s more famous climbing locations – Indian Creek, Moab and Zion are pretty tough acts to follow. But what the Canyon lacks in fame, it makes up for in tranquillity.

Ok, full disclosure here. We arrived in May which is definitely shoulder season for Maple Canyon, with peak season occurring in June/July. I’m certain it fills up entirely during mid-year weekends. That said, given that the place is a box canyon with an entrance that would have made King Leonidas and his 300 weep with gratitude, there’s only so many people that can enter Maple Canyon at a time before the limited number of campsites are occupied. And if you’re willing to brave a few crisp mornings, late April and early May will find you alone and free to roam about in pure cobblestone bliss.

Now far be it from me to claim that we would have preferred the Canyon to remain entirely unmolested by the grubby works of mankind. That would preclude the development of climbing areas, well maintained campsites that limit further environmental impact, even the road leading to the canyon in the first place. These modest “improvements” (some would debate the use of such a term) are largely necessary to give the area value to humans, and thus give them a reason to come to love and care for the area.

And there’s the rub, really. Given that most people are inherently selfish, they require an incentive to care about a wilderness area. Climbing routes, hiking trails and campsites provide that incentive, but all of them come at a cost to the ecosystem. At what point to we draw the line? When does that cost become too great? And is it even possible to stop development after that cost has been exceeded, or will we inevitably find that the point-of-no-return been passed?

These are difficult questions and there is no magic bullet. One size certainly does not fit all in regard to the management of Parks across the nation and indeed the world. There are too many variables to list, but they largely hinge upon the amount and type of human use, and the vulnerability of the individual ecosystem.

So how many is too many? Simply put, when the impacts of the hordes exceed the ability of the invested few (to wit: rangers, employees, regular/local users and volunteer groups) to mitigate said impact, we have a problem. Either way, 4 million is too fucking many, in my opinion, for any National Park in any universe.

It is imperative to strike a balance between accessibility and conservation. Total accessibility trashes the natural resources in a given location. Total conservation lowers its potential for humans to genuinely care for and participate in stewardship of an area, and is therefore counter-productive. What we need is a happy medium, a zen solution.

Can this be achieved? I believe it can. Case in point: Denali National Park.

The Big One (Source: wikipedia.org)

By Alaskan mountaineering standards, the West Buttress is ridiculously crowded. It’s also surprisingly clean – meticulously so, in fact. As a remote alpine region with harsh climatic conditions, one could expect a very high incidence of FIS or “Fuck It Syndrome”, prompting groups to abandon trash and human waste rather than haul it out. But this is not the case. Why is it so?

It largely comes down to unusually stellar management on behalf of the Parks Service. Their supervision of the mountain is relaxed where it can be, and firm where it needs to be. All climbers are educated on the correct procedures for the mountain’s use, and issued with the appropriate equipment to achieve this. That said, the task is larger than can be expected of rangers to perform alone and volunteers aid this process immensely. It could also be argued that climbers represent a higher caste of outdoor user, and as a rule are generally more invested in wilderness conservation and more environmentally savvy than the average tourist.

Therefore, maybe the answer lies in improving the environmental awareness of these average tourists, and turning away those who refuse to engage. Am I suggesting a compulsory education system that targets each and every Park user? Yes, perhaps I am suggesting that. This is the answer which Denali has adopted, and it works.

But how will the Parks Service and volunteers be able to keep up with demand for such educational services? They won’t. Attendance will decrease, which might cause a few temper tantrums in the short term but could save our Parks in the long run. If that means limiting the profits of the Ahwahnee Hotel or the Sugar Pine Railroad, well you won’t find any crocodile tears shed on my behalf.

We live in an era in which the natural world is shrinking by the minute. We can always build another city, but we can never build another Yosemite.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
June 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?