Fireside Read: The Soul Of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, And Saving The Valley's Sacred Wild Nature
Editor's note: Earlier this year Dr. Alfred Runte reviewed this book for the Traveler. The following review, which offers a somewhat different perspective, comes from Rick Smith, a long-time Park Service employee who rose up through the ranks to become one of its top managers.
“The gift of clarity the mountains and the moon gave me that spring night via the ageless, timeless dance of light on water brought me back to myself and helped me regain my balance. Since I’d moved back to Yosemite Valley two and a half years earlier, I’d changed from a confident professional woman to an anxious, under-employed woman. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost my identity, my sense of purpose. Was it a mid-life crisis? Was it due to shifting hormones? Was I miserable because I’d left a great job at Point Reyes to pursue my Yosemite dream, only to wind up in a job so frustrating and painful I had to quit after only nine months?
I’d asked myself these questions a thousand times. The answers were always the same: yes and no. It was true that the past few years had been a time of intense change and personal growth, but my state of inner turmoil ran much deeper. Gazing up at the shining, wet granite that brilliant March night, I recognized the root of my troubles was buried deep in the granite and sand of Yosemite Valley, intertwined with roots of oak, pine, deergrass and sedge. The source of my grief, my anger and pain became crystal clear. I was watching Yosemite Valley die a slow death, both ecologically and spiritually, and it was breaking my heart.”
This book chronicles a journey, one that began in childhood with family camping trips in Yosemite Valley, continues through college with emphasis on natural resources and planning, and swings through Sequoia as an interpretive intern, for three years as a mounted patrol ranger in Kings Canyon and a stint as an interpreter in Death Valley. She then is hired as a biological tech at Yosemite, working for the resources management division on a project that involved restoring damaged habitat in high elevation forests and meadows. Following that summer, the author spends some time in Death Valley, enrolls in a Master’s Degree program in environmental science, does another summer in Sequoia, continues the Master’s program and is offered a GS-7 bio tech job in Yosemite Valley, again working on habitat restoration and revegetation.
Her summer was interrupted by a series of wildfires in 1990 that burned some 23,000 acres in Yosemite. During follow up assignments that included the rehabilitation of disturbed lands, she runs afoul of the chief of resources management who wants to buy a tree spade, a large, expensive piece of equipment, to transplant oak trees to Foresta, a private inholding in the park. Since he was out of the park when the requests needed to be submitted, and since her immediate supervisor agreed with her that oak transplanting would be a bad idea, she sent the proposal forward without the request for transplanting the oak or for the tree spade.
Upon his return, the chief told her that he was letting her go. According to her, his final words to her were. “You are too preservation-oriented towards resource management. That may have been OK in Sequoia, but Yosemite is different.”
She did not return to Yosemite for eight years. In the interim, she finished her advanced degree, worked as a environmental consultant and was hired at Point Reyes as the park’s plant biologist, a job she cherished. While there, she became engaged to an NPS employee who worked in the Regional Office in San Francisco. Soon after, he came home one evening and announced that he had been offered a job in Yosemite Valley. Did she want to go? The answer was an enthusiastic affirmative. She was on her way back to the spot she loved more than any other place.
Shortly after their arrival, she was offered a job in the valley. Her job was "Liaison," the link between the resources management division and project planning. As in most large parks, the resources management division was responsible for protecting the natural and cultural resources contained within the park. Yosemite’s project management division administered all park projects, including infrastructure development and maintenance. The author's primary responsibility was to assure that park resources were considered during the project planning and the effects of the project were mitigated to the extent possible.
Her return to Yosemite coincided with the planning of numerous large projects that were linked to the 1997 flood that had rocked Yosemite Valley. The flood scuttled several completed or in-process plans for the valley and emergency appropriations to repair the damage required hastily-prepared plans. Local environmental activists felt that these plans permitted too much additional development in the valley and violated the Wild and Scenic River Act to which the Merced River, flowing through the valley, was subject. During one of her first meetings with the project management division, the author learned there were 22 major projects under way for the valley.
Reviewing these projects for their potential impacts on park resources was a back-breaking job, one that was shared by her colleagues in resources management. One day she told her supervisor that she was having a difficult time keeping up with all that was happening. He replied, “I know. Don’t worry. It’s the Yosemite way. Just do the best that you can.”
During her review of these projects, she found several that did not have the required environmental studies included. When she raised questions about some of these projects, she was told that the decisions had already been made.
Her reaction can best be summarized by quoting her: “I realized that I had been hired as a figurehead….nothing I said made any difference. All significant decisions already had been made and were set in stone. And all of these decisions had been made on the extremely limited and grossly inadequate environmental impact analysis done for the Yosemite Valley Plan Supplemental EIS. It was clear that my ideas and concerns, and those of my cohorts in the Resources Management Division, would be incorporated in project planning if doing so didn’t result in any appreciable change in existing plans….On March 19, 2003, the United States declared war on Iraq. At about the same time, I fully awakened to the fact that another war was being waged—on the resources of Yosemite Valley.”
A major skirmish of this war was the Lower Yosemite Falls Project. While most admit that the new visitor area around the falls is a significant improvement over the previous site, the author was able to observe what for her was the environmental damage that occurred during the construction phase. There were spills in Yosemite Creek and over-engineered bridges, boardwalks and trails. She was heart-broken.
She and a small team were given the task of studying the question of how many people could visit and recreate in Yosemite without harming the very resources that had attracted them in the first place. Her team tackled the project with enthusiasm, did research, held workshops, developed indicators, and developed plans. She was then told that there would be no money to implement the plan. Shortly thereafter, a little more than a year after she had started work again In Yosemite, she was laid off, theoretically because of budget concerns. “…but I believe that funding for my job “went away” because once again I was too outspoken in defense of park resources. I had been a thorn in the side of park managers…”
Following her husband’s transfer to the Boise Interagency Fire Center, the author began to focus on what she believed to be the causes for what she had witnessed in Yosemite Valley. She has several: 1. "The pervasive political and economic forces at work in Yosemite Valley and the influence that these forces have on the way the Park Service manages the park.” 2. Dysfunctional management makes the valley different. The divisions in the park, she asserts, are like a nine-armed octopus with no head. No one, she claims, in park management knew what was happening as a whole at any one time. She believes that the number of employees working for the concessioners, the Park Service and other entities was too large and the complexity of park operations, too great. The system was out of control. 3. Rather than reviewing and revising priorities over time, it seems to her that each new superintendent came with new ideas that were implemented in addition to everything that had been implemented before. 4. She believes that Park Service employees are only given enough information by management to do their jobs and not to see the park as a single unit. The result, she believes, is the poor morale which she says characterizes many employees in Yosemite. 5. She believes that during her tenure at Yosemite, upper management was composed of a well-defined “good ol’ boy” network that marginalized those not in the club. 6. She also faults Yosemite’s relationship with the public. Those opposed to the development in the valley were sometimes called “a fringe group of radicals.” Yet, she believes that these were people who cared deeply about the Valley and wanted their say in how it should be managed.
Finally, she asserts that politics made Yosemite different. “Based on my personal observations, there has never been any strong political will to maintain the ecological or the spiritual integrity of Yosemite Valley, or to restore what has been lost. As soon as some of the earliest Euro-Americans set their greedy eyes on the Valley, dollar signs began to obscure the view of its profound beauty. And because the Valley provides huge revenues to concession operators and local economies, the Park Service succumbs to the political pressure and doesn’t embrace resource protection and preservation as the highest priorities for Yosemite Valley."
The remainder of this book contains the author’s prescription for a new vision for Yosemite. She sums it up this way, “Yosemite Valley needs a new vision for its future: a vision based in wildness, that protects and preserves natural and cultural elements first; a vision that allows people to come and rejoice in the Valley’s grace and splendor; a vision with opportunities for visitors to connect deeply with the natural world; a vision not corrupted or coerced by economics or politics.”
This isn’t a bad prescription for any wild area whether it is managed by the NPS or not.
Many readers who have not worked in Yosemite Valley are likely to find the place names and sites a bit confusing. I must confess that the 40 years or so since I worked there have dulled my perceptions a little, also. Readers not versed in the intricacies of the NPS planning process may find sections of this book require heavy lifting. But this is a fascinating look at how Yosemite operated at a time when, in the midst of recovering from a natural event—the flood—it had too many projects and too much money on hand to assure orderly, environmentally sensitive planning. And the author was in the middle of much of what happened.
Yosemite Valley's finely-woven ecological fabric is unraveling due to a combination of too many visitors and too much development. Barbara J. Moritsch gained a stunning insider's view of park management when she worked as a biologist in Yosemite Valley between 2002 and 2005. In The Soul of Yosemite, she shares her passion for the Valley, addresses management decisions that resulted in severely degraded natural resources, and presents a new vision that will fully embrace the Valley's incredible uniqueness and restore its wild nature. Moritsch strongly urges the National Park Service to reduce the impact of humans on Yosemite Valley once and for all, to bring their management focus back to the basics: natural beauty and wildness, and to recognize Yosemite's unique role as an emissary for wildness in the world-a much more important role than serving as a playground for the masses.