Preserving National and Cultural Resources in Yosemite Valley

By Anthony Veerkamp | From Forum Journal | Spring 1999 | Vol. 13, No. 3

In the Olema Valley just off Highway 1, you may have noticed a prim little Victorian farmhouse on Golden Gate National Recreation Area land. Save the boarded up windows, you might think that mom and pop are just out back milking the cows. A minor preservation victory? No, the farmhouse survives not because the National Park Service chose to preserve it for its historical significance, but because up in the attic a rare colony of Thompson's Big Eared Bats has made its home. One man's history is another man's (or bat's) habitat.

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The Olema bat house may be an odd example but it shows that the line between natural and cultural resources is often fuzzier than we'd previously assumed, and that increasingly, the fates of these resources are intertwined. But the bat house also illustrates that a common interest doesn't necessarily imply a common solution. While preservationists are glad that the building is still standing, we would perhaps have preferred human residents—maybe even real farmers—to the bats. Sometimes you take what you can get.

Perhaps no place illustrates the complexities of reconciling natural and cultural resource protection better than Yosemite Valley, one of the nation's most treasured landscapes.

While Yosemite's designations as a National Park (one of the world's first) and a World Heritage Site emphasize Yosemite's extraordinary natural value, you don't have to be Thoreau or Muir to recognize that we embrace Yosemite as much for its human values as for its ecological importance. Sure, it's great habitat, but more than that, Yosemite is a beautiful place.

And a historic place too. Humans have been shaping Yosemite Valley's natural environment for centuries, attracted there by the very same qualities that make Yosemite Valley such a significant natural resource. Human history here is complex and multi-layered, encompassing themes ranging from Native American settlement and manipulation of the environment to Rustic Style architecture to tourism. Perhaps most striking, Yosemite played an extraordinary historical role in the founding of the Sierra Club and the modern environmental movement.

While the park's creation can be variously dated to 1864, or 1890, or 1906, it wasn't until the 1916 National Park Service "Organic Act" that Congress gave the Park Service a clear mission. There can be little doubt that those who drafted the act had Yosemite in mind when they stated that the purpose of parks was "...to conserve the scenery and natural and cultural objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Ever since, the NPS has been struggling to balance its mandate to preserve both natural and cultural resources while providing for the "enjoyment" of the public. Early on, visitation grew at a moderate clip, and the Park Service and its concessionaires did a pretty good job of catering to the visitor without impairing what attracted the visitor in the first place. Much of the visitor infrastructure was designed in the Rustic Style, which sought to use indigenous materials in structures that harmonized with their surroundings. There was also a conscious effort to site the buildings and other visitor amenities in such a way to enhance the visitor's appreciation for the natural landscape.

All this went out the window in the go-go years after World War II. The Park Service was unprepared for the increased numbers of private automobiles and the accompanying boom in tourism (Quaintly, the NPS still speaks of "visitors" and "interpreters," but no one is fooled. We're talking mass tourism here). While the Park Service has made a few notable architec-tural statements in the post-war years, the banality of the Yosemite Lodge standard issue motel units is more the rule than the exception.

By the 1970s, it had become clear that the juggling act had failed—resource protection had taken a back seat to providing for visitors and their cars. The NPS went back to the drawing board, and by 1980 had developed a new General Management Plan (GMP) calling for a reduction in traffic congestion, removal of non-essential buildings and facilities, restoration of large areas of the valley to their natural conditions, and relocation of visitor and employee accommodations away from environmentally sensitive or dangerous areas. The GMP represented a rejection of business-as-usual and a commitment to provide for the enjoyment of visitors only in a manner that leaves the resources "unimpaired."

Since 1980, the GMP has largely gathered dust. Planning to remove visitor facilities was one thing, actually doing it quite another. It turns out that formidable forces conceived of Yosemite not as a sanctuary, but as a powerhouse tourist destination, and weren't going to give up a single bed or parking place without a fight.

The winter floods a few years back provided the NPS with a prime opportunity to jump-start implementation of the GMP. The widespread damage to park infrastructure lent credibility to those who argued that man should step a bit more lightly on this land.

In September 1997 the NPS released the draft Valley Implementation Plan (VIP) which sought to revive the now-yellowing General Management Plan. In the year that followed, the Park Service learned that public opinion remains as divided as ever on how to best manage Yosemite Valley. Park planners were forced back to the drawing board, this time pledging to coordinate all planning for Yosemite Valley into one mega-plan called the Yosemite Valley Plan.

Some of the VIP's loudest critics have come from unexpected corners. While few in the resource protection community argue with the broad goals of the GMP or the VIP, many question the wisdom of specific actions called for in the plan. Most conservationists are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the GMP and the VIP with regard to natural resources. On the cultural front, however, we have some grave concerns.

The nearly two decades that have passed since the GMP was written have witnessed an enormous growth in the preservation movement. Formerly, when a stranger on a plane asked what I did for a living, my response of "I work with the National Trust" was met with a blank stare, or worse, "Oh, so you're in banking." I soon learned to follow up with "We're sort of like the Sierra Club, only for historic places." While the preservation movement still can't claim the same level of self-identification among the American public as environmentalism can, we've gained enormous ground.

My reference to the Sierra Club is not accidental. As the preservation movement has developed and matured, we have learned much from environmentalists. It is now commonly understood that in order to save the species, you need to protect the habitat. Preservationists have likewise grown to recognize the importance of context. Over the years, preservationists have experienced some hollow victories. Our country is studded with significant historic sites that were "saved," only to be surrounded by a parking lot.

Today, in fact, the "house on the hill" is the preservationist's sea otter—an important part of our public relations arsenal, but only one piece in the puzzle. Yes, the Ahwahnee is extraordinary, but once you lose the much humbler Ahwahnee Row Houses, you've lost half the story. Likewise, when viewed from across the parking lot instead of across the meadow, much of the quiet majesty of the building is lost.

It has become obvious that our past edifice complex left out a lot of history. By thinking holistically, preservationists have moved from focusing on individual structures toward looking at districts and, most recently, the cultural landscape—the preservationist's ecosystem.

Another important evolution in how cultural resource specialists conceive of the landscape has been our recognition that natural features of the landscape can be rich in cultural meaning. Native American sites demonstrate this idea most clearly: think of Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona or Mount Shasta in northern California.

The NPS's own National Register of Historic Places has played a key role in moving from an intellectual appreciation of the cultural landscape to actual preservation. Since the release of the Yosemite GMP in 1980, the National Park Service has developed guidelines for evaluating, documenting, and managing cultural landscapes and what have come to be called Traditional Cultural Places. Numerous such sites have since been placed in the National Register of Historic Places. (As those in the preservation trenches know, mere listing in the National Register does little to ensure the preservation of a historic place. On the mean streets outside of federal lands, no federal law protects historic properties against demolition, for example. Even within the Park Service, however, designation is no guarantee of preservation. Under the Valley Implementation Plan, a number of properties already listed in the National Register are slated for destruction.)

Unfortunately, the Cultural Resource inventories of Yosemite Valley are either nonexistent, incomplete, or out of date. For example, there is an enormous information gap regarding traditional cultural properties and prehistoric and historic burials and archeological sites, all resource types that could unwittingly be destroyed in some of the actions called for in the VIP findings.

The situation is a little different with regard to the cultural landscape. In 1994, the National Park Service completed a comprehensive Cultural Landscape Report of Yosemite Valley. Rather than just assessing individual buildings, the study looked at how buildings and structures relate to one another, how they respond to natural features, and what the circulation patterns are. Seen as a system, the study found that much of the valley qualifies for the National Register. Unfortunately, while the existence of the Cultural Landscape Report is referred to in the VIP, its findings were not incorporated into the plan. Hopefully the cultural landscape study findings will be incorporated in the Draft Yosemite Valley Plan.

Perhaps the fundamental problem with the VIP is that it reflects a sensibility that sees cultural resource protection more as a regulatory hurdle than as a mission. For example, many older structures were determined ineligible for the National Register as part of the 1980 GMP. Most preservationists believe that the passage of 20 years is sufficient time to reassess previous determinations. Yet the VIP insists on sticking to out-of-date findings.

One would think that park management didn't want to preserve these older buildings. Even lacking official determinations, wouldn't it make more sense to investigate all opportunities to reuse these older buildings before relegating them to the scrap heap, only to build new buildings in their place? Adaptive use of older buildings is a concept largely foreign to the VIP. For example, the NPS Maintenance Complex, which includes a wonderful Moderne Style cast concrete firehouse, was determined ineligible for the National Register prior to the 1980 GMP and is slated for demolition in the VIP. The building would at first glance appear to be a suitable home for the proposed Indian Cultural Center or a host of other uses. (Tellingly, the VIP uses the term "restore" liberally, but only with reference to the natural environment. Much of this "restoration" will require the destruction of cultural resources.)

What are the implications of all this for the future of Yosemite Valley? First of all, this is not a train wreck. Preservationists, environmentalists, and NPS staff alike love Yosemite for the same essential reasons, and natural and cultural resource protection advocates are at least reading from the same book, if not the same page. Preservationists' respect for the his-toric development patterns of Yosemite is not an argument for aggravating past bad planning decisions, nor for continuation of the status quo. Likewise, most environmentalists recognize the beauty of much of Yosemite's historic architecture and support preserving this eloquent record of the founding of their own movement.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Some very difficult decisions will need to be made. Take the bridges. A highly significant element of the historic landscape in Yosemite Valley is the National Register-listed Rustic Style bridges that span the Merced River. Some of the most important views immortalized by painters and photographers are the result of the careful placement of these bridges in the landscape.

Environmentalists, however, are concerned that these bridges have negatively affected the hydrology of the river. Clearly, we can't have it both ways. The draft VIP calls for the removal of a number of the bridges. Preservationists will continue to argue that the bridges should be preserved.

The National Park Service has the unenviable task of trying to reconcile protection of Yosemite Valley's incomparable natural environment with preservation of its rich cultural resources. InYosemite, we can gain a new respect for the power and beauty of nature. But we also have an extraordinary testament to man's occasional ability to do the right thing. In this valley, western culture took some tentative steps toward allowing nature to call the shots. Recognizing that nothing we could build could equal the setting, we instead built in a way that provided a distant echo of the natural environment. It is our duty as co-stewards of the park to make sure that we preserve for the future this record of nature's beauty and our own eloquent response.


Anthony Veerkamp previously volunteered and worked with the National Park Service at Haleakala, Point Reyes, and the Western Regional Office. He is currently Senior Program Officer at the Western Office of the National Trust. The Draft Yosemite Valley Plan will be available for public comment in the spring of 1999. To comment on the Yosemite Valley planning process, call (209) 372-0261 or visit the NPS online at www.nps.gov/planning.