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Yosemite Valley, a seven-mile setting for the great granite jewels of El Capitan, Half Dome and Clouds Rest, is veined with bright water and has grown to the loveliest of forests. The climate is perfect, access easy. Result: On any summer day the Valley entertains between 20,000 and 32,000 people. Its population, at three or four thousand per square mile, is three or four times as dense as that of Java, one of the most densely populated countries on earth.
Here is dramatically illustrated the dilemma of the National Park Service, whose legal duty is "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historical objects and the wildlife...and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Provide for enjoyment, but leave unimpaired. Use, but protect. Keep the parks primitive, but open them to millions (in 1954, almost 48,000,000 people visited all the areas exclusive of the National Capital Parks System and in late years the total has grown by nearly 10% per year). Make scenery accessible with roads, trails, lookouts, but don't scar it up. Provide—invisibly—campsites for millions, lodge and motel accommodations for hundreds of thousands, and the facilities of whole towns to take care of them.
Guard against fire, clean up after the litterbugs. Protect and restore the wildlife, even wolves and mountain lions, in order to keep the balance of nature, but do it in a show window where millions can thrill to see it. Offer high-grade adult education to all who ask for it and many who don't. Rescue climbers trapped or injured on the cliffs, tourists wounded by the bears they have been (against the rules) feeding.
Do what you can about America's slop-happy habit of defacing signs, tearing up shrubs and wild flowers and throwing candy wrappers, bottles and beer cans in creeks and springs and geysers. Be patient when tourists bawl you out for something "because I pay taxes for this." Do it all on a pitifully inadequate budget, with collapsing equipment and an overworked and undermanned staff, and smile.
The picture is gruesome, but it is neither sensational nor exaggerated. If the men of the park service had only the vacationing hordes to contend with, maybe they would be able to cope with their problems. But there are other groups—the entrepreneurs who want to open the parks for exploitation, federal agencies which would build dams in them, and Congress, which likes the parks but will not pay for them. Together, all four groups represent almost every living soul in America. They are at once the friends and the enemies of the system of national parks that gained its first great strength under the vigorous championship of President Theodore Roosevelt and has since stood as a model of democratic conservation for the rest of the world to copy. While most of the people of the United States love their parks, the parks might be destroyed.
A SIMPLE CHOICE
The entrepreneurs would cut timber, dig metals, graze the ranges, drill for oil and install ski lifts. Once a great threat, they are now reduced to a minor one. To Joe Smith, average citizen, reading of proposed raids on the timber of Olympic National Park or the watershed ranges of Yellowstone, the choice seems a simple one between good and bad. But the threat from private interests has been replaced by the threat posed by government bureaus whose philosophy of land-use runs counter to the strict conservation policy of the national parks. The Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation both want to build dams in some of the parks and monuments. When they are well planned, such dams mean fewer water-starved areas, greater flood control, more electric power. These are obviously very good things. But are they good enough to warrant the destruction of incomparable wildernesses? Joe Smith is confused; it seems to him the choice is not between good and bad but between varying degrees, varying kinds of good.
Our Mr. Smith, who has been battered by arguments from all sides, is only ordinarily informed; he may even have been misinformed. But he may suspect that the value of preserving a wilderness may outweigh the value of hydroelectric power, especially when it seems likely that the same amount of power could be produced at alternate sites, or more cheaply by steam-coal plants, and when the potential of atomic power casts a big shadowy question mark on all expensive hydroelectric installations. Joe may even end up thinking that these dam-building bureaus are the worst enemies of the national parks.