You won’t often hear anyone with the slightest tinge of environmental green say this about Rep. Tom McClintock:
He’s right. At least when it comes to his take on Yosemite’s future.
Yeah, that’s the same Tom McClintock who has as a state legislator and now congressman, never met a dam he didn’t like or an endangered critter he wasn’t willing to steamroll in the name of progress. His 2012 voting scorecard from League of Conservation Voters was 11 percent, up from his lifetime mark of 6 percent.
Looking at that number, McClintock is still probably trying to figure where he went wrong.
But for the past couple of months, the congressman, whose district includes the national park, has been slamming National Park Service officials for a plan that would ban tourist-serving facilities from much of Yosemite Valley.
We’re not just talking burger joints and T-shirt shops. Among the businesses that just have to go are bike shops, riding stables and rafting rentals along the Merced River.
Also on the hit list are the swimming pools at the Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Lodge and the ice-skating rink at Curry Village, which need to disappear as part of lawsuit-spurred efforts to return more of the valley to a natural state that really hasn’t existed for more than a century.
Park officials say visitors are welcome to bring their own horses and bikes to the park, which is welcome news to those tourists who travel with their own horse trailer.
The park service proposal “would remove long-standing tourist facilities from Yosemite Valley,” McClintock said at a congressional hearing earlier this month. “These facilities date back generations and provide visitors with a wide range of amenities to enhance their stay at, and enjoyment of, this world-renowned park.”
In McClintock’s view, the park service – and many environmentalists – are taking an elitist view of Yosemite, saying, in essence, that people who aren’t willing to hike in and camp rough really don’t deserve to share in the spiritual grandeur of the park.
“Ninety-five percent of the park is already in wilderness, yet the overwhelming majority of park visitors come to that five percent where amenities are available for public recreation,” the congressman said.
When President Abraham Lincoln set aside land for the park in 1864, the stated purpose was “public use, resort and recreation,” McClintock said. The new park motto now seems to be “Look, but don’t touch,” he added.
McClintock and the park service are re-fighting one of the oldest battles in the environmental movement, the clash between the preservationists, once led by John Muir, and the conservationists, originally represented by Gifford Pinchot, first head of the U.S. Forest Service.
In broad-brush terms, Muir saw the untamed wilderness as a sacred space that must be kept intact to allow people to renew their souls.
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world,” he said.
Pinchot, on the other hand, believed the wilderness was there not only to be enjoyed, but also to be used, and that conservation was necessary to preserve the wilderness for future use by both people and industry.
“The earth and its resources belong of right to its people,” was his position.
The 1913 battle over the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, the sister valley to Yosemite, pitted Muir’s call for keeping Hetch Hetchy in its untouched natural state against Pinchot’s view that providing a stable water source for San Francisco was a better use of that wild, seldom-visited area.
Pinchot won, but the fight continues. Grazing, logging and mining rights on federal land are always controversial, as are questions of access roads into wilderness areas, snowmobiling in national parks and innumerable other disputes over the best use of public lands, up to and including a recent San Francisco fight over whether artificial turf and lights should be installed on an long-existing soccer pitch in Golden Gate Park so that more kids and adults can use it.
Many environmentalists, including members of Muir’s own Sierra Club, continue to argue that the country’s wilderness needs constant protection and that tight restrictions on the use of those lands is a necessary price.
But even those who would fight plans to line the California coast with drilling rigs and look for ways to cut their carbon footprint still want places their families can visit on a fun outing, without the “eat your vegetable” vibe they get from too many serious environmental types who want strict limits on what, if any, fun should be allowed.
Parks are for people, all the people. And efforts, however well-intentioned, to turn those parks into untouched exhibition pieces, available for limited use only by the right sort of folks, turn that basic belief on its head.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.