I’m posting this from Yosemite National Park, where I’ve been for a few days. The waterfalls this year are unusually spectacular due to extremely heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevada over the winter.
I was especially keen to show my family Tuolumne Meadows and the high country around it along the Tioga Pass. I knew, however, that the snow might be so heavy that it might not be worth the drive. So two days ago I set out to find out whether the Meadows, Tenaya Lake and some of the easier trails might be free enough of snow to justify going.
When I was young, we came up here a lot. It seemed to me then that there were a fairly large number of Park Service staff who could give informationally rich answers to very specific questions about conditions from hikers, backpackers, climbers, fishers and so on. We once did a five-day backcountry trip up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River and the rangers were able to tell us a lot about the specific conditions at each camp site.
Today? The privatization of a lot of Park services is much more markedly visible. When you talk to the staff at the Visitor Center, the Mountain Store, or elsewhere, they don’t seem to know much of anything. The one thing the Information staffers in front of the Visitor Center did say, however, was that it was absolutely not worth going up the Tioga Road. I didn’t particularly trust this opinion because the person offering it didn’t seem to know much about anything else and didn’t seem curious about what my purposes in going might be.
In the 1970s, if the staff didn’t know, then you’d probably be able to find people at the backpacker’s camps or Camp 4 who would know. Today I can search the web, if I’m sitting over at the wifi-enabled lounge at Camp Curry. So I check. Hiker boards say no, maybe, yes–if you know what you want, the question is answered very well. Do you want to hike the PCT north of the Meadows? Could be very bad. Do you want to hike to Soda Springs from the road? Boots and be ready to get wet, but ok. Do you want a simple scramble up Pothole Rock plus seeing the Meadows themselves, clear of snow but not blooming yet? (This is what I want.) Well, there’s a photo dated June 22 2011 from a hiker showing the Meadows clear. That’s all I need to know. And yet I can’t help but feel that I should have been able to know it from the staff as well as the web.
Am I remembering the past too rosily? Very possibly. I was a kid, a teenager, a young adult, and maybe too inclined to credit the ranger as a trusted authority figure. I intellectually know too well how little the management of national parks was influenced by anything resembling ecological expertise until the 1970s. I probably misremember rangers the way other people misremember professors, as Olympian figures who combined book knowledge of their responsibilities in the National Parks with a lifetime of experience with animals, environments and people.
But this trip to California, both here in the Sierras and the other places we’ve been, is giving me a glimpse of what will happen when we lose a sense of public mission in institutions like parks. And that too has parallels with higher educations, about what we lose when education is offered as a profit-seeking commodity. You can still get the bare bones of what you need but neither the people offering service nor consuming the product have any sense of enduring obligation or commitment to something beyond that transactional moment. Maybe our new technologies of communication and community will make a different public that will more than make up for that loss, and maybe there are forms of private or profit-seeking management that properly value experience, commitment and mission.