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Real Task Will Be Saving Yosemite From Ourselves : National parks: Unless we defuse the profit motive, it makes no difference who runs visitor facilities.

<i> Alfred Runte is the author of "Yosemite: the Embattled Wilderness" (University of Nebraska Press). </i>

If we are to believe the latest headlines about Yosemite, the park--about to fall victim to the Merchant Empire of Japan--has not only been snatched from the clutches of foreign imperialism, but, even more amazing, is now to be fully restored after a century and a quarter of America’s own commercial greed.

In retrospect, however, this latest “rescue” of Yosemite represents but another minor period in the park’s long and stormy history. The fact remains: In Yosemite, and every major park, commercialism is still king.

In short, nothing has really changed. Americans cling to their historic prejudice that government should facilitate, but never run, any profitable business venture. Which explains, in brief, how the Japanese wound up with an opportunity to barter Yosemite in the first place, and why, in the final analysis, merely restructuring the ownership of its concession will do little to protect the park.

For the issue is not, as is often alleged, merely who profits from park concessions. Rather, the issue is profit itself, more specifically, how to rid the national parks of the complex entanglement of commercial privileges whose mere presence has consistently undermined the goals of preservation.

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Since day one of every park’s existence, its so-called profit centers have been spun off to private enterprise. The earliest federal legislation, that authorizing the original Yosemite Grant on June 30, 1864, allowed 10-year leases “for portions of said premises.” No less revealing, all proceeds from those leases were reserved for park development, or were to be spent on “the roads leading thereto.”

Visitor “needs” mushroomed, at first bars, billiard rooms, massage parlors and dance halls and later, still more bars, swimming pools, winter sports and other paid entertainments. If park officials dared say “no,” the rebuffed profit-seeker went straight to the politicians, who let it be known that civil servants were expected to be more “cooperative.”

An so, over time, Yosemite Valley was reduced to another slice of suburbia, now replete with its own jail, police, judge and public courthouse. If only the solution were as simple as unraveling the course of history, to go back and start over as if it were 1864. Fine, the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. will be sold to the National Park Foundation, a so-called nonprofit. Then again, look closely at its board, which reads like a Who’s Who from Fortune magazine. Does the foundation’s partiality for corporate input reflect the opinions of American society at large, and especially the concerns of the environmental movement?

Yosemite’s problems beg for a solution that is downright un-American--defusing the profit motive in every form imaginable. Over time, public whims become hypnotic, taking on lives all their own. Will Yosemite’s “new order,” for example, dare abolish such sacred cows as the annual Bracebridge Dinner Christmas pageant at the Ahwahnee Hotel, at which 1,750 diners in five shifts pay more than $125 each? Will it close even a fraction of the park’s 35 liquor outlets? If not, again, what difference will it make who ultimately gets to hold the next concessions contract? Distractions will still act as powerful magnets for all the wrong kinds of visitation. Meanwhile, no amount of praise for Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. for saving Yosemite from the Japanese can mask the government’s century-long failure to save Yosemite from ourselves. If Lujan is sincere, he will further insist that the next bid for the park concession--whether by a nonprofit, a corporation or the Park Service itself--be strictly limited to providing basic food and lodging. Likewise, the government will move expeditiously to inaugurate a parkwide system of public transportation, which, when fully functional, will be required for every visitor. Public transportation, like basic services, would be a responsible social filter, denying no one the privilege of access but nonetheless challenging each visitor to ask: Is simply my being in Yosemite recreation enough?

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So far, Lujan’s pledge to raise the government’s “take” in Yosemite again misses the point entirely. It is the very idea of taking anything that needs to be abolished. Ideally, the national parks were intended as the antithesis of America’s profit motive, the antidote to our daily diet of me-first commercialism. It is that pledge we must renew.

Yosemite by every imaginable standard is one of a kind. In that perception, and no other, lie the only tried and true principles for guiding the future of the park as a priceless natural heritage.


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