I liked this column New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posted a couple of weeks ago, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the US National Park system, and describing the delight he and his daughter found in hiking the John Muir Trail last summer.
It so happens I was on the same trail, along with three of my friends. We did the most southerly section of the trail, from Kearsarge Pass to Mt. Whitney. Being of mature ages we took our time. In younger years I did this section in five days, if I remember correctly. This time we took nine. No regrets. I noticed—though there are no official markers, nor will a google search discover any acknowledgement of it—that Mt. Whitney is considerably higher than the last time I climbed it—perhaps a thousand feet, by my estimate.
We had a wonderful trip, one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. As a result I’ve been thinking about the national parks, and the John Muir Trail (JMT) that goes through three of them. The JMT was built during the Depression, and—remarkably—it is very little changed in the more than 75 years since it was completed. I find these mountain valleys, streams, lakes and passes almost exactly as I remember them from when I first began hiking them 50 years ago.
Surely this preservation is an entirely good thing. It is one orchestrated completely by government action. Left to private actors, this glorious land would be paved and settled and commercialized. I’m leery of government’s power, but surely there are cases when it is extremely beneficial—and this is one.
I’ll go one step further. I’ve witnessed the parks and the national forests endeavoring to figure out how to preserve these beautiful mountains from the people who love them. I saw this first in the 1970s, when daily quotas were first used to allocate permits for backpacking trips. I wasn’t happy about it—it meant that I might not get to do exactly the trip I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. But it wasn’t long before I saw that the trade-off was worth it, because I wasn’t fighting for space with masses of people. Today, what with a vastly increased number of people doing modern pilgrimages on the JMT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) there are more potential stresses than ever. We saw a lot of these folks in our week-long trip, taken in a popular late-summer period. But thanks to the quota system, we were never really crowded. The system doesn’t prevent people from hiking, but it spreads them out over the summer. Only when we were on Mt. Whitney—a hyper-popular hike—did we camp within sight of anybody else. The rest of the time, we saw plenty of people on the trail, but we never had a traffic jam, and we never had competition for an isolated campsite.
There’s also the regulation of fires above 10,000 feet. I remember when this came along—in the 1980s?—and how sad I was to give up campfires. Nowadays, campfires are the exception in the high country. (Only once on our nine-day trip were we allowed to build one.) It’s not because of forest fires. At that altitude, it’s hard to locate enough wood to start a blaze. The problem is that no one could convince people to quit hacking away at the tiny bonsai-style lodgepole pines in their efforts to find wood for a bonfire. These lovely high-country trees had begun to look as though beaver had been chewing on them. I didn’t realize how bad it had become until I saw the effect of prohibiting high-altitude fires. Within a few years those alpine lakes looked the way God meant them to. I still miss the fires, but I think it was a fair exchange.
Finally, bear canisters were first required in the back country during the 1990s. I strongly resisted them. I’d been hiking and coexisting with bears for 30 years by that time, and I didn’t like adding a couple of pounds to my pack. But the bears are great learners, and they had educated themselves and their children in techniques for taking food strung up in trees by backpackers. You could no longer keep bears from getting your food. It was bad for hikers and very bad for bears. So, the bear canisters. The bears took about ten minutes to realize they couldn’t get into them. This summer I met an old ranger in Sequoia National Park who told me that they no longer have problems with marauding bears in the back country. Even in Yosemite Valley, bear problems have all but disappeared. The regulations are working.
I love these mountains, and I hope I live to take my grandchildren into them. If I do, I feel reasonably confident we will find them almost exactly as I first did when I was 12 years old. For that, I thank those who, 100 years ago, had a sense of where government could do good. And I thank those who, working for government as park and forest rangers, apply common sense to make regulations work for the common good.