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Star Op-Ed Section - Page A5 Star

July 21, 1996 Editorial: Was Real Cause of Rockfall Human Error?


by Staff Science Writers, The Daily Republican Newspaper

Related Yosemite National Park Stories:

YOSEMITE VALLEY - Yosemite visitors have been climbing all over Glacier Point since the 1890's. Some of them have fallen over the cliffs. No one seems to have been aware of the dangers. National Park Service Rangers opened the Vernal Fall Trail today. It had been closed since July 10th from the rockfall off Washburn Point over 2000 feet above the Valley Floor.

University of California seismologists are comparing last week's rock fall at Yosemite National Park to a magnitude 2.15 earthquake. One Yosemite visitor was killed and six others were injured when a 31,500-ton piece of the Glacier Point apron broke free and fell 2,200 feet to the Yosemite Valley floor on the Merced River at the Happy Isles Nature Center.

In 1927 the Calvin Coolidge (R) administration approved construction of the Happy Isles, a California State Fish Hatchery was built by the Fish and Game Commission. A refreshment stand was also constructed at Happy Isles together with the toboggan slide an a site fronting Camp Curry. These were completed in July together with the Ahwahnee Hotel. That year, the all-weather highway connected Yosemite Valley with Merced, California.

The Carneigi Institute of Chicago aided in re-establishing the NPS theme for the Yosemite Valley Floor, including all of the administrative and service necessities. It would, in 1928, go back to the themes that were dominant among the greater values of Yosemite, re-establishing preservation - and not recreaction - as the primary purpose of Yosemite National Park.

Because of the all-year highway the Yosemite Valley visitation increased 245% to 490,000 visitors. Carl Russel was the Chief Park Naturalist. Dr. Harold C. Bryant was Park Superintendent. To accomplish this end, the Yosemite National Park Board of Expert Advisors was instituted that year.

So it was that in 1928 the Yosemite Rangers informed visitors of the importance of preservation of tYosemite Valley's natural resources. Rangers warned visitors to be on the look-out for falling rocks and told the visitors not to feed the Mule Deer or the Black Bear. In spite of these warnings some visitors discovered for themselves why Rangers had cautioned them. Some were bitten by Black Bear and some were nicked by Yosemite Mule Deer, and when visitors strayed off the designated trails, rocks were known to fell from above upon the unwary. And, so it was that urban development continued in Yosemite Valley as commercialization grew and the natural resources of the Valley began to dry-up.

For this reason the National Park Service is still attempting to preserve the natural resource that once was Yosemite while at the same time it is tearing-up Glacier Point and building a Granit stone amphitheatre at Washburn Point.

Robert Uhrhammer, a University of California seismology researcher, said the sheer force that rocked the Sierra Nevada compared to a small earthquake that might have been felt several miles away. He estimated that the 200-foot slab of granite dropped at a rate of 230 mph, taking about 12 seconds to fall the entire distance.

Yosemite is a precarious ecological niche and a dangerous geologic wonder. The frogs and toads have ceased to sing there in the Spring. Yosemite Waters are toxic and visitors are warned not to drink from them. Wildlife management has been a failure. There are thousands of round boulders free-sanding on its domes and cliffs. These huge rocks were left where you find them when the last ice-sheet retreated up Tenaya Canyon maybe 10,000 years ago. When there is an earthquake, some of these rocks fall into Yosemite's canyons and onto roadways, trails, and buildings. An urban crime wave infests Yosemite Valley and the back country.

Many friends of Yosemite remember that in 1980, three hikers were killed by one of these boulders while they were hiking on the lower portion of the Yosemite Falls. Many displacements from soil erosion happen after the snow melts in the Spring. Park Service maintenance employees have been killed in rockfall incidents while removing snow from Park roadways.

Rangers who work in Yosemite Valley are especially alert to the danger of falling trees and rocks. It is rare, however, to witness a rockfall with the force and destructive power of the Glacier Point rockfall on July 10th. It is fairly common to witness drug sales and frequent car theft, mugging, and daylight roberies in Yosemite valley these days.

The Glacier Point rockfall created a secondary wind force that leveled hundreds of mature Ponderosa Pine, Cedar, and Dogwood trees on the Valley Floor at the Happy Isles Nature Center. The Vernal Fall trail is a link to the Yosemite Back Country via the John Muir Trail and the equestrian path to the top of the Fall.

Given the National Park Service' long history of 'preservation' of the commercial activities in Yosemite it is not so surprising that the Clinton White House is engaged in widening the human cultural intervention in the Park for political purposes. Yet, for years it has been the practice of the Park Superindentent under Republican administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Reagan to follow the intent of the Yosemite Master Plan to systematically dismantle non-natural Park amenities. Goodbye to the Ansel Adams Wilderness!

If Park Service construction is the proximate cause or not may take some time to determine. Clearly the Glacier Point area became unstable on or before July 10th. The NPS will continue to warn Yosemite visitors of the hidden dangers all around them. What they won't tell visitors is that the NPS construction project had something to do with the rockfall on July 10th.

NPS construction activity on that cliff is clearly human interference with the natural system. One thing is quite clear, the rock fall caused one fatality and numerous injuries including dust inhalation requiring hospitalization of visitors. As a consequence of the rockfall, whether due to natural or human agents, there was loss of human life and destruction of natural resources, the NPS interpretative assets and government hiking trails. Yosemite National Park is not the John Muir Wilderness. But, it has become even more deadly! So long Yosemte it's been good to know ya!


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