The need to control our landscape and manage it seems to be a natural inclination for humans. To understand how the National Park Service manages Half Dome, we must go back in time more than a century, to the creation of Yosemite National Park.
A Mismanaged State Park
Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, establishing Yosemite Valley as a public park for all generations. Although the federal government set this land aside for public enjoyment, the land was handed over to California to manage as a state park.
John Muir, a stalwart defender of the Yosemite landscape, continued to lobby the government for protection not only of the Valley but also of the surrounding area, including Tuolumne Meadows and the high country of the Sierra Nevada. His efforts to protect this vast swath of wilderness succeeded in 1890 when Congress created Yosemite National Park, which covered the upper drainages of the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers. As a National Park, these lands fell under the management of the federal government, and the responsibility of administering these new areas went to the United States Cavalry. However, California still managed Yosemite Valley.
By the late 1890s, the Cavalry was succeeding in its mission to protect and preserve the new park. California, however, was failing to provide proper stewardship for Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. The state-appointed commission that ran the Park was accused of corruption and mismanagement. The commission was regarded as seving the interests of the concession companies, which made handsome profits through hotels, snack shops, tollroads, and toll-trails. Many people saw this as exploiting public land for private gain. Additionally, the giant sequoias were at a constant risk of being logged.
Again, John Muir came to the rescue. He petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt to reclaim control of the Valley and the Mariposa Grove, and thus achieve unity in Yosemite National Park’s management. Roosevelt was convinced, and in 1906 he brought the Valley under the control of the National Park.
Curiously, while Congress was steadily designating National Parks, a dedicated branch of government to manage these parks did not exist at the time. A group of committed and influential conservationists recognized that the nation’s parks needed to have independent management from other public lands where resource exploitation directed management policies. They slowly put together their plan and began to lobby Congress. The work of industrialist Stephen Mather, lawyer Horace Albright, the Sierra Club, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs paid off in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act.
The Birth of the National Park Service
The Organic Act of 1916 created the National Park Service and gave it the following mission:
“The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations … to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The Organic Act was particularly eloquent for a government document, and it established a high level of protection for the parks. However, in its eloquence, there was considerable ambiguity. For example, could Yosemite build more roads to facilitate public enjoyment of the land? Could the Park allow the concession company that operates the hotels and restaurants to construct an aerial tram from the Valley to Glacier Point because it would provide excellent views and easy access for visitors? Could the Park allow the same concession company to build a hotel atop Half Dome, just as George Anderson dreamed in 1875? Arguments were easily made that these “improvements” would benefit current and future generations of park users. However, they were not in keeping with the conservationist ethos that the land should remain undeveloped—the mark of humanity being a simple trail through the forests and mountains.
Eventually, various officials and businessmen proposed all of these ideas. The modern conservation movement that took hold in the 1960s recognized that the Organic Act was not enough to protect America’s public lands. There needed to be another layer of protection to keep park management from inflicting lasting harm on the landscape by bowing to the will of private companies and powerful, but small interests who wanted to see the wildest spaces paved over with asphalt.
The Wilderness Act—Protecting the Park from the Park Service
In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. This act was notable for several reasons.
- Like the Organic Act before it, the writing style broke from typical congressional statements and presented the new laws in simple and almost poetic prose.
- It defined the idea of wilderness.
- It expanded upon the idea of why wilderness was important.
- It listed specific activities that would not be allowed in designated wilderness.
Here is some of what the Wilderness Act says:
“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”
With this law in place, it would take another twenty years for Yosemite’s wildest places, including Half Dome, to be declared “Wilderness.” That declaration came in 1984 with the passage of the California Wilderness Act, which set aside 89% of Yosemite as designated wilderness—over 677,000 acres of forests, mountains, streams, and lakes—including everything 200 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley. There would be no more dreams of hotels perched on the summit of Half Dome. There would be no new lines of cables snaking up the shoulder to the summit, though the existing set could stay because it predated the Wilderness Act.
Too Much Love for a Fragile Landscape
The designation of most of Yosemite as wilderness—and the new guidelines that came along with it—arrived just in time. Starting in the mid-1960s, Yosemite saw massive increases in the number of backpackers and mountain climbers. From 1968 through 1975, overnight use in Yosemite’s remote backcountry increased 250 percent! The peak of backpacking came in 1975, with backcountry visitors in Yosemite spending over 219,000 nights outside. Visitors damaged fragile resources. Wildlife became human-conditioned. Popular wilderness areas such as Little Yosemite Valley, which serves as the base camp for many Half Dome hikers, saw hundreds upon hundreds of visitors per night. Soon, in addition to the throngs of cars on the Valley’s roads, there would be human traffic jams on the historic Cables Route. There was nothing wild about the situation.
As the number of people wanting to scale Half Dome—whether overnight or in a day—grew substantially, the National Park Service was forced to confront the challenges of a degraded and congested wilderness experience. The Wilderness Act required “opportunities for solitude,” but these opportunities were increasingly rare in Yosemite, especially on the trail to Half Dome.
The Park Service responded in several ways over the following decades. The first action came in 1972 with the creation of a quota system to limit the number of people camping in Yosemite’s wilderness. With this system in place, the Park could begin to fix some of the environmental damage caused by previous overuse. Knowing how many people would be using the area in the future, the Park could also mitigate future impacts by establishing designated camping locations and consolidating trail networks.
By the early 2000s, the Park also had to confront the issue of over-crowding on the historic Cables Route. When Anderson first climbed the Northeast Shoulder in 1875, it was one of the most challenging routes in America. The 1919 cables, however, transformed it into a well-established trail that any person of average fitness could reasonably attain. Of course, in 1919, learning of Yosemite, getting there, and then finding the correct path to the Dome was still a considerable challenge. Over the decades, word of the Cables Route spread around the United States and the world, as did images of the iconic Half Dome. As the mountain became famous around the world and accessibility to Yosemite became easier, more people wanted to climb the route, and justifiably so, for it is a fantastic sight. During the height of the summer seasons of the early 2000s, there were up to 1,200 people a day ascending the cables! Imagine George Anderson’s dismay from the grave; if only he had installed a permanent set of cables in 1875 rather than a homemade rope attached to rickety eyebolts, he might have died a wealthy man from tolls collected, and his hotel might have become a reality.
The over-crowding on the cables brought other problems aside from limited solitude. The hordes of people on the summit damaged the delicate ecosystem. Hikers eager to build rock shelters and rock art, e.g. cairns, threatened the existence of the Lyell salamanders that live atop Half Dome. Vegetation was trampled and destroyed. Human waste and toilet paper dotted the summit plateau. Campers destroyed the pine trees that John Muir extolled in his writing, save for one secluded far from sight.
The crowds were also a danger to themselves. The Cables Route had become one of the most dangerous traffic jams in the world. There were deaths on the Cables Route nearly every year. Hikers slipped from the cables and fell to their deaths hundreds of feet below. Often, people became trapped on the cables during storms, which, in the mountains, can seemingly appear out of nowhere. The already polished granite became a slick, glassy surface in these conditions. Worse, the steel wires became giant lightning conductors on the exposed face. With potentially hundreds of people on the Cables Route at once, it became extremely difficult for hikers to descend the cables to safety when the skies opened with rain, hail, or lightning.
The Park responded with a Half Dome quota system in 2010. By limiting the number of people hiking to the summit, they hoped to limit environmental damage, preserve the wilderness ethos, and reduce risks to hikers. Today, the number of people who try to ascend to the summit is limited to 300 per day. This quota is controlled by a permitting system that includes people going to the summit in a day and people going to the summit as part of a backpacking trip. Since the adoption of this permit system, the number of deaths has dropped significantly. During the summers from 2013-2017, there were no deaths on the cables, a statistic that bucked the emerging trend of the prior decade and has resulted in fewer tragedies and grief-stricken families.
While the Park does try to mitigate accidents involving hikers through permits, signs, and education, the fact remains that the mountains are dangerous and people will continue to venture into them.