The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1992, Volume 38, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness

By Alfred Runte. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Bibliography. Notes. Illustrations. Index. 271 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by M. Guy Bishop, Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Author of articles on California and Western American history, and currently researching the history of Utah’s Zion National Park.

Alfred Runte, a public historian from Seattle, looms large as an expert in the history of America’s National Parks. His book, National Parks: The American Experience (1979), is widely hailed as a pathbreaking work in the field. And Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness, should serve to enhance Runte’s reputation.

San Diegans, like myriads of other Americans and foreigners, have come to appreciate Yosemite’s beauty over the last one hundred-plus years. Yet Runte, like other current scholars of National Parks history, finds a true dilemma in this attraction. In fact, to purloin a recent movie title, this love affair with Yosemite might have even reached the point of being a fatal attraction. Since the late nineteenth century greater visitation at Yosemite and other National Parks has inevitably led to greater, and potentially deadly, development.

As Runte observes, “the public has come to expect roads, hotels, stores, and campgrounds in Yosemite Valley as a matter of course” (p. 9). And improved access and facilities have combined to increase visitation at Yosemite to near destructive proportions. Such ready access has brought with it what must strike most observers as a clear anomaly in such a place of refuge–crime!

In 1987, Yosemite Valley was forced to expand it’s jail from sixteen to twenty-two beds, while nearby a new courthouse was completed. Rangers now patrol park highways much like police cruise city streets. They arrest not only speeders and drunk drivers, but also robbers and rapists. If, in light of the term national park, all visitors came with the expectation of finding the best and not the worst of human endeavors, then as the author notes, something “was visibly out of control in Yosemite” (p. 225).

Dr. Runte is clearly a crusader for National Park preservation, and he asks probing questions of Yosemite’s history which must be asked of all National Parks. For example, in discussing the near-monopoly held by park concessionaires, Runte asks, “For whom and for what were national parks intended?” (p. 97). And he is not hesitant to take a firm stand against what he perceives as destructive forces. Speaking of wildlife control and park management’s efforts to safeguard visitors often to the detriment of animal preservation, Runte argues, “People [should] have the courage to accept certain risks when entering natural environments” (p. 220).

While all readers will not accept or even like some of what Dr. Runte says, Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness should prove a thought-provoking book for all who read it. Furthermore, the excellent color as well as black and white illustrations are well worth the purchase price. Those who love Yosemite, as Alfred Runte clearly does, will applaud this book. And anyone with an interest in National Parks and preservation should want it on their book shelf.