“Take the cables down,” Wilderness Watch

Half Dome – Yosemite Musing

     Yesterday I told you that in the comments the Park got on the Half Dome Stewardship Plan was one from Wilderness Watch. I now present –without comment – the content in their August 4 letter. 

Dear Superintendent:

     Wilderness Watch is providing these comments for the scoping phase of the Half Dome cable system environmental analysis. Wilderness Watch appreciates the National Park Service’s decision to address the issues created by the cable system including the incompatibility of the cable system structure and its maintenance within a designated Wilderness, crowding and the lack of outstanding opportunities for solitude along the entire hiking route, and biophysical resource degradation along the route.  

     The Wilderness Act prohibits structures and installations within Wilderness unless such structures are necessary to meet minimum requirements to preserve the area as wilderness. The Half Dome cable system is not necessary to preserve the area as Wilderness. Indeed, the existence of the cable system is causing substantial damage to the area’s wilderness character, including its natural conditions, undeveloped condition, and its outstanding opportunities for solitude. Because the cable system conflicts with the prohibition on structures and installations, we urge the NPS to include in the EA, and to ultimately adopt in the decision, an alternative that removes the cable system from the Wilderness. The removal should be accomplished using non-motorized and non-mechanized tools and transport. 

     Removing the cables alone may not be enough to resolve other resource and solitude concerns. Therefore, we also urge the NPS to determine the appropriate level of use that will preserve the area’s wilderness character, including outstanding opportunities for solitude. The baseline for making this determination might be the level of use that was occurring when Congress designated the Yosemite Wilderness, since that’s the date upon which the legal mandate to preserve the area’s wilderness character became paramount for this area. It may be, however, that that amount of use was too high and that lower levels need to be set to protect biophysical resources or visitor experience values. 

     We recognize that the cable system has been in place for many years, long before the Yosemite Wilderness was designated. But like many traditional activities or uses, the system is no longer compatible with broader public goals for the area. As a federal judge found in overturning a plan to replace historical trailside shelters in the Olympic Wilderness: “Once the Olympic Wilderness was designated, a different perspective on the land is required. Regarding the Olympic Wilderness, that perspective means ‘land retaining its primitive character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.’” Olympic Park Associates v. Mainella. 2005.  

     That “different perspective” is also reflected in Park Service policy, where visitors are encouraged to accept Wilderness on it’s own unique terms, without artificial aids or assistance. In summary, Wilderness Watch urges NPS to include and adopt an alternative that removes the cables and establishes visitor use limits at a level that preserves the area’s wilderness character, including its experiential and biophysical values. We also urge NPS to use this opportunity to educate visitors about why the cable system conflicts with wilderness policy and values, and the need for both visitors and managers to practice restraint in order to preserve an enduring resource of Wilderness.  

     Thank you for the opportunity to provide these scoping comments on the Half Dome cables plan. We look forward to continued involvement in this process.  


George Nickas,  Executive Director

     Tune in tomorrow fer sher – the long awaited tips on getting a permit blog is up next. Ooooo Ahhhhhhh

Unrelated thought worth quoting: “The universe is wider than our views of it.” – Thoreau

*MrHalfDome – Rick Deutsch – www.HikeHalfDome.com

7 Responses to ““Take the cables down,” Wilderness Watch”

  1. andy Says:

    What a crock of you know what. I guess every granite step, guard rail, or trail should be put back to “wilderness”.

    Of course “The removal should be accomplished using non-motorized and non-mechanized tools and transport”

    Amazing and very sad. Get your permits this year, it may be the last.

  2. Dean Says:

    Some more thoughts, again sorry for the length…btw I am not an American, I’m not lecturing, just my tuppence…

    Looking again at the Wilderness Act, it doesn’t make things easy for the NPS.

    Take this statement under Definition of Wilderness…

    “(2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a
    primitive and unconfined type of recreation”

    Note the “or” in this statement suggesting that “opportunities for solitude” does not have any precedence over “recreation”.

    Section 4(b) is the real tricky one for the NPS though as it appears to put potentially conflicting demands on the agency…

    “preserve its wilderness character”

    Now in isolation this is pretty clear cut, the agency must preserve the wilderness. But the next sentence modifies things considerably…

    “Except as otherwise provided in this
    Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to
    the public purposes of recreational, scenic,
    scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.”

    How does an agency preserve wilderness while at the same time providing the public with all those activities – for us the key here is recreational and hiking is a recreation consistent with the wilderness. Indeed the writers of the Act had recreation on their mind to such an extent they added a special provision for commercial activities to be allowed to cater for recreational visitors!

    If the NPS keep the cables up they could be accused of violating the Wilderness Act since the cables are a man made structure, however if they take them down the public could argue they will have failed in their responsibility to provide recreational use. Indeed one could also argue the cables and the Half Dome hike itself satisfy educational and historical uses also.

    All of this is before you even consider conflicts that are bound to exist between the Wilderness Act, agency responsibility and other legislation such as that affecting historic structures (e.g. the cables).

    Back to the very vague “opportunities for solitude” requirement. First of all how do you measure solitude, it’s subjective and a very personal thing? Also, is the requirement to mean the vast majority of the Wilderness of or can it be applied to small areas like the Half Dome trail? Look at it another way, the Tioga Road cuts through the Wilderness area but isn’t itself classed as Wilderness. You could be standing very close to the road, within the Wilderness boundary and what would your chances of solitude be, with summer traffic whizzing by? Zero.

    The Half Dome hike is very close to the wilderness boundary and it is reasonable to expect less opportunity for solitude along this stretch – there is another 1000square miles to find solitude though!

  3. Maureen Lahiff Says:

    I am more and more convinced that we should continue the question the designation of the trail up to Vernal and Nevada Falls and on to Half Dome as wilderness.

    Issues of safety, habitat degradation, and human waste disposal remain to be dealt with for this trail.

    Those who want solitude in Yosemite can certainly find it, even on day hikes. And there’s always Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and other designated wilderness close by for those seeking splendid Sierra scenery and solitude.

    It’s clear to me that Wilderness Watch is starting with a premise that makes removing the cables a foregone conclusion. A premise which can be and should be questioned.

    Pushing it a bit, we get “reductio ad absurdum” as Dean indicates–no rock work on trails.

    I’ve heard that there are folks who want the High Sierra Camps removed, based on similar arguments. I think reasonable trade-offs can be made, as Dean’s thoughtful comments indicate.

    I am grateful that the park maintains some bridges in the wilderness over creeks and rivers that would be totally unsafe to cross in spring and early summer. And then leaves me the challenge of fording others.

    These questions are always with us. Take a look at the part of the Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan “America’s Best Idea” series that deals with the fight in the 1960s against paving the eastern part of the Tioga Pass Road. The opponents included the Sierra Club if I remember correctly.

    One reason I’m repeating myself here is that Mr. Half Dome said people who are making the decision read what we say here.

    • Dean Says:


      I also wondered about the wilderness designation but if I understand it correctly, one of the strengths of the Wilderness Act is that once an area is designated wilderness it is very difficult for anyone to change it. I suppose the thinking is that if it is easy to change why bother with the protection in the first place.

      I believe it takes an act of Congress to change the designation and I suspect any effort to do this would be opposed vehemently by numerous groups and would take years.

  4. Kathy Says:

    I am not going to repeat what has been excellently said by Dean and Maureen. I appreciate both of these thoughtful comments. It is a tricky path to walk – to provide wildnerness and recreation and solitude and preservation. All of which were stated and kept in mind with the greation of the NP’s and with the Wilderness act. The answer doesn’t seem to be in a black and white all or nothing but rather in a both/and. The HD question is a good example of that – how can we maintain the intergrity of this hike – be it safety, good environmental practices, preservation etc and still provide a means allowing for recreation. Maureen’s example of bridges is a good one (or for that matter human created granite steps) access for hikers in a way that fits with the environments but doesn’t overly “Disneyland” the experience so there still is challenge to those who wish to take on the hike.

  5. Randy Says:

    Thanks for your efforts to keep everyone up to date Rick. This is really a potential nightmare senario. I have always thought the cable situation needed to be addressed in some way, but never thought it would spin into all this nonsense about removing the cables. The cables are part of the trail, and trails ARE necessary “to meet minimum requirements to preserve the area as wilderness”. Unless you are of the opinion that humans should not be visiting the wilderness at all. After all, the whole idea of making a reservation to visit wilderness is a contradiction in itself, is it not? It seems to me that Wilderness Watch is only exploiting the Stewardship plan an excuse to forward the idea that the cables be taken down. I am now of the opinion that the HD area should be re-designated as part of the valley.

  6. Dean Says:

    Can you guess what I’m talking about…

    1. A man made structure in a designated wilderness area.
    2. It has been there for decades.
    3. It doesn’t meet any requirements to preserve the area as wilderness.

    If you guessed the Half Dome cables you’re wrong, sorry.

    I’m talking about aircraft debris, scattered across an area of forested wilderness in Montana. Apparently the plane crashed in 1938, a few decades before the Wilderness Act came into being.

    I read this view on the debris…

    “What remains of the plane has lain where it is for more than 70 years. Removing it is not necessary for preserving the wilderness…”

    In my opinion (I’ve only seen photos) the debris is an eyesore, it serves no purpose and has no business being in the wilderness but “Removing it is not necessary for preserving the wilderness…” according to some.

    I was surprised to find that this is the view of Wilderness Watch. Yes the same group who are asking for removal of the historically significant and barely visible Half Dome cables are quite happy for a rusting pile of aircraft junk to spoil the wilderness of Montana.

    In the interests of balance I should say that, somewhat bizarrely, Wilderness Watch also support the removal of the debris, as long as it is removed on their terms.

    Now I don’t want to focus too much on Wilderness Watch – they are entitled to their opinion and if they want to keep an eye on what govt agencies are up to that’s entirely up to them but I find this contradiction hard to fathom and I think it poses questions about their true motives.

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