Breath of Clarity

Half Dome Management

Half Dome was described by J.D. Whitney in 1868 as “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be trodden by human foot” (Childers 2018). It took just seven years for mountaineer George Anderson to dispel that claim when he summited the monolith in 1875 by threading rope through six-inch iron bolts pounded into the granite (Childers 2018). His route remained in place for decades, allowing others, including Galen Clark and John Muir, to make the ascent (Childers 2018). But over time, the bolts became too worn and rusted for safe use, and so in 1919 the Sierra Club installed a cable system that remains in place today (Childers 2018). Set roughly a meter apart and suspended through a series of stanchions anchored into the rock, the cables allow novice and expert climbers alike to summit Half Dome (Childers 2018). For decades, the only real management issue facing NPS was repairing the lower cable section after heavy winter snows (Childers 2018).

Now, managers deal with the hike being overpopulated and its terrain being damaged as a result of human use. Hikers trampled plants, eroded switchbacks, and left piles of litter in their wake (Childers 2018). The tread of thousands of rubber soles had polished the granite on the cable route to a gleaming sheen, making the footing particularly treacherous during rainstorms (Childers 2018). In response, the National Park Service (NPS) issued an emergency interim permit system, limiting the number of hikers on the cables during the busiest days of the summer (Childers 2018). Two years later, the agency extended the system to seven days a week and began work on setting rules on how best to manage the popular climb (Childers 2018). NPS settled on restricting the number of hikers to 300 per day through a permit system (Childers 2018). Half would be issued to those holding wilderness permits and half would be allocated through a lottery system (Childers 2018). Two rangers would be stationed in the Little Yosemite Valley administration camp for enforcement and compliance (Childers 2018). While I agree with the general presence of rangers, I would suggest that they be scattered in different areas across the trail. Further, casting the struggle over Half Dome as an example of the tension between preservation and use masked the more complicated issue of how to manage traditional expectations of access with growing legal and ecological limitations (Childers 2018). The designation of Half Dome as wilderness in 1984 meant it must retain its “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements” (Childers 2018). Such requirements seemed to necessitate the removal of the cables. However, the establishment of the route 45 years prior to the passage of the Wilderness Act makes the cables a historic, and traditional, route up Half Dome (Childers 2018). Still, according to the courts the Organic Act obligates the Park Service to prioritize protection of natural and historic resources above recreational use (Childers 2018). Further, I disagree with regarding the cable as historic and therefore worth keeping because there is no objective criteria making some services more historic than others. Other parts of the park are very historic and are still going to be available for the public to enjoy. In the case the cable does not get removed, perhaps then, the answer is not how to best protect Yosemite’s resources, but rather how to manage its visitors’ expectations (Childers 2018). NPS needs to focus on preparing visitors who do the hike. There needs to be clear designation indicating that it is a difficult hike and a mechanism in place to guarantee people are well-equipped such as making them fill out information about the gear they plan to bring as they are purchasing permits. Or, perhaps, visitors could be checked in before they begin the trail to ensure they have appropriate equipment. The increased preparation by resource managers will deter unsure people from doing the cable hike.


Childers, Michael. 2018. “For Public Use, Resort, and Recreation: The Struggle Over Appropriate Recreation in Yosemite National Park”. 35(3): 304-311.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Mary, if I am not mistaken, there is a back way to the top of Half-Dome that is not a dangerous hike. I wonder if some of the folks that are doing the hike might find getting to the top via an easier, safer route might satisfy their needs? That would reduce the crowding on the face, and improve safety and impact. What do you think?

My Comment:

Having some of the hikers take the back way to the top is a great idea. There would need to be management techniques implemented that specifically target non-experienced visitors such as extra signage to assist with staying on trail and leaving no trace. The managers can also put information stations which would empower people to learn more about the history of the hike they’re doing, develop a stronger connection to the place, and hopefully treat it well as a result. There would still be the issue of this back trail attracting more people to Yosemite in general and then other sections of the park would be more crowded as a result. They may do the easy route on this trail but the harder, busier route in other areas of the park. If there could be easy alternatives to the other hiking sections around Yosemite, it would allow the benefits of this idea to spread throughout the entire park.

Comment by Jenny Kelley:

Your post and points brought up are very interesting. I too wonder at the discrepancy between the Wilderness Act and the current usage of Half Dome. Also, I was unaware of the Organic Act obligating park services to focus on the natural space as opposed to recreation use. I think it is reassuring in a way that so much concern is given to the pleasing of the public but at what point must we draw a line? With the Wilderness Act and the Organic Act, it would seem park service have a solid explanation for restrictions that the public will have to abide by. I feel like the public needs to understand their freedoms are important but not at the expense of our natural spaces which we are trying to preserve not only for nature’s sake but also for the generations to come. I am also not sure if freedom equates to accessibility to a 9000 feet wild mountain. It seems more like a man vs. nature tug of war maybe?

My Comment:

Good points. The National Park Service (NPS) did declare that “when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant” (Ross 2013). It is also crucial to remember the role designated parks have as national wildlife sanctuaries (Ross 2013). However, none of the NPS foundational statutes provide specific direction on how to manage and protect resources in the context of recreational use (Ross 2013). It leads me to consider that the missing guidance in practice may have been the intention so that resource managers could take the values of the laws and apply them to the current circumstances. The 2006 version of NPS Policies do parse the language of the foundational statutes in more detail than previous versions, primarily because the case between Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Dabney in the late 1990s was threatening to establish a problematic interpretation if the park did not provide its own detailed interpretation (Ross 2013). The law recognizes that, with justification, agency interpretations may change overtime as long as the new interpretations fit reasonably within the statutory language and intent (Ross 2013). It also shows the courts have the power to make conservation the priority over public enjoyment. In the face of climate change, it makes sense to prioritize conservation over unrestricted citizen freedom in pristine places. Also, just as regulations can get stricter in the current times, they can also loosen later on if resource managers find that prioritizing visitation would more so nourish the ecosystem. Parks play a very important role in education. So, perhaps resource managers are going to find that facilitated visitation can make it so that more can have access without the terrain suffering as much brutal consequences. Or, resource managers may find a creative way to keep conservation predominant and encourage unrestricted visitation. In addition to Congress and the courts, at several points in NPS history, scientists have pushed park management in new directions (Ross 2013). For example, Aldo Leopold’s report called “Wildlife Management in National Parks” and the Robbins report called “A Report by the Advisory Committee to the National Park Service on Research” held some weight (Ross 2013). Although the recommendations of the Leopold and Robbins reports may still lack full implementation, NPS policy and viewpoint started to change immediately after their publication, as evidenced by U.S. Secretary Udall’s 1964 directive that park areas be managed toward maintaining, and where necessary reestablishing indigenous plant and animal life, in keeping with the 1963 recommendations of the Leopold report (Ross 2013). Elevating regard for science should continue to lead critically important changes in NPS management direction (Ross 2013).