Your humble narrator & Half Dome
Your humble narrator & Half Dome

Last week I spent a few days in Yosemite National Park, which I hadn’t visited since I was about nine years old. I went there to relax and not think about policy, but I couldn’t help it. At every turn, Yosemite reminded me of why we all should value “Big Government” – that dreaded bogeyman of the far right – and got me thinking about the unfinished business of environmental justice.

First, for anyone who hasn’t been there, Yosemite is truly staggering. The pictures here can’t possibly capture the experience of seeing and experiencing the grandeur of this place.

We forget too easily that we only have Yosemite to enjoy because the government stepped in to protect it from damage that had already begun to be inflicted by settlers and miners moving into the region. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln declared Yosemite a public trust, the first land ever set aside by the U.S. government for preservation and public enjoyment. It became a national park in 1890.

Some on the political right want us to believe that the “free market” is the be-all and end-all of American society. Just “trust the market” and protect it from government interference, they tell us, and the market’s invisible hand will fix all our problems.

Baloney. Left alone, the free market would have blanketed Yosemite Valley with vacation condos and put a McDonalds on top of Half Dome.

The market is a mechanism, not a deity. It does pretty well at things that can make a profit, but is neither capable of nor interested in activities that don’t fill cash registers – like preserving natural beauty or protecting the health of poor children. We need government for that, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Big government is good. For anyone or anything that isn’t a profit-generator – including most human beings on the wrong side of our growing wealth and income gaps – big government is a necessity.

Taft Point and El Capitan
Taft Point and El Capitan

Grateful as I am that Yosemite has been protected from human greed, I couldn’t help notice that – putting aside the European tourists, who were present in substantial numbers – the demographics of the visitors I saw didn’t come close to matching the demographics of California. I did see a couple of organized youth groups that were predominantly Latino, but otherwise the crowd skewed far whiter than our state’s population.

I can’t state positively why that was, but the racial wealth gap surely plays a role. Yosemite is not a cheap place to visit: If you’re able to spend more than $250 a night on accommodations, you have plenty of choices, but if your budget goes much below $200, those options thin out dramatically. And the more economical choices often involve camping, which isn’t feasible for everyone, and which in many cases may not be that economical if you haven’t already made an investment in camping gear.

Yosemite is amazing, and the National Park Service deserves credit for taking care of it and other national treasures with a way-too-small budget. But these astonishing places should be accessible to all, and we haven’t quite managed that yet.