Celebrating Yosemite Part 10: Yosemite’s Unlikely Role in the Sage Brush Rebellion
Located just four miles inside Yosemite National Park, the small community of Wawona appears as an unlikely place for which Sage Brush Rebellion to take hold. But in 1978, the former stage stop within Yosemite became the front line in the growing political war sweeping across the West beginning in the late 1970s over changing federal regulation of public lands.
At issue was Yosemite’s aggressive tactics in removing all private inholdings from within the park either by purchasing or condemning properties in some 240 acres surrounding the loosely knit community of Wawona. Established in 1855 by Yosemite’s first guardian, Galen Clark, Wawona remained outside of the park’s boundaries until 1932 when the surrounding Wawona Valley was added to Yosemite National Park. The small hotel and gas station continued to service park visitors, and the small community slowly grew as inholdings we subdivided and sold as cabin sites. But all in all, the relationship between the growing number of inholders and the park remained relatively peaceful for the first four decades.
The relationship between Yosemite and the 240 residents of the inholding abruptly changed in 1977 when park officials began actively trying to remove all inholdings from within the park. Such action was wholly consistent with NPS policy, with many parks, including Yosemite, having long purchased or condemned inholdings.
While such purchases were often controversial, the issue of inholdings remained rather obscure until after visiting Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs Phil Burton came to the conclusion that the large number of inholdings scattered throughout the national parks were inconsistent with the National Park ideal. Specifically, that logging, mining, and the development of subdivisions undermined the Park Service’s ability to preserve and protect the natural wonders within the park.
In order to correct this problem, Burton joined forces with fellow Western Democratic Congressmen in adding an amendment to the House Omnibus National Parks Act of 1978 requiring the Park Service to acquire all inholdings in all national parks within four years.
The amendment immediately raised alarms in Wawona. Fearing the federal government would soon come and take their property, local residents formed the National Park Inholders Association, naming thirty-two-year-old Charles Cushman as executive director.
A former Los Angeles insurance salesman, the heavily bearded Cushman had bought a house in Wawona in 1970 largely to recapture the magic of his childhood summers spent in Yosemite. Enraged by what he believed to be federal overreach, Cushman quickly gained national attention for his grassroots organizing skills and far-right rhetoric, at one time telling Newsweek Magazine, “We’re the Indians of 1978. Except we’re being kicked off the reservation, instead of being moved from one reservation to another.”
It is easy to see why Wawona residents felt so besieged. As Wawona resident Milt Rowley explained in a letter to Senator Alan Cranston, the park was duplicitously destroying private property, in this case burning the old Livingston Trailer Park, while allowing the Curry Company to construct a new trailer park across the highway. Rowley angrily wrote, “We want Wawona to remain the old historic resting place that it is now!”
Frustrated with Yosemite’s continued assault on what they believed to be their rightful ownership, members of the National Park Inholders Association filed a lawsuit challenging the NPS’s policies, defending commercial development within the park, and suggesting that Yosemite sell off large sections of land to private interests.
Neither the lawsuit nor the amendment passed. But the fight over the Wawona inholdings was just the start for Charles Cushman. Capitalizing on his skills as a grassroots organizer and strong anti-government politics, Cushman soon joined leaders of the so-called Wise Use movement Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb in forming numerous far-right political organizations, including the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
At the same time James Watt took over the Department of the Interior in 1981, President Ronal Reagan named Cushman to the National Park System Advisory Board. Today, Cushman remains an ardent anti-government, anti-environment activist for hire exploiting rural fears for political hay – the lasting legacy of the Sage Brush Rebellion.