YOSEMITE -- It's almost like a conversation between John Muir and Edward Abbey.
Just how pure and pristine do you want to make one of America's scenic jewels? Those two giants of environmentalism might have found themselves in opposite camps over a long-standing issue over some hallowed high ground in Yosemite.
Park visitors know well that though self-reliance is a vital part of a high wilderness adventure, a few basic public conveniences can take the edge off.
Sometimes those amenities -- such as drinking water and restrooms -- need upgrades. But some environmentalists don't believe upgrades are the issue. They ask if the creature comforts should be there at all.
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Yosemite National Park is in the early phases of planning its utilities improvement project for Vogelsang High Sierra Camp and Backpackers Camp. The camps' water supply and waste-water systems have deterio- rated, and more stringent state and federal regulations require that the facilities be revamped.
The project also would decide what to do with a composting toilet at Backpackers Camp. The toilet was closed in 2004 because of extensive damage caused by marmots, according to the National Park Service.
No work has started, Yosemite spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman said. But the public scoping process will begin Tuesday and run through Feb. 13. Scoping refers to information exchanged about the scope of a project.
This will give the public a chance to air concerns and make suggestions before repairs start.
"If there are issues we aren't considering, we need to know," said Jennifer Nersesian, park branch chief for public involvement and outreach.
Public brainstorming could become an important addition to the upcoming environmental assessment report and alternative project ideas that the park serv-ice is required to provide. A draft document will be available for public review by summer.
"People are very emotionally attached to the camps," Freeman said. "They are certainly highly valued by users. But some people feel we shouldn't have the infrastructure."
At 10,300 feet, Vogelsang is the highest of five High Sierra backpacking camps, about 7½ miles south of Tioga Road in the Tuolumne Meadows area. It's accessible only on foot, and hikers can visit it as part of a loop trail with camps 5.7 to 10 miles apart.
Hikers can sign up for a guided trip that goes through all the camps, and the beauty, other than the scenery, is that all you need to carry is your personal belongings. The camp, which dates to 1923, offers water, food and tent shelter.
"The whole issue is appropriateness," said George Whitmore, the Sierra Club's Yosemite committee chairman of the Tehipite chapter, which includes Merced County. "The camps are in the middle of a large wilderness area, so does it make sense to have an enclave of civilization in the middle of wilderness?"
The visitors are not the problem, but the upkeep of the camps' resources, he said.
Food deliveries and hauling out waste by mule train can hurt the trail system and wildlife, said Greg Adair, director of Friends of Yosemite Valley, an environmental group. It's involved in litigation over the park's Merced River Plan.
"The camps install an open-air hotel in a wilderness setting," he said. "Revision of camp infrastructure is not appropriate until they look at the effect on wilderness value."
Nersesian said she is aware that some of the public is interested in the bigger picture -- the issue of the camps instead of just the utilities project. The park service is taking those concerns into consideration.
Might elimination of the camps be considered seriously in the future?
"Eventually -- yes," Nersesian said. "But I don't know if it's going to get to that level ... at this point."
Until then, the park service hopes to develop a plan to repair the camps' utilities without hurting natural resources. The park must keep quality high in these sensitive areas, Freeman said, adding: "We're trying to maintain standards. We need to go above and beyond because of the protection of wildlife."
The project may involve adding filtration and disinfecting the water supply, and repairing and replacing the water storage tank. It also could address grease buildup in the septic tank; fix or replace the dosing tank, which treats waste-water; and repair the mound soil- absorption system.
Other potential work could replace or remove Backpackers Camp's composting toilet, add stock hitching poles to the backcountry utilities staging areas and restore social trails.
All this work suggests the camps are here to stay. "If you were to decide whether they should be here or not, well, you've sunk a bunch of money into it," Whitmore said. "Wouldn't it prejudice your approach to it? That's an issue that needs to be raised."