Yosemite: Overused, Underfunded
A California national park, like others in the US, tries to balance popularity and preservation
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIF.
YOSEMITE National Park, one of America's "crown jewels," has had some rough handling in recent years. Increasing numbers of visitors and declining budgets for upkeep have left the California park a bit shabby. But this site of soaring granite walls, spectacular waterfalls, and more than 1,000 square miles of wilderness, made famous by naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams, may be at a turning point.Skip to next paragraph
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"I think philosophically it's a new day for the park," says Michael Finley, the dynamic young National Park Service superintendent at Yosemite. He is referring to a new Park Service director and a new interior secretary in the Clinton administration who are seen as more friendly to parks; a new contract for the company running the hotels and other concessions here that will provide more money for park maintenance and restoration; and financial help provided by the Yosemite Fund, a private support group.
But over a picnic breakfast on a recent warm Sunday morning, Mr. Finley adds: "Philosophical inclination without money in the bank is an understanding without means to support that understanding."
Yosemite's problems are well known. The number of visitors has jumped nearly 60 percent over the past decade to 4 million a year (25,000 on a busy summer day). The typical visitor spends only about four hours in the park, which means more cars - especially with the increasing number of day-use visitors, who are here for only about two hours and never leave sight of the asphalt.
Ten years ago, about 5,000 tour buses came through in a season; today the number is up to more than 13,000. Since 1980, some 2,000 lodging units have been built just outside the park, and this adds to day users.
More people mean more encounters with wildlife. Children have been chased by coyotes. People have been injured by deer expecting food. Last year, five "problem" bears were destroyed. And so far this summer, rangers have killed one bear doing $10,000 worth of damage a week looking for food in cars and campsites.
"What always surprises me is how quickly the bears adapt to what we do," says Gary Tanaka, a science teacher from Monterey, Calif., who has spent 16 summers as a biological technician here.
Other human contacts affect Yosemite's environment as well. The Merced River has been closed to rafting this summer because of riparian damage caused by campers, "bridge jumpers," and rafters. And Superintendent Finley now has to think about external threats such as acid rain from development in the San Francisco and Central Valley areas, changed weather patterns due to agricultural cloud seeding, and logging around the borders of the park.
But the basic problem remains too many people "loving the park to death," say officials. And although the vast majority of visitors treat the park respectfully, the trend toward shorter visits means it's harder to educate people on park preservation.
"We don't want to be getting rid of the animals, we want to manage the people," ranger Kate McCurdy says. "But that's difficult with such a big turnover."
Just before Memorial Day, rangers had to turn away visitors at 10:30 in the morning because of overcrowding - the first time that has happened in Yosemite's 103-year history. Meanwhile, the number of rangers has gone down.
"We had eight to 10 rangers on the night shift when I got here in 1987," says Frank Dean, management assistant to the superintendent. "Now we have three or four." Overall, the park is down 18 rangers from a year ago.
Just three people specialize in bears (two rangers and a student intern), and only one of those is on the job year round. Yosemite has no money for road improvement in this year's budget, and fewer interpreters are available to explain the park's beauties and wonders than anytime in its history.
In a report titled "Shortchanging the National Parks," the Wilderness Society recently noted that the number of permanent and seasonal rangers in law enforcement here dropped to 19 from 26 last year. The recent shooting of a ranger and the presence of the federal magistrate's office in Yosemite Valley that handles nearly 1,000 arrests a year are reminders that crime can be part of the park experience.