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Quest for quiet at national parks

From Yosemite to Grand Canyon, Park Service moves to limit snowmobiles, jet skis - even cars - in a policy shift.

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2000


After nearly 90 years of promoting the unbridled use of combustible engines to deliver tourists to the doorstep of America's natural treasures, the Park Service is moving to throttle down the impact of machines.

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From the scenic highways of Yosemite to the breathtaking chasm of the Grand Canyon, the agency has an ambitious goal: To protect, and in some cases, restore, a lost sense of "natural quiet."

Experts say it represents one of the most profound policy shifts in the agency's storied history. Among the sweeping proposals:

*Plans were unveiled Monday to dramatically curtail auto traffic in Yosemite. The proposal would destroy existing parking lots and cut the number of in-park hotel rooms, replacing cars with buses and shifting demand for lodging to gateway communities.

*In Yellowstone, the agency proposes to ban snowmobiles, which are used by 70,000 winter visitors annually. Instead, visitors would ride over-the-snow coaches to reach trailheads for cross-country skiing and popular destinations like Old Faithful.

*At the Grand Canyon, the agency is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop a plan for managing aircraft noise here and at dozens of other parks. On the ground, the Grand Canyon also will soon ban autos, requiring that visitors ride electric buses or light rail, and then either walk or ride a bicycle to the congested South Rim.

*Next month, the Park Service proposes to implement a ban on personal watercraft, namely jet skis, at all but 21 of the system's 379 parks and recreation areas.

Although plans for regulating each motorized use are being hatched separately, Destry Jarvis, a senior policy adviser in the US Interior Department, says all are linked by a philosophical thread.

"What we are doing is returning to the very reason why parks were created, and [we're] seeking to protect the natural values that set them apart," he says. "Where laws are being broken, it will stop."

Follow the rules

Mr. Jarvis says a substantial body of evidence suggests that the Park Service has not complied with the agency's own rules. Most parks, he says, have been overwhelmed by the auto and by the advent of a variety of motorized fun-craft. If the Park Service does not act now, he adds, the agency may be unable to safeguard its crown-jewel preserves in the face of growing population pressure.

Yet critics say the Park Service is pandering to young and athletically fit visitors, and clamping down on vehicles will affect access for the handicapped and elderly.

"Flying over parts of the Grand Canyon is the most environmentally friendly way to see that wonderful sight," says Norm Freeman, who operates Scenic Airlines, which offers aerial tours. "I'm not suggesting that we throw all caution to the wind," he adds. "I am suggesting that there is room for all of us, and there are more-prudent methods than government intervention."

The Grand Canyon's overflight manager, Tom Hale, disagrees. The agency, he says, is charged by law with protecting a range of experiences, while safeguarding the park against activities that impair natural resources.

Hikers should be able to go into the canyon maw without encountering the whine of propellers or the sight of aircraft, he says. So the Grand Canyon is developing the first noise-management plan of its kind - in conjunction with the FAA and Indian tribes whose reservations abut the canyon.

"This is a unique place, and it needs ... a unique level of protection," Mr. Hale says.