Cherish Yosemite

AS the only Monitor correspondent to have filed an insurance claim for bear damage to a rental car while at Yosemite, I have always had a strong professional and personal interest in the crown jewel of United States national parks. The bear incident (a midnight breaking-and-entering caper involving rights to a loaf of French bread) happened 12 years ago. I drove up in the stillness of a warm, post-tourist September to research an article on the future of Yosemite, in particular the ``master plan'' then being formulated to lessen human impact. The goal was to preserve the extraordinary beauty that had so enthralled John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ansel Adams.

Yosemite Valley had become clogged with automobiles, souvenir and video shops, restaurants, motels, and a worrisome crime problem tied to alcohol sales and drug peddling. The plan, announced a year or so later, would have reduced lodging by 17 percent, eliminated recreational facilities (like tennis courts) that didn't relate to the natural beauty, and cut the number of parking spaces in half while increasing public transport. Eventually all those recreational vehicle behemoths and other private autos were to be barred from the valley floor entirely. All good ideas.

Imagine my surprise, more than a decade later, to learn that virtually nothing has been done to carry out the recommendations in the plan. The Reagan administration effectively stifled it and cut the park budget, which meant there were fewer ranger talks about things that really matter there, even though Yosemite was being ``loved to death'' by 3.5 million people a year - 37 percent more than when the master plan was announced.

Recently, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., in language that was chauvinistic if not downright racist, huffed and puffed over the possibility that the concessionaire who's had a sweet deal running the commerce in Yosemite Valley for 30 years would be bought out by a Japanese corporation.

It's true that the Japanese do love their theme parks. (Plans for a ``Sonyland'' to be located in southern California were announced recently.) But it's unlikely that Matsushita Electric Industries' $6.6 billion buyout of MCA Inc., which owns the concession at Yosemite, would have created a Yosemiteland. No mechanical bears singing ``It's a Small Park After All'' as they water slide down Half Dome.

But Lujan's pressure did result in the Yosemite Park and Curry Co. being split off before Matsushita takes over MCA's Universal Studios and other choice Hollywood properties, and that's probably just as well. The concession company was sold to a nonprofit foundation for the bargain basement price of $49.5 million (less than half its full value), and the foundation will turn the assets over to the National Park Service.

That keeps one of the crown jewels in United States hands, but doesn't in itself solve Yosemite's big problem, which is too many people doing too many things better done at the mall back home. It does, however, present the opportunity to get better control of the concessionaire - whoever that turns out to be when the current contract runs out in 1993 - and to get back to implementing the master plan of 1980.

Some good beginnings to that plan recently got under way when Park Service director James Ridenour announced that as many as 20 buildings, some employee housing, and service facilities for 350 park vehicles would be moved out of the valley. Let's hope Ridenour and Lujan keep on that path toward moving all unnecessary park buildings and vehicles and activities as far away as possible.

Just as important is putting the concession contract out for competitive bid, making sure Uncle Sam gets his fair share, and limiting the stuff sold. Right now, the Curry company pays the US less than 1 percent of gross revenues to sell virtually whatever it wants to a captive market. A modest profit on wildlife books, T-shirts, and Ansel Adams reprints should be about it.

John Muir was a great talker. (You can just imagine the nights he and the verbose Teddy Roosevelt spent around the campfire in Yosemite.) But when it came to describing this place, he was left nearly speechless. ``The most extravagant description I might give,'' he said, ``would not so much as hint its grandeur and the spiritual glow that covered it.''

We need to get back to treating Yosemite as reverently as John Muir did.

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