WHEN I first visited Yosemite National Park with my parents and sister and the family spaniel in our shiny new postwar Studebaker, the total number of visitors to the park each year was about 800,000. There was plenty of space to enjoy the beauty captured in the photos of Ansel Adams, and one could still agree with western writer Wallace Stegner that "the place descends on our human shrillness like a quieting hand."
In the decades since, that number has skyrocketed more than fourfold to 3.4 million and is projected to reach 4 million by the turn of the century. This is far beyond what's called the park's "carrying capacity," particularly since most visitors continue to come in private automobiles. We have brought our human shrillness with us in the form of bumper-to-bumper traffic and those luxuries of modern living we seem to feel necessary to the experience.
The same is true of other national parks this time of year. The visiting population at the Grand Canyon has risen 60 percent in the past 10 years, and the number during the first five months of this year is 28 percent above 1991. A million more cars entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year than a decade ago. The number of visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park is growing 5 percent a year, and this May it was 36 percent higher than the same month a year ago.
And it's not just the summer-vacation crush that's affecting the parks but the "shoulder seasons" (spring and autumn) and winter as well. "Two years ago [Yellowstone National Park] adopted a winter-use plan that projected a 15 percent growth in visitation over the next decade," states a new report by the Wilderness Society. "That much growth has occurred already, with eight years to go."
The 1916 legislation establishing the National Park Service said parks were to be enjoyed but only "in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
When he visited Yosemite Valley three years earlier, British Ambassador James Bryce told his American hosts: "If you were to realize what the result of the automobile will be in that wonderful, that incomparable valley, you will keep it out."
National Park Service officials are well aware of these problems, and some steps have been taken to address them. But the situation is getting worse instead of better. It's long past time to address the twin predicaments of too many autos and too much commerce in the national parks if those future generations are to have anything left to enjoy.
Twelve years ago, a master plan for Yosemite was drawn up that would have increased public-transportation facilities in the park and ultimately excluded private vehicles from Yosemite Valley. For a variety of reasons (amounting to special-interest pressure and lack of leadership), that plan has done little but gather dust.
Now the Wilderness Society (with considerable help from park-service officials) has issued a "Yosemite transportation strategy" that could go far in protecting that national treasure as well as serve as a model for other national parks.
Phase one would expand the shuttle system within the valley, increase parking outside the park and reduce it within the valley, set up a bus fleet to ferry visitors to the valley, and establish a day-use reservation system for the busiest times - all by 1995. Phase two (to be completed seven years later) would move another 2,400 parking spaces to satellite areas, increase the bus fleet and further expand the shuttle system, and restore several meadows and orchards to a natural condition.
All of this would cost something under $30 million, or less than a dollar a person for every visitor over the next 10 years (not counting the gas and hassle that would be saved). The last thing anybody wants Yosemite to become is a nature theme park. But those who think it's inconvenient to leave their auto behind should consider what's been done at Disney World and Epcot Center in Florida. There, one can go for days without missing the family car. The same philosophy should guide the planning for nation al parks.