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.
"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.
For more than a decade, park planners have been talking about reducing the human impact on Yosemite. A "General Management Plan" was adopted in 1980 that would have moved much of the administrative and maintenance activity outside of Yosemite Valley, cut the number of lodging units, reduced recreation activities incompatible with the park (like tennis and ice skating), and limited the number of motor vehicles, while increasing public transportation.
But for the most part, that plan has sat on the shelf, the victim of budget cuts through the 1980s. "We're chipping away at it," Mr. Dean says, "But we haven't done too well in implementing the plan for a number of reasons - mostly having to do with funding."
His boss is more blunt. Because of declining federal budgets, Finley says, "We have been failing in our mission of basic park protection, failing to provide adequate services to visitors, and failing to fulfill our stewardship role."
That picture may be changing. New Park Service Director Roger Kennedy has received high marks from park preservationists. Among other things, he has suggested that day visitors in the future may have to make reservations to get into the park on busy days.
"If grizzlies, redwoods, waterfalls, and canyon walls could cheer, they would be doing that today," Wilderness Society President Karin Sheldon said when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt appointed Mr. Kennedy in May.
In the long run, the best news for Yosemite may be the new concession contract, which goes into effect in October. Under the 30-year contract that is about to expire, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company (which had been running hotels, restaurants, and other facilities for the past 93 years) returned just 0.75 percent of its profits to the National Park Service.
Under the new 15-year contract, a subsidiary of the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Delaware North Company will have to earmark 20.2 percent of its gross receipts for park improvements, a total of approximately $100 million over the life of the contract.
"The wonderful thing about the contract is it provides regular and predictable funding," Finley says. It's also an opportunity to implement more of Yosemite's General Management Plan. Retail activities will be reduced 25 percent over the life of the contract, "probably within the first four or five years," he says. Visitor housing will be reduced 20 percent, and the relocation of employee housing and other facilities to the park's borders or beyond will be accelerated.
At the same time, more money is expected to become available to test and put into place low-pollution vehicles like compressed-gas or electric shuttle buses. Park officials also will have the means to support ecological improvement now under way in Yosemite more fully. This includes reintroducing bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons, planting willows to return stream sides to a more natural state, and trail restoration.
In the recent lean-budget years, these kinds of projects received much funding from private donations through the Yosemite Fund. Over the past seven years, this nonprofit organization has raised $3 million for park improvements from 20,000 donors. Gifts to the fund have ranged from large corporate checks to rolls of pennies from a boy in New York.
"We like experimental kinds of projects," says Robert Hansen, executive director of the San Francisco-based fund. "We see ourselves as a venture-capital-type support group."
Among the group's 1993 projects are trail repair in several areas that had been degraded, monitoring of bighorn sheep and small mammals, a study of the impact of pack-animal grazing in Yosemite's high-country wilderness, rehabilitation of an amphitheater used for evening interpretive programs, and provision of "bear-proof" food lockers at campsites.
Park officials find such programs most helpful. "It's only through private support, such as the Yosemite Fund, that we're able to move forward on our natural and cultural preservation program," Finley says.
Can the "natural processes" and "biodiversity" Finley talks about be restored to Yosemite? Yes, he says, but only if it becomes less cluttered with man-made things. And only, he adds, if visitors remember the truth of something John Muir once said: "When you pull a star out of the universe, you understand it's connected to everything else."