Smaller Congregation For 'Temple of Nature'

Today the vaulting granite walls of Yosemite Valley will echo with a sound not heard here for months - the gasp of the awe-struck tourist.

Yosemite, one of the most beautiful and popular national parks, has been closed since Jan. 2 when it was struck by the area's worst flood this century. A combination of warm rains falling on a deep snow pack in the Sierra Nevada sent water cascading into the narrow valley, severing roads, destroying sewer systems, and sweeping away cabins.

The flood's destruction has accelerated efforts to find a solution to the congestion that sometimes turns John Muir's "temple of Nature" into a parking lot. Without the facilities to meet the usual demand, the National Park Service feels compelled to curb the flow of cars into the valley - something many consider a good thing.

"This is what I'm calling our silver lining," says park Superintendent B.J. Griffin. "It's an opportunity and it's an imperative."

Some environmentalists want to take even more radical steps to ban the auto. But in the surrounding communities that depend on park tourism to survive, many oppose these plans as an ill-prepared road to economic disaster.

The debate over how to deal with overcrowding is echoing throughout the national parks system. At Grand Canyon, partial steps have been taken to cut back tourist overflights, and there is talk of limiting car traffic. Alaska's Denali National Park has limited private motorists and substituted shuttle buses. Many of the country's most popular parks are instituting an experimental higher fee system this summer to raise revenue. The move could also end up cutting visitation.

In the case of Yosemite, nature has forced the issue. For at least this coming summer, the park will be able to accommodate at most about 80 percent of its usual flow of visitors and traffic.

Tourists will still be able to enjoy the sculptured spectacle of towering Half Dome and the misty magnificence of Yosemite Falls. But despite more then two months of cleanup, the valley still bears plenty of evidence of nature's destructive power. Park benches are tilted against trees along the banks of the Merced river. Fifty-foot tree trunks are piled like matchsticks atop river boulders. Trails end abruptly where bridges across icy green streams have disappeared.

"Things are not going to be the same," says park ranger Christine Cowles. Visitors are calling the park to discover that beloved campsites used for 20 years are destroyed, never to be replaced.

The National Park Service has requested $178 million in emergency repairs, an amount that is likely to be included in a broader appropriation to deal with flood damage throughout California.

In part, this money will allow the park to implement a 1980 master plan that called for moving facilities out of the flood plain and shifting some entirely outside of the park. The plan, which also called for reducing private vehicle traffic by 20 percent, was not implemented for lack of funds.

The park request enjoys unusually broad backing, including from the area's two Republican congressmen. The surrounding gateway communities have suffered serious economic damage from the park's closure and from the layoff of some 1,000 people working for park concessions.

The difficulty for businesses outside the park is the plan to limit cars to 5,100 a day starting on Memorial Day. Private vehicles would also be required to get a reservation to enter the valley. Originally, the 1980 plan envisioned putting such a system into place several years from now.

"A day-use reservation system would kill the motel industry established on the border of the park," says Rep. George Radanovich (R) whose district includes most of the gateway area. Hoteliers already complain that talk of this, on top of the flood closure, has triggered cancellations of summer reservations.

Local officials instead support creation of a bus system to shuttle visitors from parking areas outside the park, with the incentive of free passage or a lower entrance fee. Mr. Radanovich is planning hearings here next week to press for a halt to the car curbs and to use some of the funds for emergency bus service.

Park officials also favor such a bus system but it has to be organized by local businesses. In the meantime, emergency steps to cut the car traffic are needed, they say.

Environmentalist and conservation groups support the Park Service plans, for Yosemite and for other magnet parks.

"It's tragic for the communities involved that depend on tourist traffic but since it's happened, it's appropriate to move forward to reduce the traffic and reduce the urban impact in the valley," says Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director. The Sierra Club, which was formed to create the park more than 100 years ago, favors ultimately banning all private vehicles in the valley.

Meanwhile, at least one group of Yosemite users has enjoyed the absence of visitors - the animals. Rangers report an unusual influx of rarely seen wildlife, including bobcats, black bears, even some mountain lions. At night, before the tourists' return, only a coyote's howl and a horned owl's call pierce the roar of falling waters.

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