In 1912 James Bryce, British ambassador to the United States, went on a sightseeing holiday in the American West.
While pondering the glorious granite monoliths of Yosemite National Park, he offered this counsel to his 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."
Eighty-five years later, the Clinton administration is set to take the ambassador's advice by unveiling today a bold plan to replace cars with public-transportation systems in three of the country's crown-jewel national parks. The pilot projects at the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yosemite mark the beginning of what could become a historic shift in the way future generations approach some of the most treasured outdoor shrines.
Park Service officials and environmental groups see the move as necessary to help relieve congestion and return heavily trafficked parks to an ambiance not experienced since earlier this century. But, for visitors, the experiment will require adjustments: If the plan is eventually expanded to other parks, gone forever could be the age when cars perched beside wondrous natural landmarks were the emblem of the great American summer vacation.
"I view it as not only sweeping but a radical departure from the way we have visited parks from the 1930s to the present time," says Grand Canyon Supt. Rob Arnberger. "I think this will be remembered as a momentous day in the history of our agency."
The government's pilot project will include fleets of energy-efficient, clean-burning diesel buses, and light-rail train lines connecting "staging areas" in communities outside the three parks with destinations inside.
Such mandatory alternative modes of public transport are designed to eliminate bumper-to-bumper traffic, shrink the expansive sea of asphalt pavement in favor of more wildflowers, and reduce air and noise pollution. "My absolute, profound feeling from being around parks a good part of my life is that people are not the problem," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in advance of the plan's unveiling. "Cars are the problem, and we are prepared to do something about it."
Flanked by Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and the superintendents of Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Zion, Babbitt will lay the groundwork for what he calls "a major paradigm shift" in how the public uses parks in the future.
Just five years from now, fully 90 percent of the 5 million tourists entering Grand Canyon will leave their cars outside the park boundary and be shuttled by electric light rail or buses to the canyon rim. The current ritual entails 6,500 autos jockeying for 2,000 parking spaces at Grand Canyon Village every summer day.
El Capitan, my capitan
At Yosemite, where mandatory public transit will soon be implemented in Yosemite Valley, 7,000 cars daily - a million cars annually - swarm 2,500 spaces. In Zion, superintendent Don Falvey watched roadside vegetation become so trampled that he faced having to clear natural meadows for new parking lots. He balked.
"Instead of enjoying the scenery, the experience for a lot of visitors is simply trying to avoid hitting other vehicles," Mr. Falvey says. What we're proposing "will change the whole visitor experience and make it extremely rewarding."
The crisis of too many cars marring the visitor experience is something Mr. Babbitt knows well. During his youth, his family owned a general store on the Grand Canyon's South Rim, and he spent summers there working and exploring.
He says incredible changes were wrought during the 1960s as the national interstate highway system was completed, gas was cheap, and families struck out on two-week pilgrimages to parks. "Today, your first impression of the canyon is across a parking lot full of idling cars and smelly busses," he says.
Back to the future
By relying on rail transportation like the trains of yesteryear that were responsible for making parks what they are today, Babbitt says there is a nostalgic element of going back to the future. "I just don't buy these ideas that we need to solve the problem by putting up a no-entry sign," he says. "Every American ought to have a quality park experience."
Of course, the latest approach to weaning people from their cars is far more benign than the one employed at the turn of the century in Yellowstone. Then, rangers chained autos to trees, which forced tourists to travel on stagecoaches.
Under the new plan, cars will not be supplanted entirely. Visitors with reservations at park hotels and campsites will still be allowed to drive their own vehicles. In addition, motorists who detour through the parks en route to another destination will also maintain access.
The restrictions apply to daily summer users, and they pertain primarily to specific trouble spots. Park Service officials note the agency is not getting into the public-transportation business cold. A voluntary shuttle-bus system in Yosemite, for example, already carries more people per day - about 25,000 - than the number of passengers riding buses in San Diego.
"We have learned that if you make it attractive, efficient, and easy to use, people will take public transportation and enjoy it," says Denis Galvin, deputy national director of the Park Service, who is the originator of the new plan.
Although cars will be restricted in order to reduce the impact on resources, federal planners believe that parks now seemingly crowded will actually be able to accommodate more people. At Grand Canyon, Arnberger says that even if attendance increases to 7 million to 8 million visitors (from the current 5 million) over the next two decades, public transportation will make the experience better for visitors then than it is today.
While some visitors understand the rationale for the move, they know it will require adjustments - uncomfortable ones. "They want to keep the place pristine," says Jay Magus, a visitor to the Grand Canyon from Canada. "But I'd still like to see it from a personal vehicle."
Arnberger expects some resistance from visitors used to driving along the rim, but says tough choices had to be made. "Think of it, when you visit SeaWorld or Disneyland, you don't hear people complaining because they couldn't drive up to Shamu's pool or through the Magic Kingdom," he says. "We are in a position to set the standard not because we can but because we must."
* Richard N. Velotta contributed to this report from the Grand Canyon.