New Yosemite has an old-fashioned feel

A plan unveiled this week would reduce car traffic and lodging in an effort to lessen human impact on the park.

Moments after a late-autumn snowfall, the roads of Yosemite Valley are etched with brown tire tracks, and people are on the move.

Almost regardless of season, weather, or time of day, America's national parks are 24-7 operations, thanks to their popularity with the public.

But after decades of trying to balance public access with natural preservation, the National Park Service is now implementing a philosophy that believes both are achievable.

The approach is at work in Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks, where officials hope to reduce car traffic - while permitting more visitors - through a more-comprehensive public-transportation system, including buses or light rail.

And now that philosophy is taking its fullest expression yet in a new plan to bring a little more nature and a lot more people to Yosemite Valley, a plan Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt called a "model for park management all across the country" at its unveiling this week.

Against a picture postcard backdrop of granite walls sprinkled with snow, Mr. Babbitt laid out what is billed as a rescue plan for one of America's most spectacular, popular, and fragile natural settings.

If carried out, says Thomas Kiernan of the National Parks Conservation Association, "Yosemite will become a model for parks around the world, free from the abuse and pollution of vehicular traffic."

Carved during the Ice Age, Yosemite Valley is a rare mix of pastoral meadows and near-vertical granite walls, drawing nearly 4 million visitors annually, and many more expected in years ahead.

But that projected growth intensifies concerns that the park's essence is already being lost to traffic congestion, belching diesel fumes, and what critics say are attempts to increase gate revenues by creating a conveyor belt for tourists in and out of the park.

Listening skeptically to Babbitt's plan, Les Wilson, a mountain climber from Berkeley, Calif., who has been coming to Yosemite for nearly 40 years, says, "It's industrial tourism. Ultimately, there just has to be some limit to access."

Not under Babbitt's stewardship. He says at every opportunity that "we are not going to turn people away from the parks."

The notion of doing just that was gaining popularity in the 1980s, but all signs are that the idea of limiting park access has now become passe.

Instead, the plans for Yosemite attempt to force more people to leave their cars at perimeter parking lots and take buses into the valley.

The number of spaces for day parking in the valley, for instance, would drop from about 1,400 to 550.

But the total number of parking spaces servicing the park under the plan would actually grow - only they will be farther from the valley floor. Critics say expansion promotes park sprawl and gobbles up more environmentally sensitive land. Also, opponents are not convinced that increased use of buses is an improvement. They point to studies showing that diesel buses can be more polluting than cars.

Friends of Yosemite Valley is one of a handful of environmental organizations opposing the plan. The plan, says director Greg Adair, would "consume more land, would degrade air quality, and would further develop the park."

The Sierra Club, too, has been critical of the plan for Yosemite, though it has stopped short of any legal action. The Friends of Yosemite Valley has ongoing litigation against the Park Service for a related plan for the Merced River and seems poised to try to block this plan in the courts.

Other environmental organizations including the Wilderness Society, the Yosemite Restoration Trust, and the National Resources Defense Council support the plan.

In addition to reducing parking in the valley, the plan will:

Reduce public lodging by 24 percent.

Reduce employee housing in the valley by 40 percent.

Restore 170 acres of the valley to its natural state.

Planners, environmentalists, and the public have been wrestling for 30 years over how to chart Yosemite's future. A plan in 1980 called for banning cars. But it sat on the shelf for lack of funding.

A devastating flood in Yosemite in 1997 pried millions of dollars from Congress and set the stage for finally grappling with the park's longstanding development issues. The current plan has a price tag of $440 million and could take a decade to implement.

Yosemite's beauty has defied description by even the most eloquent. Invoking everything from classic literature to the Scripture, Babbitt drew nods from even his critics when he said the park offers "the possibility of direct experience with God's creation."

The depth of that shared sentiment, though, is apt only to intensify the fight over Yosemite's future.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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