New plan may help Yosemite Park

The Associated Press
Tuesday November 14, 2000

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The force of nature and the hand of man often have competed for control in this awe-inspiring valley of towering granite, tumbling waterfalls and pristine waters. 

On summer days, cars clutter Yosemite Valley as passengers rubberneck at rock climbers creeping up the massive walls of El Capitan, snap photos of Bridalveil Fall or park on the side of the road so they can slip into the cool green pools of the Merced River. 

In trying to strike a balance between the two, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Tuesday is scheduled to unveil a plan intended to “reduce the human footprint” in Yosemite Valley – a plan that likely will remove parking spaces, cut campsites and reduce employee housing. 

Developers and environmentalists have battled for nearly three decades over the future of Yosemite. The plan to be announced Tuesday will take more than a decade to implement. 

“They are on the verge of what I think will be a damn fine plan for Yosemite,” said Jay Watson of The Wilderness Society. “People will leave Yosemite remembering it for its waterfalls and granite, and not for gridlock and asphalt.” 

The so-called Yosemite Valley Plan, however, is not expected to make everyone a happy camper. 

The Sierra Club, for one, has concerns that the $343 million plan may be more about development and less about preservation. The environmental organization has filed a federal suit against a related plan to protect the Merced River and has said a $33 million repaving project damaged the river’s habitat. 

“Big bucks are getting in the way of the goal,” said Joyce Eden of the Sierra Club. “The will of the people is to protect Yosemite. Throwing money at it has proved to be detrimental.” 

Change will not come overnight in a land shaped over millions of years, carved by glaciers, eroded by runoff and scarred by fire. It’s taken umpteen drafts, plans and environmental assessments to reach this point, and park officials say it could take 10 to 15 years to carry out the plan that has its roots nearly three decades ago. 

In the 1970s, a draft management plan for the park was so soundly criticized for its slant toward development – it called for building a convention center, among other things – that it was rejected. 

A revised plan to reclaim priceless natural beauty, reduce traffic and crowding and promote enjoyment was adopted in 1980 and provides a guideline for the Yosemite Valley Plan, which concentrates on the 7-square-mile corridor that draws 95 percent of the 3.7 million annual visitors to the 1,169-square-mile park. 

The valley plan is not the first time the Park Service has sought to turn the clocks back to the time before white men first entered the valley in 1851. 

Over the years, a dance hall, a kiddy train and a petting zoo all have been scrapped. Rangers no longer feed the bears to entertain visitors. And a Cadillac dealership is a distant memory. 

The catalyst for the latest act of man came directly from nature itself. A powerful flood on New Year’s Day 1997 swept away cabins, destroyed campgrounds and overturned cars. 

“The flood was devastating to the park infrastructure, but was a blessing in disguise because it said camping shouldn’t be next to rivers, lodging shouldn’t be next to rivers,” said Scott Gediman, the park spokesman. “It gave us a golden opportunity to rebuild these facilities and to do it in the right way.” 

While much of the 1980 plan had languished without action, the flood brought $176 million in congressional funding that a previous lack of political will had failed to do. 

A draft of the valley plan earned a mix of criticism and praise at public forums this spring, and from more than 10,500 written comments. Park service employees said they read every comment and made changes before completing the plan. 

Some comments suggested doubling or quadrupling campsites and increasing the current 1,662 parking spaces to 5,000, said Chip Jenkins, chief of strategic planning. On the other end of the scale, some said the park’s proposed reduction to 550 parking spaces would not go far enough. 

“We had comments from people who said the only way you should see Yosemite is to walk in,” Jenkins said. 

As the public comment period was concluding this summer, Cliff Tveter wandered through one of the cherished family campgrounds to lobby other campers to oppose the plan that threatens to eliminate some of the sites. 

“This park is owned by us, not the plants and animals. It belongs to us, not the bears.” said Tveter, 59, of Walnut Creek. 

Lee Cate, 65, of Whittier, who has visited the park since 1946, was not keen to learn that his campsite could be gone next year, but he said there should be a balance between the needs of people and wilderness. 

“I do sympathize with (the Park Service’s) problems,” Cate said. “They’re damned if they do, they’re damned if they don’t.” 

One group anxious to see the plan is employees of Yosemite Concession Services, which runs the stores, restaurants and lodges. While most of the Park Service employees live in nearby El Portal, most concessions employees live in the valley. 

“I love living in a very small community with a beautiful backyard,” said Ken Wood, 32, a concessions auditor who, like so many others, moved to the park for a summer and never left. 

When Babbitt presents the final plan as one of his last acts in office, living in the shadow of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls could become a thing of the past, part of an evolution that’s happened since man first reshaped the valley. 

On the Net: 

Yosemite Valley Draft plan: www.nps.gov/yose/planning/yvp/ 

Sierra Club: www.sierraclub.org/