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Yosemite: a Return to Nature

September 10, 1989

Creation of the Yosemite National Park management plan in the 1970s was one of the most exciting events in the history of natural-resource planning in America. The federal bureaucracy reached out to environmental and user groups and the general public in a remarkable effort to find out what the people wanted in their park. The result seemed clear: They wanted to reduce development and auto traffic in Yosemite Valley and restore the core of the park to a condition as close to natural as possible.

Adopted in 1980, many of the major goals of the general management plan were to be achieved by the 100th anniversary of the park, which will be celebrated a year from now. Of primary importance was the virtual elimination of the private auto from congested Yosemite Valley, to be replaced by buses that would shuttle visitors and their gear into the valley from its eastern gateway at El Portal, 15 miles away on a winding two-lane highway. Other major objects were to reduce overnight accommodations in the valley by 17% and to relocate as many structures as possible to El Portal.

Now it is 1989 and, as any visitor to the valley can see, the visionary goals are far from reality. In fact, the National Park Service does not see a dramatic reduction in private auto use in the valley for at least another decade. How it is to be achieved even then is not particularly clear at the moment. Valley accommodations remain at the same level as in 1980. And nearly 1,500 park service and concessionaire employees still live in the crowded valley. This news comes in a 42-page status report just released by acting Supt. B. J. Griffin. It is disappointing news to conservation groups that had ardently supported the 1980 plan. One Wilderness Society official said it seems that the Park Service is not really dedicated to the goals of the master plan.

Not so, declares the Park Service in the planning report. "The National Park Service is committed to fulfilling the basic vision of the 1980 (plan) and its prescriptions for Yosemite in order to preserve the park's spectacular natural and scenic wonders for present and future generations." The Park Service should be taken at its word, but in fact, only strong action by the national Administration and Congress can make fulfillment possible.

The 1980 plan was adopted just a year before the Reagan Administration took office and dramatically switched park policy from resource protection to construction of user-oriented facilities, including highways. The nature of park usage has changed, too. There are more day visitors driving in from new tourist accommodations in the Sierra foothills just outside the park. Visitors who stay in the valley usually leave their cars parked and walk, bike or take shuttle buses during the day. More people are coming in by tour bus. More are visiting the park during what once were the off months of December to March.

And some portions of the management plan were strong on vision, but lacked realistic foresight. The movement of employee housing to El Portal has begun, but that in itself will create more traffic on the El Portal Road until adequate buses can be put in use. Many visitors rebel at the idea of leaving their autos outside the park and relying only on shuttles for transportation.

Still, the new report is correct in saying that there now is less noise, less traffic and less air pollution in the valley through the incremental traffic management and relocation programs that have been achieved. The management plan has not failed. It remains in force. The challenge now is for the park service, the park concessionaire, Congress, environmental groups and the public to renew their commitment to a more natural, less congested Yosemite Valley.

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