YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Visitors here spend so much time gazing skyward at the famous cliffs that many never see the tent shanties where the low-wage park workers live.
But to some park officials and Yosemite devotees, the tent cities with names such as Boys Town and Ozone are deplorable eyesores with living conditions akin to migrant labor camps.
Everyone agrees that the camps should be ripped out in the name of enhancing the natural splendor of Yosemite Valley. But when the National Park Service recently released a plan to move 1,000 park workers to Foresta--12 miles west of the valley, in the winter habitat of the great gray owl--watchdog groups from the Wilderness Society to Yosemite Guardian were outraged.
"We all agree that there's too much crowding, too much traffic, too much urbanization on the valley floor," said Garrett De Bell, director of Yosemite Guardian. "But for the Park Service to simply transplant those problems to an area like Foresta, which is pristine in its own right, is absurd."
The National Park Service has not disavowed the Foresta plan, which calls for a small city replete with water and sewer trunk lines and a parking lot overlooking Big Meadow. But in the face of more than 1,000 letters of protest, the federal agency is looking more closely at other options.
One alternative would keep 1,000 workers in Yosemite Valley in new or improved housing and move 400 employees to new headquarters in El Portal, a Merced River canyon town 16 miles west of the park.
Park officials say this plan would remove the tent shanties, return a small portion of the valley floor to its natural state, spare the great gray owl habitat in Foresta and reduce the environmental impact of buses needed to carry commuting workers in and out of the valley.
"It's safe to say there is a lot of rethinking going on," said Jim Hammett, the park service's chief architect on the housing plan. "We can change. We may change."
Hammett and his critics agree that the issue is deceptively simple: How far should the federal government go to reclaim a swath of Yosemite National Park already developed, at the expense of a swath that remains relatively pristine?
The backdrop for the debate was set in the 1980 Yosemite general management plan, produced after years of public discussion. The plan was a clear call to pare the urban presence in Yosemite Valley, the most heavily visited area of the park.
Ever since, park officials have grappled with the problem of locating enough developable land within easy commute of the valley. The area needs to be flat and large enough to accommodate the park service headquarters and the offices of the park's main concessionaire, Yosemite Park & Curry Co. A new concessionaire is expected to be chosen in January.
Housing is needed for up to 1,400 employees. The development must not harm protected species or infringe on the wild and scenic status of the Merced River, park officials said. "There just isn't a whole lot out here that fits the bill," Howard said. "Every plan contains some notable impacts."
Foresta offers the requisite flat land. Located near California 140, one of three year-round entrances to the park, it is home to 60 private and government-owned cabins.
The Foresta plan would build housing for 1,000 employees above the Big Meadow habitat of the great gray owl, a California protected species. During three recent winters, nine great gray owls--about 10% of the estimated California population--were spotted there.
In choosing Foresta, the National Park Service acknowledged potential harm to the owl. To lessen the impact, officials proposed planting a vegetation screen along a rim of Big Meadow and restricting construction during months sensitive to the owl. But critics say the measures are insufficient.
"In their own report, the park service says the Foresta plan will hasten the demise of the great gray owl," said Mark Francis of the Sierra Club's Yosemite Task Force. "And it's not only the owl. The whole concept of using prime parkland for warehouses and parking lots and administrative buildings is ludicrous."
Project manager Hammett said Foresta was the best choice given the paucity of other sites and the stated goal of reclaiming 15 acres of Yosemite Valley.
"The thing we didn't anticipate from our critics was the strong support to leave housing in the valley," Hammett said. "This goes against the theme of the 1980 general management plan. We can amend the plan but we need a good reason."
In their opposition to Foresta, the major conservation groups split into two camps over housing plans.
The National Audubon Society, Yosemite Guardian and the National Parks and Conservation Assn. argue that workers should be kept near their jobs to lessen the impact of commuting. This would mean housing cashiers, hamburger flippers and maids in new or improved housing in Yosemite Valley. A small number of administrative personnel not needed in the valley would move to El Portal. Such a plan would cost $103 million.