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Dissent Clouds Plan to Bus Visitors to Yosemite

Tourism: Madera and Tuolumne counties pull out of the proposed transit system, but the proposal to reduce traffic in the park will proceed, officials say.

May 02, 1999|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A plan to limit traffic in Yosemite National Park by busing tourists into the valley has hit a pothole: Two of the five counties expected to host the transit system have dropped out of the venture.

Tuolumne County pulled out of the plan last week, joining Madera County, where officials also complained that the bus system would favor routes to the park through other counties and could cause more environmental problems than it would solve.

They also questioned the basic premise of the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation Strategy: that car traffic to the national park must be sharply reduced to restore the park's natural aesthetics.

"They are creating a very huge, year-round regional transportation system for a very seasonal problem," said Gary Gilbert, a member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, which voted to drop out of the program in February.

The National Park Service and its partners in Merced, Mariposa and Mono counties said they regret the defection of the two counties, but will move ahead with their plan to bring subsidized bus traffic to Yosemite by the summer of 2000.

"We simply have to find alternative ways to bring people to Yosemite Valley and to move them around the park," said Chip Jenkins, chief of strategic planning for the park.

The partnership plans to begin with a modest pilot program that will send less than 20 buses a day into Yosemite. Most will travel via California 140 to Yosemite Valley, but a few will arrive from the east side of the Sierra Nevada, via California 120. Exact routes haven't been established, but buses would most likely depart for Yosemite from such cities as Merced, Mariposa and, on the eastern side of the Sierra, Lee Vining.

As an incentive to ride the bus, families will be charged $6 to enter the park, less than a third of the $20 they now pay if they drive in themselves, park service officials said.

The National Park Service identified vehicle traffic as the single greatest threat to the ambience and natural resources of Yosemite when it drew up a general management plan for the park 20 years ago. In the past two decades, crowding has increased--with the number of visitors jumping from 2.5 million to more than 4 million a year.

Parking lots and roads now cover what should be open meadows and wetlands, park planners say. Summer weekends can bring more than 7,000 cars to the narrow floor of Yosemite Valley.

The park service hopes to publish this summer or fall the first draft of a plan that seeks to return much of the valley--home of the famous granite monoliths Half Dome and El Capitan--to a more natural state. Flooding two years ago gave new urgency (and $190 million in recovery funds) to plans to move and replace buildings, campgrounds and parking lots.

But opponents say the bus system has been pushed ahead too fast, without waiting for the more comprehensive plans to take form. They claim that the regional bus system is merely the forerunner of attempts to push all cars out of Yosemite Valley.

"If they are going to change private auto access to public transit access, that is an issue that has impacts, both economically and environmentally," said Mark Thornton, the Board of Supervisors member who led Tuolumne County's decision to drop out of the transit system last week. "The question is: Why are we doing this until there is some showing that we should do this at all?"

Thornton also suggests that diesel buses will bring more pollution than cars and that realigning Yosemite Valley's bus stops, crosswalks and parking would solve congestion problems.

Park officials respond that they may use natural gas or other low-emission buses and will reduce pollution because of the number of cars removed from the road.

But a key issue for leaders of Tuolumne and Madera counties is their belief that the nascent bus system is already tilted in favor of the California 140 route through Merced and Mariposa counties, where most of the buses in the pilot project will travel.

Supervisor Gilbert of Madera County says the park service needs to consider alternatives. For instance, he said, his county would benefit if the park would allow tourists to rendezvous with buses at the Badger Pass ski area south of Yosemite Valley, where a parking lot can hold 1,000 cars. Those visitors would pass through Madera County towns such as Oakhurst, Gilbert said.

The renegade counties hope their action will prompt federal and state officials to withhold funding for the bus system--forcing reconsideration of the entire plan. Thornton and some environmentalists said they would prefer to see the park service consider a rail line to Yosemite.

Plan Might Encourage In-Town Stays

Park service officials said they believe many of the complaints really represent a fear of the unknown. They argue that creative planning by the counties might actually encourage tourists to stop longer--and spend more money--in the so-called Yosemite gateway communities.

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