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California and the West

Babbitt Unveils Parking Plan for Yosemite

Outdoors: Proposal would cut traffic by up to 60% and remove buildings to restore habitat. It appears to have broad support.

March 28, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — For generations, a family day trip to the heart of Yosemite National Park has meant piling in and out of the car at Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Much of that day might also be spent on the lookout--not for bears or the California spotted owl--but for the ever-elusive parking space.

With a comprehensive plan released Monday for remaking Yosemite Valley, the National Park Service hopes to put an end to that scenario and forever change the way the public comes to Yosemite.

If the plan is adopted by park service management this year, the vast majority of visitors will leave their cars on the periphery of the park, potentially cutting traffic on the valley floor by 60%. Visitors would reach final destinations such as majestic El Capitan by shuttle bus, bicycle or on foot.

The proposal framed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in a speech before the Commonwealth Club is a compromise that has won over the broad middle in the national environmental community, but angered others who say it is either too restrictive of public access or not restrictive enough.

Babbitt insisted that the plan accomplishes the twin goals of restoring as much as 180 acres of wetlands, meadows and forests that had been overrun by buildings and human beings, while still allowing people ready access to Yosemite.

"People are welcome to their park," Babbitt said. "We don't manage national parks by taking the easy step of saying, 'Stay home.' That would just further the breach between Americans and their natural world.

"We can improve the visitor experience and at the same time we are recovering and restoring the landscape to something more approximating its original condition."

The five-volume plan presented Monday presents five options, including leaving current buildings and management in the mile-wide, 7-mile-long Yosemite Valley unchanged.

The park service's "preferred" option would make a number of significant alterations, including: eliminating more than 1,000 parking spaces in the valley and directing cars to lots in outlying El Portal, Badger Pass and Crane Flat; moving housing for about 600 employees out of the valley to nearby communities; closing 3.2 miles of one main road to cars and leaving the path for pedestrians and bicyclists; restoring parts of the Merced River by removing three of 11 bridges and a dam.

About 375 campgrounds lost in a 1997 flood would never be rebuilt and 10 others would be removed, cutting in half the number of camping sites that historically existed in the valley.

To accomplish these goals, other land on the valley floor would have to be developed with, for example, a new central parking lot for 550 cars and rebuilt units of Yosemite Lodge.

Babbitt said he is determined to see the proposal to its completion, after watching as other plans for Yosemite foundered. After three months of public hearings ending in early July, the plan must be approved by Yosemite's superintendent and by the Western region chief of the Park Service.

Prospects for the Yosemite Valley plan got a boost Monday, when representatives of three major national environmental organizations--The Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Parks Conservation Assn.--stood alongside Babbitt and offered their endorsements.

"You don't have to be a policy expert to realize this is great," said Natural Resources Defense Council board member Christine Russell. "It means that future visitors will be able to get around the valley easily on foot, on bicycles or in shuttle buses. Instead of noisy traffic, they'll hear birds and waterfalls and the Merced River running through the valley."

On busy summer days, as many as 7,000 cars have crammed into the narrow valley and its two one-way thoroughfares. Dozens of buses sometimes had to line up at popular destinations like Yosemite Falls. Overcrowding procedures even allow closure of the valley to cars, although that hasn't happened since 1996.

Critics said the plan is just the latest example of the Interior Department and park service moving ahead too quickly. They noted that the agencies had already printed the proposal even before all public comments had been received on the park's last major plan, a blueprint for protection of the Merced River that is supposed to help guide all Yosemite planning.

A lawyer for Friends of Yosemite Valley suggested that the park service was "circumventing the entire public process" by pursuing a macro plan for the valley without a plan for its principal river. Attorney Julia Olson called the move "totally illegal" and said critics might sue to stop the plan.

Lawsuits have played a major role in redirecting Yosemite planning efforts in recent years. Widening of a major route into the park, California 140, was stopped by litigation. Another suit prevented reconstruction of much of the flood-damaged Yosemite Lodge, because critics said it was clearly in a natural area that should remain open.

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