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California and the West

Blueprint for Yosemite's Future Ready

Recreation: U.S. plan to reduce visitors while restoring nature is to be released today. Support is expected from major environmental groups.

November 14, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A long-awaited plan designed to reduce crowding and honor the natural majesty of Yosemite National Park is scheduled to be released today by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

The Yosemite Valley Plan envisions sharp reductions in vehicle traffic, fewer overnight visitors, increased public transportation and a restoration of nature from the banks of the Merced River to the foot of Yosemite Falls.

The 10-year, $343-million blueprint is expected to influence nearly every aspect of the experience of the 4 million people annually who visit the 7-mile-long, mile-wide valley that John Muir insisted be preserved as one of America's great natural temples.

Such changes have made little progress in the two decades since they were first suggested. But the new plan fills in the specific details and benefits from $105 million in repair funds set aside by Congress after a 1997 flood.

The improvements will be phased in gradually, depending on additional funding and the approval of specific project plans.

Even before the final release of the five-volume tome, most major environmental groups were lining up in expectation of supporting its balance of biological restoration and visitor services. But some critics said it would over-commercialize Yosemite Valley and make it too expensive for some families.

"It's the grandest of plans for Yosemite that is as bright as Yosemite's granite and clear as the waters of the Merced River," said Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society.

Sierra Club member Joyce Eden, a frequent National Park Service critic, said she sees the proposal as "a massive development plan . . . filled with smoke-and-mirrors obfuscation."

If adopted next month, as expected, by the Western region director of the National Park Service, the plan would:

* Reduce the number of day parking spaces in Yosemite Valley by more than two-thirds to 550, encouraging most visitors to park at three other locations and ride shuttle buses into the heart of the park.

* Cut the number of overnight accommodations by 274--with removal of some of the hundreds of tent cabins at Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp and construction of a lesser number of heated, year-round cabins at new locations.

* Move housing for more than 550 employees of the Park Service and Yosemite Concession Services out of the crowded valley and to new locations, including El Portal and Wawona.

* Remove the old, overrun Cascade Dam and Sugarpine Bridge from the Merced River and eliminate most development from a 300-foot-wide zone around the channel to protect the Merced, designated a wild and scenic river by Congress.

* Shut a 3.2-mile section of a main thoroughfare, Northside Drive, to vehicle traffic. The plan, dependent on reducing traffic 55%, then calls for converting the road to a bicycle and walking path, from Yosemite Lodge to El Capitan.

The final plan arrives after 7 1/2 months of hearings across the state and nation, provoking more than 10,000 comments, letters and e-mails. Babbitt personally intervened in the drafting of the final report. He has said he regards the Yosemite Valley Plan as central to the Clinton administration's environmental legacy.

The public responded favorably to most of the plan's broad strokes, particularly the call to reduce automobile traffic and restore 176 acres of meadows, woodlands and riverbanks that had been subject to human development. But others were less sanguine, if their favorite attraction or overnight accommodation was threatened with destruction.

The subject of rooms and campsites in Yosemite Valley inspired a particularly intense debate, with the Park Service's final plan striking a balance between removal of old facilities and construction of new ones. The plan envisions considerably fewer tent cabins at Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp and fewer motel-style rooms at Yosemite Lodge. But new cabins with heat and plumbing will be built at the lodge and at Curry Village, replacing some of the lost rooms.

The valley's natural environment dictated those changes, Interior Department officials said. At Curry Village, 253 tent cabins marked for removal lie in the path of frequent rockslides. Another 164 tent units that face demolition at Housekeeping Camp stand in the flood plain of the Merced River.

In proposing the construction of new, heated cabins, planners said they were trying to accommodate more visitors in winter months. "As long as you are going to have some development there, why not have something that is attractive to visitors year-round?" said one Interior Department official, who asked not to be named before the formal release of the plan.

The changes will have a mixed effect on the cost of an overnight stay in Yosemite.

Lost will be more than 400 of the traditional tent cabins that, at $45 a night, have been one of the cheapest ways to stay in the valley. Also gone will be more than 100 of the motel rooms at Yosemite Lodge that cost about $100 a night.

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