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Yosemite Valley Plan Seen as a Quest for Beauty and Balance

Recreation: Babbitt says funding and an alliance of environmental groups will ensure the success of the blueprint for restoring natural settings. But costs, and conflicts over the park's evolution, will be ongoing.

November 15, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YOSEMITE VILLAGE — Mother Nature began the process nearly four years ago--sending down a flood that washed hundreds of campsites, dozens of hotel rooms and acres of asphalt from the floor of Yosemite Valley.

In a snowy meadow beside the Merced River on Tuesday, National Park Service officials pledged to continue nature's efforts--with a sweeping, 10-year plan to restore open space and riverbanks and to push back mankind's sometimes overbearing footprint in the heart of Yosemite National Park.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt introduced the $442-million Yosemite Valley Plan, saying it will finally create the political will to achieve the nearly three-decade-old goal of "restoring Yosemite's breathtaking beauty and providing balance."

"The plan will conserve the natural and cultural resources of Yosemite National Park," Babbitt said, "while providing easy access and improving the quality of our visitor experience."

The plan reduces the number of day parking spaces in the valley by more than two-thirds and encourages visitors to park in one of three lots that will be a half-hour drive or more away from prime views of breathtaking Bridalveil Falls and the towering granite monolith El Capitan. The voluminous blueprint also calls for the removal of more than 400 tent cabins and pushes almost all development at least 150 feet away from the Merced River. Nearly half of the park workers who now live in the narrow valley will be relocated to new housing elsewhere.

The interior secretary and Park Service officials predicted that the proposal will succeed where others have failed because it has wide support in the environmental community and substantial funding already set aside.

The cost of the work has grown, however, by more than $100 million since a March draft proposal was filed. And every meadow, creek and vista in the 7-mile-long, mile-wide valley has its own constituency. As the 35 protesters clamoring behind Babbitt with placards made clear, the fight over the evolution of the valley will continue.

At least half a dozen leaders of the nation's largest and most prestigious environmental groups stood shoulder to shoulder with Babbitt to endorse the proposal. In the background, the sound of ice falls rumbled against the valley's sheer granite walls.

Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society, said the 1997 flood had presented the Park Service with a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform into reality what had historically been a majestic yet elusive vision for Yosemite Valley."

Also praising the plan were the American Alpine Club, which lauded in particular the preservation of Camp 4, one of the world's great havens for climbers and mountaineers; the Yosemite Restoration Trust, which cheered the elimination of earlier plans to build a massive parking lot near El Capitan; and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which backed the restoration of riverbanks and meadows.

Babbitt said the broad alliance will help the Park Service win the more than $262 million in additional capital funding still needs to make the proposal a reality.

Many projects should be able to be started without much delay, however, because of the $105 million already appropriated by Congress for flood repairs and restoration. That money can be used on projects scheduled for completion in the next two to four years, including: improving campgrounds and ending with a total of 500 sites, 25 more than present but short of the 849 before the flood; eliminating Cascades Dam to restore the natural flow of the Merced River; re-creating meadows and forest where Upper and Lower River campgrounds were washed away; modernizing shuttle buses and maintenance facilities; and replacing more than 100 motel units at Yosemite Lodge with rustic cabins, more in keeping with the site's history.

In addition, the private, nonprofit Yosemite Fund has committed to raising $12.5 million to demolish an asphalt parking lot at the base of Yosemite Falls. The organization has also pledged to install wheelchair ramps and erect interpretive displays.

But the costs will be ongoing. The expansion of bus and shuttle service alone will increase the park's operating budget by at least $7 million a year.

The protesters who assembled Tuesday behind Babbitt said the plan allows too much new development, like cabins. Another constituency, meanwhile, worries that the federal government is imposing too many restrictions and limits on visitors.

Many businesspeople in "gateway" communities around Yosemite said they fear that reducing overnight accommodations in the park and encouraging people to ride the bus will eliminate many of the family campers who have been their livelihood.

"We are all fighting it here," said Joyce Kling, a cook at the Grizzly Bear restaurant in the town of Coarsegold, outside the park. Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa), who represents the area, has said that the Park Service paid too little attention to such sentiments.

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