YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – Of all the splendid spots in this majestic valley for viewing Yosemite Falls, few beat where ranger Mike Reynolds is standing. But he keeps getting distracted by cars – because he is in the middle of a parking lot.
“You should see it here during the summer,” Reynolds says as traffic swirls around him. “We get vehicles backed up for a mile. People set up tripods right in the middle of the road. But who can blame them?”
Reynolds longs for the day when he and others can admire the falls in peace – and that time is coming, at last.
After decades of debate, Yosemite is embarking on a $440 million plan to limit or change human activity around the glorious but beleaguered park. Some campsites will be eliminated or moved, roads and trails will be refigured, and many visitors will eventually have to roam the valley in shuttle buses instead of their cars – all to better protect the park’s natural wonders without ruining public access.
Striking that delicate balance has become the crucible of national parks across the country – from Yellowstone’s struggle with snowmobiles to conflicts over motorized boating on the Colorado River inside the Grand Canyon.
New population pressures and recreational pastimes that keep pushing deeper into pristine wilderness are laying siege to many national parks, and some of them are at a loss for solutions. Yosemite believes it has found its remedy.
“Our goal is to have a smaller human footprint,” said park superintendent Michael Tollefson. “We’re going to have less development and less gridlock – without turning visitors away from this experience.”
In the shadow of the soaring El Capitan and Half Dome summits this spring, as snowfall melts and wildflowers bloom, the first signs of that enormous and still controversial undertaking are apparent.
One parking lot near Yosemite Falls that was a depot for dozens of tour buses has been demolished to ease traffic congestion. Preparations are being made to tear up another lot across the road later this year and replace it with a grassy pedestrian promenade.
Construction crews are rebuilding and rerouting trails near the falls, which are one of Yosemite’s most popular attractions, to create more harmony with nature and fewer visitor bottlenecks. In another new back-to-nature move, a dam built nearly a century ago on the Merced River, which flows through Yosemite, is being removed.
That is just the beginning of the overhaul. By the time the ambitious plan is fulfilled, housing quarters for some Yosemite employees will be moved outside the park’s gates. There will be about 250 fewer campsites in the valley, and none along the ecologically fragile and flood-prone banks of the Merced River.
The park also eventually plans to restrict parking in the valley to 550 cars per day for visitors not staying overnight. Those who arrive after that limit has been reached will be required to park in distant new lots and use shuttle buses. During its busiest months now, Yosemite Valley, which is seven miles long and one mile wide, is typically filled with about 5,000 cars a day.
In all, the blueprint calls for about 250 remodeling projects and could take 20 years to complete.
Some environmental groups contend that the changes are long overdue. “It’s been a tortured path to get to this point,” said Jay Watson, California regional director of the Wilderness Society. “The park needs to provide use and enjoyment without destroying the very things people are coming to enjoy. We believe they’ve found a way to elegantly balance those competing demands.”
But opposition to parts of the plan remains fierce, with complaints coming from both ends of the political spectrum. Another environmental group, Friends of Yosemite Valley, contends that much the plan is a ruse – an attempt to bring upscale trappings and urban features to the park under the banner of restoration. Or, as the famed environmentalist David Brower put it shortly before his death four years ago, to convert “this temple into a profit center.”
Friends of Yosemite Valley is calling the plan an overreaction to what is only a seasonal crowding problem, and warns some proposed renovations will bring more pavement and pollution to the park – and even more tourists. The group filed a lawsuit to halt some projects, but a federal judge rebuffed that challenge this week. “If they actually start using all the heavy, noisy buses and build huge new parking lots for them somewhere else in the park,” said Greg Adair, a director of the group, “it’s going to be a miserable place.”
Other critics of the plan have come to the opposite conclusion. Yosemite, they say, is on the verge of denying the public access that it deserves.
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., who represents communities near Yosemite, wants the plan to include more campsites and more parking spaces. Asking visitors to park in remote lots and take long bus rides into the valley, he said, will hurt attendance.
“Why devise a scheme that’s going to discourage people from coming to the park,” Radanovich said, “unless that’s what you want to do?”