Yosemite Tries to Curtail Auto Traffic

The Yosemite Valley Plan, which aims to take the storied park into the 21st century, is in jeopardy.

Created after numerous public hearings, 11,000 public comments, and millions of dollars worth of research, the plan is being challenged by Rep. George Radanovich, who recently chaired yet another public hearing here.

"It was hastened to conclusion at the close of the Clinton administration and made it far more restrictive than it needs to be," said Radanovich, R-Calif.

Radanovich, who was recently named to head the House's national parks subcommittee, favors more usage of the park, not less.

The Yosemite Valley Plan doesn't discourage use, but it does try to curtail automobile traffic and congestion by severely reducing the number of parking places and by putting more people in buses.

"The public won't stand for that," Radanovich told ABCNEWS. "I think there will always be cars in Yosemite Valley."

How Many Is Too Many?

For environmentalists concerned that Radanovich could force a congressional override of the plan, too many cars is exactly the problem.

As he stood in a parking lot at the foot of the spectacular Yosemite Falls, Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society wondered why it was so difficult to convince lawmakers to reduce parking and cars.

"Everyone who comes here has to walk through this crowded parking lot with horns honking before they even see the falls," he said.

The Yosemite Valley Plan mandates removal of the lot and calls for the 1,600 parking places in the park to be reduced to 550. Radanovich has no quarrel with ripping up the Yosemite Falls lot as long as parking places are added elsewhere. In all, he would prefer about 1,200 parking places in the valley and questions whether a shuttle bus system would be needed.

The parking issue is critical because it determines how many cars may ultimately be allowed in the park. The Yosemite Valley, made famous by photographer Ansel Adams, measures only 1 mile by 7 miles.

Merchants Don’t Want to Lose Business

The Organic Act of 1916, which set up the National Park Service, says parks like Yosemite should be protected. In part, it says: "The purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The Organic Act does not deal specifically with parking spaces and it says nothing about business operators trying to earn a living from park visitors. Business complaints could influence the administration, especially during the current economic climate.

A recent demonstration by merchants here called for more parking spaces and cars. "What do want? More parking spaces!" they chanted. "When do we want them? Now!"

At the recent public hearing, the administration's new national parks director, Fran Mainella, stressed the importance President Bush places on "gateway communities" — small towns and cities at the entrance to the parks that derive much of their income from the hospitality industry; hotels, restaurants, car rentals, and camping outfitters. "We want to work closely with you," she said.

‘Fear of the Unknown’

At other parks, such as Zion National Park in Utah, the Park Service made a deal that protects businessmen. In exchange for removing cars from Zion and replacing them with shuttle buses, the buses also stop at local shops. At Montana's Glacier National Park, vintage red buses have replaced some cars.

Rangers at both parks say there are now more frequent sightings of wildlife including mountain lions and wild turkeys. Tourists say they enjoy the park experience more without cars, traffic and congestion.

But here at Yosemite, merchants aren't convinced. "They can't see the benefit in change, " said Watson. "It's really about fear of the unknown."

There is some relief from the overcrowding. Down by the Merced River, which runs through the park, hundreds of campsites and acres of asphalt are no longer to be found. A flood washed them away four years ago and they have yet to be rebuilt. There is disagreement over how many should be rebuilt. Politics, again.