February 2, 1997
Floods Breach Deadlock Over Yosemite's Future
By TIM GOLDEN
OSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Beneath the imperious granite
faces that stare out at one another across this fabled valley, the
signs of devastation are everywhere.
The river that roared up just after the New Year is a quiescent
mess, its banks splayed across meadows, its new shape carved from
the roads and highways that ran alongside it.
Tent cabins have been tossed around in the snow like the toy
houses of a misbehaved child. Favorite campsites have vanished.
Shadows from the water reach six feet on some buildings, eight
feet on others. The valley's high-tech sewer system is newly
visible, too, in lengths of thick, broken pipe that lie scattered
like the countless trees that fell victim to the flood.
Already, the park has been closed longer than at any other time
in its 107-year history; it will be many more months, park
officials say, before it is operating fully.
Seen another way, the sudden rage of the Merced River
accomplished in a few days what thousands of federal bureaucrats
have mostly failed to do in years at many of the country's most
cherished national parks: It began to wash away the deep imprint in
this valley of the more than 4 million people who visit it each
"This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Jay Watson,
the western regional director of the Wilderness Society, said after
a day of tramping around in the devastation left by three days of
heavy, warm rain on deep snow. "It's a chance to begin to restore
the natural character of Yosemite Valley."
National Park Service officials said the damage to buildings,
roads, sewers, power lines and bridges in the park could total $178
million. But rather than simply rebuild things as and where they
were -- often right in the valley's flood plain -- officials said
they hoped to use the crisis to push ahead with plans for a
restoration of the natural habitat, a concept that has been
plotted, discussed and delayed for years.
The flood has thus propelled the country's busiest national park
back to the center of a long and quickening national debate over
how the park service should balance its often contradictory
mandates. The agency is supposed to preserve the environmental
quality of the national parks, but it is obliged to keep them
accessible to tourists at the same time.
With enough money, park service officials said, they could use
the rebuilding process to move hundreds of units of lodging and
employee housing outside the park, move some campgrounds up out of
the flood plain, redirect a few roads to ameliorate traffic jams
that can sometimes last for hours, restore some meadows and cede
areas on the banks of the Merced back to riparian animals.
"You want to reduce the congestion, to allow natural processes
to prevail," the park superintendent, B. J. Griffin, said in an
interview at her office here. "We are talking about spending some
more money to do it right rather than just going out and putting
everything back in place."
But the availability of such money is an open question.
The logic that underlies Ms. Griffin's dream has been on paper
for at least 17 years. In 1980, as the park's popularity surged,
the Department of the Interior issued a master plan for Yosemite
that called for a reduction in accommodations, the elimination of
parking lots, the relocation of some campsites and significant new
limits on the number of visitors.
The plan suggested reducing the number of summer visitors to
Yosemite Valley to about 10,500 a day, from an average of more than
17,000; the number of overnight guests would be cut to about 7,700,
from more than 9,000. The plan said car repair and rental services
should be removed from the valley, shops and services should be
reduced, and a shuttle-bus system might be greatly expanded with
the hope of one day eliminating cars from the valley.
Some goals of the plan, mostly modest ones, have been met. But
within a few years after the plan's publication, with Yosemite's
popularity again booming and its federal financing on the decline,
a park superintendent, John Moorehead, dismissed some of the more
ambitious elements of the proposal as "unrealistic" and
"unattainable." In 1989, the agency disavowed important parts of
the plan in a later study, enraging environmental groups.
More recently, as the park's crowds have continued to grow, its
planning has drifted back to the thinking of the 1980 proposal.
After the Japanese electronics corporation Matsushita sold the
Yosemite concession business a new company agreed in 1993 to some
long-term cuts in the hotel and staff lodging that it contracted to
operate. A park service housing plan issued for public review late
last year called for moving nearly 350 staff beds and the
headquarters of the park service and the private company that runs
most of Yosemite's shops and lodging outside the park's boundaries.
A development plan expected to be made public in the next few
months will suggest that even more of Yosemite's operations be
moved, park service officials said. But so far, the park has made
scant headway in dealing with its most challenging problem, the
flood of cars, trucks and recreational vehicles that can make a
mile-long trip through Yosemite Village seem like a Manhattan rush
The campaign for Yosemite's restoration may get a lift from the
Clinton administration, which has been taking an increasingly
aggressive stance to try to limit the impact of visitors on
national parks. On Jan. 1, for instance, the Interior Department
restricted aircraft flights over Grand Canyon National Park. And on
the southern rim of the canyon on Friday, the interior secretary,
Bruce Babbitt, announced a plan to cut about 80 percent of the 1.5
million cars that enter the park each year by using a light-rail
system or alternative-fuel buses.
Yet financing for the kind of changes that Yosemite's caretakers
would like to make has not necessarily become more available as the
naturalist ambitions of the park service have grown.
"Every single dollar of park service construction money has 376
hands and their corresponding congressional representatives after
it," the chief of maintenance and engineering at the park, R.
Kevin Cann, said of the competition among the entities of the
national park system.
Yosemite's stewards hope the floods will give them an edge.
Last week, two Republican members of Congress from northern
California, Reps. John Doolittle and George Radanovich, announced
their sponsorship of legislation to finance the repair of three of
the main roads leading into the park and to relocate and repair
housing, campgrounds and trails inside it. Their proposal has also
been endorsed by some Democratic lawmakers.
Babbitt said he was "fairly optimistic" that supplemental
financing could be found.
"I think there is a silver lining to the wet, dark flood
clouds," he said in a telephone interview. "We ought to be able
to use the opportunity to accelerate the implementation of the 1980
Park service officials involved in assessing the damages at
Yosemite said that the reconstruction of a heavily damaged 7.5-mile
portion of Highway 140 leading into the park could by itself cost
more than $18 million and require nearly a year's work. In all,
Cann said, the changes being proposed after the flood would cost
about four times as much as simply rebuilding the damaged
structures and roads as they were before.
The renovations would have a major, continued impact on those
who would like to visit the park and the already devastated
businesses in and around it.
The president of Yosemite Concession Services, Gary Fraker, said
his company had already been forced to lay off more than 1,000
employees, some 400 of whom had lost all of their personal
belongings in the flood. Fraker said he supported efforts to speed
the implementation of plans for the park's restoration, but added
that the company would seek "some type of relief" from the park
service if it was forced to give up hotel rooms and workers'
housing before it was obliged to under its 15-year contract.
Judith Kunofsky, the executive director of the Yosemite
Restoration Trust, an environmental advocacy group for the park,
said she was herself waiting for a letter notifying her that the
cabin she had reserved in the valley for May would be unavailable.
"Whatever the opportunities are, we aren't quite jumping for
joy, because this is not a great way to plan," she said. "There
is a price that is going to have to be paid by the visitors. And we
are going to have to help people accept the silver lining."
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