Yosemite shuffles into a new era

  Many of the 4 million visitors to Yosemite each year remember the national park for its towering granite cliffs, magnificent glacial valleys - and for its congestion. On Nov. 14, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt unveiled a new management plan that he says will reduce traffic and help restore the park's natural habitat.

Though park officials have been trying to create a new park management plan for 20 years, they were forced to accelerate the process after the Merced River flooded Yosemite Valley in 1997. The Final Yosemite Valley Plan, based on over 10,000 public comments and the outcome of nearly 20 public meetings, will shape management for the next 15 years. The plan, expected to be signed by the Park Service Regional Office this December, will cut day-use parking by almost two-thirds, construct satellite parking lots near park entrances, and use a fleet of 500 buses to shuttle visitors through the park.

The buses may use diesel to start with, though the "cleanest technology" is the goal, says park spokeswoman Debra Schweizer. Although the $343 million plan calls for the construction of new economy motel units and employee housing, the total number of overnight lodging facilities will decrease from 1,260 to 981. Many of the lost spots are tent-cabins, the park's least expensive accommodations. Some Yosemite advocates, including the local chapter of the Sierra Club, say that will make the park less accessible to the average visitor. More important, the groups say the plan allows for too much new construction. "(This plan is) about more concessions and commercialization of the public lands," says Joyce Eden of Friends for Yosemite Valley, "not the people who love and appreciate the park."

Many national environmental groups disagree. Five organizations, including the American Alpine Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent out glowing reviews of Yosemite's final plan. "I think they did a remarkable job," says the Wilderness Society's Jay Watson. "When all is said and done, there will be less development in the valley than there is currently."

A copy of the two-volume Final Yosemite Valley Plan can be viewed on the Web at www.nps.gov/yose/planning/yvp/.

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