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June 2003




No to the Yosemite Plan: Don't Restrict Public's Access to National Parks

 

by Bonner Cohen

 

With the onset of summer, people's thoughts are turning to where to spend this year's family vacation. Our national parks, with their breathtaking scenery and generally affordable accommodations, have long been the destination of choice for millions of families.

They may not be much longer.

If a U.S. Park Service plan to limit public access to California's spectacular Yosemite National Park is allowed to stand, similar schemes could soon be in the works for other national parks, forcing many vacationers to go elsewhere for their relaxation.

Yosemite is one of the crown jewels of America's national parks. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, its 761,000 acres feature giant sequoia groves with trees thousands of years old and many unique geological formations, including the glacial Yosemite Valley of the Merced River. Campers, rock climbers, rafters, hikers, swimmers and fishermen are among the millions of tourists who flock to Yosemite annually.

A devastating flood in 1997 destroyed or damaged much of Yosemite's infrastructure, including roads, campgrounds, and sewer systems. Under the direction of then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, the Park Service set about developing a plan to undue the damage caused by the flood and to reconstruct the park along what officials viewed were more environmentally sensitive lines.

Officially dubbed the "Yosemite Valley Plan," the Park Service scheme, estimated to cost $442 million, would reduce the number of parking spaces in Yosemite Valley by two-thirds, from 1,662 to 550. Instead of driving around the park and taking in the sights at their leisure, day visitors would be shuttled to and from Yosemite Valley on a fleet of 50 buses from remote parking lots on the park's perimeter.

What's more, none of the 361 campsites lost in the 1997 flood would be replaced, and 164 rustic housekeeping units as well as 141 cabins and tent cabins would be eliminated. Nearly 60 percent of the park's campsites accessible by car would be removed. The only automobiles allowed in the Yosemite Valley would be those belonging to visitors able to afford the more expensive accommodations at the Ahwahnee Hotel and the Yosemite Lodge, or those fortunate enough to grab one of the few remaining campsites accessible by car.

It takes little imagination to see how the prospect of being herded in and out of buses all day long will discourage parents with small children from visiting the park. Who wants to load and unload strollers, diaper bags, picnic coolers and other items on and off buses for hours on end? Likewise, reducing the number of affordable campsites and cabins in favor of more upscale accommodations will further keep people of more modest means away from the park.

"The valley and the park belong to 285 million Americans, not a select few," says Congressman George Radanovich (R-CA), chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over national parks. "I will not allow Yosemite to become an exclusive retreat." While recognizing the need to repair the damage done by the flood, Radanovich has vowed not to let the Park Service use this as a pretext to restrict public access to Yosemite. "There is a concern about locking people out of the park," he notes.

Fewer people visiting Yosemite will also mean less business for the tourism-dependent communities surrounding the park. This should be of grave concern to communities near other national parks, because the Park Service's social engineering isn't likely to stop at Yosemite. Once the precedent is set at Yosemite, what's to keep meddling bureaucrats from devising similar plans for Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Crater Lake, Great Smokey Mountains and countless other parks?

The Bush Administration should heed Radanovich's message and tell the Park Service to return Yosemite to the taxpaying public.

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Bonner Cohen is a senior fellow with The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected].



 

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