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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth co-host Diane Toomey talks with Paul Rogers, the environment reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, about the federal government’s plan to tackle the problem of rising traffic and congestion in Yosemite National Park.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

TOOMEY: And I'm Diane Toomey. Last summer, some 25,000 tourists a day visited Yosemite National Park. That's more than double what officials once estimated the park could sustain. Now, after years of false starts, the federal government has finalized a plan to curb traffic and congestion in that majestic California wilderness. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently outlined the plan, which will take ten years, and more than $440 million, to implement. Proponents say it will dramatically reshape how the park is used in coming years. Paul Rogers is the environment writer for the San Jose Mercury News. He was in Yosemite when Secretary Babbitt made his announcement. Paul, we'll get to the details of the plan in a bit, but first describe for me just how bad it gets in Yosemite on those busy summer weekends.

ROGERS: Well, as a lot of harried campers can remember, Yosemite Valley is a very popular place in the summer, and many people think it's being loved to death. Yosemite Valley is about one mile wide and about seven miles long. Now, to put that in perspective, that's only about one-seventh the size of the city of San Francisco. So, when everybody packs up their minivan and their ice chest at the same time and wants to see it on a hot summer weekend, you end up with an area that looks more like a shopping mall parking lot than a national park.

TOOMEY: I understand that the plan takes up 2,600 pages. How will it attempt to fix the overcrowding problem?

ROGERS: Yeah, this plan makes War and Peace look like a comic book. It is six times the size of a telephone book. And the idea, basically if you boil all that down, is that people would not be able to bring their cars into the valley on busy days. Essentially, the plan would create three new satellite parking lots, each more than ten miles outside of the valley. And when the 500 spaces inside the valley fill up, you would be asked to ride a shuttle bus into the valley from an outlying lot.

TOOMEY: And there are also plans to remove campsites and hotel rooms?

ROGERS: Yeah. In 1997, there was a very violent flood that swept through the Merced River, right through the heart of Yosemite Valley. And that destroyed a lot of cabins and a lot of picnic sites and campsites that had been there for years. This plan proposes not replacing a lot of those. And in terms of some of the details, it would reduce the number of campsites by about 38 percent from what were there before the 1997 flood. And it would reduce the number of hotel rooms and overnight cabins by about 36 percent, with many of those reductions coming from the lowest-priced accommodations at Housekeeping Camp in Curry Village.

TOOMEY: Who's not happy with the plan?

ROGERS: (Laughs) Well, the Park Service has always said that Yosemite is among its biggest political problem children. Any time they make any decision one way or another, somebody yells at them. And so, too, with this plan. Some people from the Sierra Club and some other environmental groups have said that the plan doesn't go far enough, and they would like to see more hotel rooms removed. They also complain that the buses might put out diesel pollution in the valley. Yet another group of people is saying that it goes too far, and that it will deny especially working families and people the opportunity to go camp as they always have, because they won't be able to get a reservation any more. One woman even described it to me recently as, the fact that she said, "They're turning it into a wilderness Club Med."

TOOMEY: Well, is the day coming when park officials will have to restrict just the sheer number of people entering the park?

ROGERS: That may be, and it's been something that has been under discussion for about 20 years, not only with this park but with other national parks. Secretary Babbitt told me in an interview recently that he is adamantly opposed to reservation systems for national parks. He calls that park rationing, and he doesn't think that Americans should be turned away from their national parks when they want to visit. Yet others, like David Brower, who recently died and who was one of the legendary environmental leaders of this country, has said that it's very similar to a movie theater, for example. If you fill up the movie theater, you don't sell more tickets so people can sit on each other's laps. And he and other advocates say that Americans are used to getting reservations for restaurants and hotels, and they'll have no problem doing it for national parks.

TOOMEY: The plan goes into effect in about a month. What effect, though, will the election of the new president have on its implementation?

ROGERS: It may be the $64,000 question on this plan. The new president can make a decision by executive fiat whether or not he wants to implement some of this plan, all of this plan, or whether he wants to put all six volumes of it on a shelf and not implement any of it.

TOOMEY: Paul Rogers is the environmental writer for the San Jose Mercury News. Paul, thanks for joining us today.

ROGERS: Thank you.



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