Where conservation, congregations collide
Yosemite plan struggling to balance crowds' environmental impact against visitor access
By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
February 08, 2008 6:00 AM
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK - A 75-year-old grandmother hobbled up the granite staircase to the base of Vernal Falls. A fine spray moistened her face.
It was an experience the feeble woman could have only at Yosemite, where crowds of people gain easy access to the best splendor of the Sierra Nevada.
Michael Hernandez, 40, escorted his grandma on that trek years ago. She's long gone, but that memory prompted the music producer to drive eight hours from Riverside to attend a conference this week on how to manage Yosemite's crowds while preserving the park's ecology.
This is the challenge facing park officials, who are rewriting plans that will help shape Yosemite's future. Earlier drafts have been challenged in court by activists who say the number of visitors must be quantified.
That notion frightens Hernandez.
"I was afraid the common man wouldn't be allowed in the park anymore," he said.
The key is finding a balance, experts told the assemblage of land managers and park planners from Yosemite and across the country.
"There's a place for everyone at Yosemite National Park - at least, there should be," said Bob Manning, a natural resources professor at the University of Vermont. "But anytime you decide a place is open to public use, ... we have to be prepared to accept some impacts" on the environment.
The number of visitors entering the park gates is actually down at Yosemite over the past decade. Still, more than 3 million people enjoy the park each year, compared with numbers in the low thousands a century ago.
As a result, some complain the park has become increasingly urbanized. There are more than 1,100 buildings, nearly 200 miles of paved roads, 1,500 hotel rooms and campsites for more than 9,000 people.
But the park says improvements made over the years - shuttle systems that encourage people to get out of their cars, for example - are helping to reduce the impacts of the masses.
Rather than a set-in-granite limit on the number of people who can enter the park, officials favor a system in which they closely monitor sensitive areas for signs of trouble, then take action to correct it.
"We don't want to shut the gates to the park," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.
The park has long labored on a plan to protect the Merced River, which meanders through the famed Yosemite Valley. The plan was rejected by a federal judge in part because it did not describe an actual limit on visitor use.
Park officials are appealing, but in the meantime they're working on a new draft of that plan. Some observers have called for quotas on how many visitors can enter Yosemite on any given day, or even on an annual basis; some have also said reservations should be required for day use.
It's been done elsewhere. At Alcatraz Island, cellblocks crowded with tourists prompted officials to limit the number of people who can take the ferry ride to the island. On the other hand, rather than establish quotas at Muir Woods National Monument, officials designated "quiet zones" where hikers could enjoy the redwoods in peace.
Thousands of parks across the country have put on paper exactly how many visitors they can accommodate, said Glenn Haas, a land-use expert and professor at Colorado State University.
"Don't sit there for a minute and think this is a new idea. Don't sit there for a minute and think no one's doing it," Haas said.
John Buckley, who heads the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, said Yosemite's plan of "adaptive management" lacks clear actions to be taken if, for example, scientists discover that a heavily visited meadow has been trampled to death.
The park's position is to "trust us to make the right decisions," Buckley said. He said the park should work harder to promote alternate areas people can visit when the most popular places are packed.
Tony Prato, a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, noted that allowing overcrowding conditions to exist might harm not only the environment but also visitors' appreciation of Yosemite and the nation's other spectacular natural showpieces.
"They may not want to come back," he said.
Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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