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Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series exploring the controversy surrounding a massive plan under way by the U.S. Park Service to reduce the level of human access to America’s most beloved national park – Yosemite. In this installment, WND explains the history of the plan and the efforts of local communities to put a stop to it.
In late December 1996, a tropical storm moved in from the Pacific, pouring rain across California and melting the snowpack that covers the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By New Years Day, the Merced River that flows through Yosemite National Park in the central part of the state had risen nearly a dozen feet above its banks, inundating the seven-square-mile Yosemite Valley, uprooting trees and destroying campgrounds, dozens of buildings, roads, and sewer and water systems.
It was Yosemite’s worst flood in 80 years, and damages were estimated at $178 million – 11 times the park’s annual budget. The park was closed for three months. Local communities and businesses that depend on tourism were deeply impacted, and it was expected that the National Park Service would move quickly to repair the damage to America’s favorite, very special park.
That didn’t happen.
The Park Service requested funding from Congress to restore the campsites and other lost infrastructure, and in June 1997 Congress awarded a flood-recovery package of $187,321,000, with the understanding the money would be used for reconstruction and emergency expenses resulting from flooding. But the Park Service had in mind a different kind of restoration, and instead of carrying out its assigned tasks embarked on a three-year planning process on how best to restore the park’s “natural environment” – which would mean the way it was before white explorers and settlers entered the valley.
Eighteen public hearings and many thousands of comments later, the Park Service brought forth the Yosemite Valley Plan, an ambitious proposal built on a General Management Plan put together during the Carter administration and never fully implemented.
The earlier 1980 plan called for the elimination or relocation of hundreds of buildings and campsites as well as the eventual removal of private vehicles from the park and reliance on mass transit systems. Deploring the “noise, the smell and the environmental degradation caused by thousands of vehicles,” its authors held that the “ultimate solution” for parks in general, but especially Yosemite, “specifically rests upon integration with regional transportation systems.”
Implementation of the Yosemite Plan, originally estimated to cost $343 million, will cost at least $442 million, and some critics predict it could go as high as $1 billion. Yet the destroyed campgrounds (a total of 361 campsites) will not be rebuilt, since the decision was made not to rebuild on the floodplain, but rather to restore the natural habitat and “hydrological processes” of the river. The sewer infrastructure, which was severely damaged, has not been properly repaired and is so poorly maintained the California Regional Water Quality Control Board voted to fine the Park Service for negligence because of ongoing sewage spills.
This was definitely not what the public nor Congress expected, but it had its supporters in the environmental movement. At a recent congressional hearing, Jay Watson, California/Nevada regional director for the Wilderness Society, applauded the Park Service for its decision, reiterating remarks he had made on other occasions.
“… there was a silver lining to the storm clouds that produced those floods – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform into reality what had long been a grand but elusive vision for Yosemite,” Watson testified.
The vision, he said, was “captured” in five key goals that were articulated in the 1980 General Management Plan, goals that would: “Reclaim priceless natural beauty, allow natural processes to prevail, promote visitor understanding and enjoyment, markedly reduce traffic congestion and reduce crowding.”
“In other words,” said Watson, “a more natural Yosemite, where hydrological and other natural processes operate freely, a Yosemite with less asphalt, fewer automobiles, less development, less congestion, a Yosemite with an improved and enhanced visitor experience. Fortunately, the National Park Service seized upon the opportunity presented by the flood. …”
To achieve this “elusive vision,” the Yosemite Valley Plan – unveiled for final comment in March 2000 by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and formally adopted in the waning days of the Clinton administration – mandates a host of major changes in park management policies that will radically limit the public’s access to the 761,000-acre park and the much-loved, glacier-carved valley at its center and impose what critics regard as Draconian restrictions on what folks may do once they’re there.
Besides not rebuilding the wasted campgrounds, the plan for a “more natural Yosemite” calls for an approximately 50 percent reduction in the number of rooms, cabins and campsites for overnight accommodation from what was available before the flood, the removal of historic bridges, roads and parking spaces at scenic spots, with parking centralized in a 550-car lot at Curry Village.
“Who else [but the Clinton administration] would have the brass to say that they are going to relieve congestion by closing miles of roads and relieve overcrowded parking by eliminating more than a thousand parking spaces?” quipped economist Thomas Sowell in his weekly column, upon learning of the details of the plan.
Now in the third year of the Bush administration the plan is very much alive and being implemented. There are 15 projects that comprise the first phase of implementation, and these include a redesign of trails and approaches to lower Yosemite Falls, building a new Indian cultural center, removing a dam on the Merced River and buying new shuttle buses. The tab for all 15 is reported as being from $105.2 million to $110 million. The Oakland Tribune reports that will include repairs to facilities damaged in the 1997 flood – leaving unasked the question of what happened to the money originally appropriated for that purpose.
Following the dictates from the Carter era, a key element of the plan is an urban-style transit system, with people brought into the park on buses and a fleet of shuttle buses that will haul visitors from one scenic destination to another. (The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System – or YARTS – is already operating). The plan – in particular, the shuttle bus program – has drawn the fire of numerous critics like Sowell, one of them being WorldNetDaily columnist Barbara Simpson.
A few months after President Bush was inaugurated, Simpson denounced the over-1000-page plan in her weekly commentary, ripping its authors for their “ultimate goal of turning Yosemite National Park into a sort of living museum,” the idea being “to remove virtually all human imprint.”
Once the plan is fully implemented it will be “almost impossible for anyone to enjoy [Yosemite] in the manner that’s been available to visitors since the 1800s,” she wrote.
“If those changes are made, it will be harder to get in – raise the entry fees, prohibit certain traffic and reduce available roads; impossible to drive in – can’t have those exhaust fumes; almost impossible to camp in – people can be so messy and campfires pollute; impossible to horseback ride in – horses trample the brush and manure spreads seeds not native to the area; difficult to hike or bike through – those paths deface meadows and woods; or even raft in the river – rafters disturb the fish and disturb the beaches. They actually want to remove restroom facilities! Need I go on? I think you get the drift.”
The changes, Simpson warned, were right then being put into effect.
“It’s already started. The entry fee was jacked up to $20 per vehicle [from $5]. A number of housekeeping camping units removed. Two entire river-area campgrounds totally removed. The only gas station in the valley closed. Campfires restricted. Stables and trail-rides reduced. Some roads closed to motor vehicles.”
Stealing a park
Chuck Cushman, founder and executive director of the American Land Rights Association, a non-profit, public-interest advocacy group based in Battle Ground, Wash., has made a career of helping private land owners defend their property rights against government agencies and fending off threats to the use of federal lands through plans like the one being imposed on Yosemite Valley. When it comes to discussing Park Service policies and actions, he is not one to mince words.
“What they’re doing is nothing less than stealing a national park from the people,” he said bluntly, when contacted for comment.
“They’re taking out 60 percent of the car-accessible, drive-in family campsites over what were there in 1980 when the General Management Plan was drafted, including all the river campsites, which is where people like to camp. They’re reducing the parking by 75 percent of what was there in 1980 – and with no parking people will be forced to use buses, which will be especially hard for the handicapped and the elderly and young families. That’s the killer. What young family is going to want to travel around the park like that, with babies and small children, loaded down with diaper bags, picnic supplies and all their other gear? It’s nuts.”
Cushman said that he’s not opposed to shuttle buses, per se, and sees them as a “good option” for getting about, but maintains they should not be the only available means of transportation in the valley. Instead of providing a valuable supplement to private vehicles, the Park Service is engaged in “social engineering through forced busing – and forced busing didn’t work for the schools in Los Angeles and it won’t work here.”
With implementation well under way, any opposition at this point would seem futile. But local critics of the plan are cautiously optimistic if they and other Americans make enough noise the Bush administration will scuttle it and start the planning process over from scratch.
Their hopes got a boost recently when Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., whose district encompasses the park, announced he would hold a field hearing in Yosemite Valley on the controversial blueprint with its $442 million price tag, focusing on the camping and transportation elements.
Radanovich, who has represented the district since 1994, moved into the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands in September 2001, a position from which he can more actively address the concerns of constituents and communities whose tourism-dependent economies have been severely hurt by decline in park attendance over the past seven years.
From a peak of 4.2 million in 1996, the number of visitors fell to a low 3.4 million last year and is expected to drop to 3.1 million in 2004. There was compelling evidence that would-be visitors were of the erroneous impression they couldn’t bring in their cars and would be forced to rely on public transportation and shuttle buses.
A subcommittee hearing was an opportunity too good to be missed, a chance to generate some of the necessary “noise.”
“We realized there was going to be this hearing and that we needed to get something going to make sure we were properly heard,” hotel owner Peggy Mosley told WorldNetDaily. “We knew we had to create some controversy since the squeaky wheel is the one that gets the grease.”
Grover and Peggy Mosley, hotel owners
Mosley, who with her husband, Grover, owns and manages the historic Groveland Hotel, 23 miles west of Yosemite on Highway 120, had been invited by Radanovich to testify as a representative of the local business community and the county of Tuolumne.
“What boggles me the most is that we Americans are so complacent; we just sit and let things happen,” Mosley exclaimed. “Then when it’s all over and we don’t like something, we say ‘Why didn’t somebody tell me?’ Well, that’s what we’re trying to do – tell people what’s going on and what’s about to happen to them, and that their freedom is being taken away.”
Business leaders who share the same concerns as the Mosleys and anti-plan activists in the Yosemite gateway communities such as Mariposa, Oakhurst and Bass Lake formed Visitors and Communities for an Open Yosemite, an advocacy organization for raising public awareness about the plans being implemented in Yosemite and the impact these were already having on the local economies.
To get things moving, the newly formed group asked Cushman to be their spokesperson and all-around organizer.
A large, burly man, his enemies have nicknamed him “Mr. Rent-a-Riot” because of the “in-your-face” demonstrations he puts together and his ability to inspire willing but often reticent “stakeholders” to become confrontational activists. Whatever they call him, Cushman stresses that any demonstration he organizes is peaceful: noisy maybe, confrontational and attention grabbing – but never violent.
“We’d heard he’s created all kinds of controversy, and we’re very much aware that that’s the kind of thing we need to get public attention,” said Mosley.
That the Yosemite Valley Plan has been finalized doesn’t matter, Cushman told WorldNetDaily.
“Plans can be changed, and we’re urging Congress to declare a moratorium on this one and do a top-to-bottom review,” he said. “The process started during the Carter administration and was finalized during Clinton’s, which is why we think this administration should take a look at it. We’re asking, why is this administration carrying out Clinton’s Land Legacy Initiative?”
As he sees it, the future of Yosemite Valley and the park itself is a nationwide issue, for if the plan’s implementation is not stopped, he says, Americans will not be able to enjoy their parks in the future.
“The plan will be the model for all parks if the Park Service is allowed to get away with this,” he warned. “So if people want to keep their parks open, they’ll have to stand up and let their congressmen know that’s what they want.”
On Earth Day, with his help, members of the newly formed Visitors and Communities for an Open Yosemite did just that.
Tomorrow: In the trenches: Activists point out human toll to government’s plan, protest with ball and chain.