Editor’s note: Yesterday, WND outlined the history of the federal government’s controversial Yosemite Valley Plan and profiled a new group committed to stopping the changes planned for America’s favorite national park. The plan includes limiting car access, decreasing the number of campsites and restoring the park’s “natural environment.”
Today’s installment includes coverage of recent testimony given by opponents of the plan that suggests the government’s blueprint will severely limit access to the park, will dilute the variety of experiences traditionally available at Yosemite, and will discriminate against disabled and lower-income visitors.
On Earth Day, April 22, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., who represents the Yosemite area, held a special three-hour field hearing of the House Resource Committee’s National Parks Subcommittee at the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Rep. Donna M. Christian-Christensen, U.S. Virgin Islands, the subcommittee’s ranking Democratic member, were on hand to hear the testimony on the controversial Yosemite Valley Plan.
As the congressman walked toward the center, he was greeted by 50 anti-plan protesters with picket signs, 20 of them wearing striped prison garb and dragging plastic ball-and-chains to illustrate their perceived status as “prisoners” of Park Service policies.
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif.
It was the first demonstration by the fledgling advocacy group, Visitors and Communities for an Open Yosemite, and the protesters were determined to get their message across. Before and after the hearing they marched outside the Visitors Center led by Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, who had agreed to be their spokesperson.
“What do you want?” he shouted. “More camping! More camping!” the crowd yelled back.
Protesters of Yosemite Valley Plan at Earth Day hearing. (Photo: Cal Tatum, editor, Sierra Star, April 25. Used with permission.)
The protesters also made known their opposition to the removal of over a thousand parking spaces to reduce the number of cars in favor of shuttle buses and increased reliance on the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System to bring people into the park. It was impossible for Radanovich, Park Service personnel or the media to ignore them and their message.
“The protests with the prisoner suits went over extremely well and did what the truth couldn’t do – it got nationwide attention,” recalled area resident Louis “Lou” Aceto. “People nationwide now know there is a problem here in Yosemite.”
Inside the center, it was standing room only for over 200 people who had made the journey. Shoehorned into the packed auditorium, they listened intently as Radanovich explained what he wanted and didn’t want for the park.
“Let me make it clear: As long as I represent Yosemite National Park and this beautiful valley, I will not allow it to become an exclusive retreat available only by tour bus, nor a natural preserve which you can get to only on foot,” he said emphatically. “Neither of these alternatives are solutions for the future of Yosemite.”
The congressman said he deplored the fact that there were constituencies who looked upon the 1997 flood as “a sign from above” to the Park Service “to remove roads, buildings and opportunities and access from the public and restore the Valley to a ‘wilderness zone’ where only low-impact hiking would be permitted.”
He said the flood brought crisis to the valley, but should not be regarded as an opportunity to limit access to the public.
“The valley and the park belong to 285 million Americans, not a select few,” he said.
He said he was interested particularly in “how and when” the Park Service will be restoring campgrounds in the valley to their pre-flood numbers, particularly in the Upper and Lower campgrounds that were wiped out by the flood.
If Radanovich expected an answer, none was forthcoming that day, and several witnesses emphasized the Park Service has no intention of restoring those campsites.
For speakers, the congressman had lined up the director of the National Park Service along with representatives of special interests: businesses in the gateway communities, environmentalists and park users (camping and rock climbing).
All but three of the invited speakers were highly critical of the plan, which they slammed as elitist, Draconian, “anti-people” and “resource stewardship at its worst.” They had done their homework, assembling the data gleaned from the mass of reports and studies into neat packets of information that detailed the programs for busing, the elimination of campgrounds, cabins, picnic areas and stables. They charged that no scientific studies had been conducted to validate the proposed changes, changes they claimed would have a severely negative impact on the park’s natural resources. Each speaker had only five minutes to present a case, but they were able to convey a lot of information in the question-and-answer session. Their prepared statements are posted on the Resources Committee website.
Fran Mainella, director of the National Parks Service, told the subcommittee the Park Service is not trying to keep people out.
“Yosemite is one of the key cornerstones of our national park system, and the Park Service is not ever trying to keep people away,” she said. “But over the last several decades we have seen a change from 20 percent of the park’s visitation being day use to now 80 percent is day use while 20 percent stay overnight,” and different kinds of arrangements were needed to accommodate day visitors.
She assured committee members that for the next five to seven years the availability of parking for day visitors will not be curtailed, though parking areas might change as projects are worked upon.
“There will be no net loss of day use private-vehicle parking in the valley,” she promised – at least not for five to seven years while the various implementation projects are being completed. The busing project will be one of the last features locked in place.
As for camping, there are currently 1,490 campsites within the park, including 475 in the valley to which 25 will be added, she said.
Mainella cautioned against any boat rocking now that the plan was set. Increasing the number of campsites in the valley beyond what the plan allows (from 475 to 500), or adding several hundred campsites outside the valley but within the park, would require the formal reopening of the six-volume plan, a move that would add additional costs.
She discussed a recent study ordered by the House Appropriations Committee that looked at 13 different areas outside the valley, identifying 788 potential new campsites. But once identified, park officials decided that constructing the majority of these new sites would require “extensive compliance” along with amendments to the 1980 General Management Plan, “as modified by the Yosemite Valley Plan and the Merced River Plan.”
Mainella conceded, the park could develop 204 of the identified sites, while still complying with the three plans, bringing the total number of planned new campsites within the park and valley to 229.
Radanovich, however, had stated earlier: “Campsites outside the Valley do not replace in-valley campsites.” The transcription prints the sentence in boldface, an indication that for him this is a top-priority issue.
In addition to the study by the House Appropriations Committee, a report ordered by the congressman on replacement of the riverside campsites identified several possible areas within the valley, including the Upper and Lower Rivers where 144 campsites could be installed while restoring the riparian corridor. In his opening remarks, the congressman said he would support this proposal.
That would be too many, according to Mainella. She claimed developing the areas for camping “would preclude making them available for greater numbers of day visitors to enjoy for hiking, picnicking, bicycling and other activities.”
Furthermore, she explained, “Developing campsites in these areas would require extensive compliance and amendments to the park’s three approved plans, which would be very costly.”
Similarly Kevin Kelly, chief operating officer of Yosemite Concession Services Corporation, said his company “is not in favor of a scenario in which the Valley Plan itself becomes embroiled in a new round of revisions as to render it incapable of moving forward.”
He said the company supported the plan and believed providing additional campsites to bring the park closer to its pre-flood level would go further toward making Yosemite accessible to people of all income levels.
Yosemite Concession Services is a division of Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts, and has been under contract with the National Park Service since 1993. It operates all the lodging, food and beverage, retail, interpretive programs, recreational activities and transportation services for the National Park Service in Yosemite.
An ‘elegant balance’
Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society, speaking toward the close of the hearing, told the subcommittee the Park Service through the plan had struck an “elegant balance” between protecting Yosemite’s natural and cultural resources and providing for visitor use and enjoyment of a popular national park, and he warned against any changes to the plan.
In his view, “It is time to realize that Yosemite Valley is a finite place.”
He said the Wilderness Society is pleased to see the Park Service “vigorously implementing” the plan, including the restoration of the campgrounds to “natural habitat,” and emphasized his organization is “unalterably opposed” to reopening the plan to any changes, “particularly in the area of campgrounds, parking and transportation.”
“While we support this effort [to accommodate camping and low-cost overnight accommodations], we will vigorously oppose any modifications to the Yosemite Valley Plan to increase camping any further in Yosemite,” he said.
The centralization of day parking to a 550-space lot is a “vital component” of the plan. “Indeed, habitat restoration and transportation changes are indeed the heart and soul of the Valley Plan,” he stated. “Neither must be compromised or undermined.”
Watson praised the Park Service for seizing the “lifetime opportunity” offered by the flood “to transform into reality what had long been a grand but elusive vision for Yosemite.”
And on its website the Wilderness Society further applauds the Park Service for listening to the public and facing the “contentious issues” of overnight accommodations, campgrounds and centralized parking.
“On all three, the agency, at some political cost, let protection of Yosemite National Park, not local commercial clamor, guide its decisions,” it stated.
A ‘shocking’ idea
But Allan Abshez, an environmental-law attorney who testifying as a “typical Yosemite camper and enthusiast” and not as a representative of any organization, was in agreement with Radanovich and characterized as “shocking” the idea that the flood was somehow an opportunity – a point of view expressed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement of the plan itself, as well as by Watson on various occasions.
“It is a shame … that the Final EIS terms the 1997 flood an ‘opportunity,'” Abshez exclaimed. “The only apparent opportunity, in what was in fact a tragedy, was the ‘opportunity’ to avoid confronting a serious public-policy decision – an affirmative decision to decrease public access to Yosemite Valley – a decision that would never stand up to meaningful public discussion or analysis. For this reason, the Final EIS conveniently assumes there will be no impact on visitation levels if the Plan is implemented.”
Abshez identified himself as a father, husband and lawyer specializing in land-use planning and environmental law. He serves on a community planning commission in Los Angeles, where he resides, and claims “significant expertise in air, water quality, biotic, traffic and parking, and historical issues.” Since childhood he has spent a significant part of his time in Yosemite.
A major deficiency of the plan, said Abshez, is that it fails to restore sufficient visitor accommodation in the valley, yet at the same time gives the impression the number of units is being increased.
To do this, the Final EIS “presents post-flood conditions as a baseline and does not focus on what has been lost or what is necessary to replace it. Not even as an alternative.” So while the plan talks of increasing the amount of visitor accommodations in the valley – this is only “technically true and not useful to meaningful public discussion,” he said.
In fact, the plan when implemented will have about half the number of units for overnight accommodation than were in the valley in 1996.
Thus, the Final EIS states that the plan will increase the number of campsites in the valley from 475 to 500, this is really “no increase at all.” If the plan is implemented, it will permanently eliminate 40 percent of Yosemite’s historic camping sites. (There were 800 campsites in 1980.) Moreover, speaker Stephen Welch testified that of those 500 sites only 330 would be drive-in.
Similarly, in regards to the Lodge, the plan does not discuss pre-flood conditions. Before the flood, there were approximately 495 rooms at the Lodge, and today (according to the Park Service) there are 245. The Plan proposes adding six, bringing the total to 251 units. Once implemented, “approximately half of the accommodations at the Lodge will be lost forever.”
Such is the case, too, with the Park Service’s intentions for Curry Village. Where today there are 628 guest accommodations (motel rooms, cabins and tent cabins) the plan calls for a reduction of 141 units (to 487). At Housekeeping Camp, where there are 266 tent-cabins, the plan proposes 100, a 62 percent reduction.
Altogether, the plan will eliminate approximately half of the Valley’s historic visitor accommodation capacity: 325 campsites, 385 units at the Lodge and Curry Village, and 166 units at Housekeeping Camp.
Bused in, bused-out
In other words, “half of those historically able to experience an overnight stay in the Valley will be shut out and reduced to the status of ‘bus tourists,'” said Abshez. For this reason he decried the shuttle proposal, which, combined with the reduction of overnight accommodations, would encourage passive, rather than active, enjoyment of the park and limit the kinds of experiences needed to create “life-long conservationists.”
“As a nation we will tend to create tourists who are content to be managed and ‘bused-in’ and ‘bused-out,’ instead of independent and self-reliant outdoorsmen and women,” he warned.
Stephen Welch, executive vice president of the Pines Resort at Bass Lake, 14 miles from the south entrance of the park, paints a similar picture of the future, characterizing the “force-people-out-of-their-cars program” as a “Draconian measure” that will “forever transform the way the American people visit their national parks” – a policy he claims would also actually cause degradation of the environment, not protect it.
Herded like cattle
“Personal freedom, privilege and responsibility will be removed; visitors will be herded like cattle onto an assembly line of buses; resource degradation will occur from diesel fumes, increased paving and infrastructure to accommodate massive bus fleets, as well as mass trampling at on/off stops,” he predicted.
Buses, said Welch, make more noise, fill the air with diesel fumes, have expanded surface glare and require “massive amounts of man-made infrastructure which will result in significant and permanent environmental degradation. This is resource stewardship at its worse.”
Welch shared the concerns of most speakers over the loss of low-impact facilities such as campgrounds, picnic areas and stables, and like Abshez held that the only opportunity afforded by the flood was a chance for the Park Service to dodge its responsibilities while at the same time advancing a hidden agenda.
Welch explained that the Upper and Lower River Campgrounds (the ones wiped out in the flood) were slated for removal in 1994 as a means of streamlining traffic circulation, but had such an idea been suggested at that time, “the public outcry would have been deafening.” The flood provided “the perfect opportunity to ‘take care of business.'”
Campsites, parking: going, going, gone
According to Welch, prior to the 1980 management plan, Yosemite Valley had 1,528 lodging units and 800 drive-in campsites: a total of 2,328 overnight accommodations. The 2000 Yosemite Valley Plan reduced the numbers to 961 lodging units and 330 drive-in campsites for a total of 1,291 overnight accommodations – a reduction of 1,037 overnight accommodations.
Welch calls “another sleight of hand” the fact that the Park Service touts “the final Plan increased the number of campsites from 475 to 500.”
Here’s the scam, according to Welch: “What escaped the public was that of the 500, only 330 would be drive-in sites. Compare that number with the 684 drive-in sites specified in the 1980 General Management Plan and the more than 800 drive-in sites that existed prior to the 1980 GMP. That’s a 60 percent reduction or a loss of more than 470 drive-in sites that will directly impact families with children, seniors, low-income and those with limited physical capabilities. That is unacceptable.”
What about parking? “Now you see it, now you don’t,” says Welch. The plan states there are about 3,500 parking spaces in the valley, with approximately 1,600 used by day visitors. Under the plan, the number of day visitor parking will be cut to 550, consolidated in one location, at Camp 6.
Or will it?
Welch – and he has studied the plan closely, plus all the related material – says “a review of park documents clearly suggests those 550 [spaces] are only temporary, and that the ultimate goal is to remove ALL day-visitor parking from Yosemite Valley.”
Worse, says Welch, not only has the National Park Service “failed to disclose to the public that Camp 6 is a temporary parking area … they have structured the zoning in the Merced River Plan so as to forbid parking in any other locations.”
No car spells big expenses
Welch quotes statistics and other data on campers’ spending habits. According to the plan, “camping provides the lowest-priced accommodations in the park,” and reductions will significantly impact a large user group (27 percent). Campers also tend to be a low-spending population.
Moreover, popular picnic areas are being closed while the remaining picnic areas will be accessible only by bus. As stated in the plan: “The style of picnicking is thus likely to change for many visitors from car-based (grills, coolers, etc.), to daypack or box lunch picnics, with major adverse impacts. Some visitors might find it more convenient (and costly) to purchase food at food service facilities, losing the picnic experience.”
Again, and this is in the plan, “While in the park, about 35 percent of visitors arriving by private vehicle eat at a sit-down restaurant, 30 percent eat at a fast-food establishment, 30 percent buy groceries, 15 purchase books, 30 percent shop for souvenirs and 15 percent shop for clothes. Except for grocery shopping, these percentages all increase for bus passengers.”
In other words, not having a car and being dependent on shuttle bus service will force visitors to spend money at the various food-and-beverage venues and other service spots.
In Welch’s view, “separating visitors from their private vehicles (i.e., rolling storage lockers) increases dependency on the concessioner, resulting in a visitor experience that is more controlled, more costly and more commercialized.”
Peggy Mosley, owner of the Groveland Hotel, spoke on behalf of the business community. Recalling her testimony for WorldNetDaily she said the most important thing she communicated was that “non-affluent Americans” will be priced out of visiting Yosemite National Park if they have to take a bus.
“I also told them that I don’t understand why the groups that represent non-affluent people aren’t on this thing like a duck on a June bug – it’ll block them right out of the park,” she said.
Sierra Club’s George Whitmore, who chairs the club’s Yosemite Committee, was the final speaker of the day. Like most of the earlier speakers, he was sharply critical the plan, faulting it for major “deficiencies,” failure to anticipate consequences and an apparent anti-car bias, among other things.
For Whitmore, “One of the biggest deficiencies in the plan is its failure to address the increasing demand for access to the Valley by tour (excursion) buses.
“The plan makes much of the problems which are perceived to be caused by autos, with Draconian restrictions on their use – yet it simply ignores the potentially far worse problem which will be caused by unlimited numbers of highly polluting and noisy tour buses,” he remarked.
As for the camping issue, although in agreement with the decision to restore the riverside campgrounds to “natural conditions,” Whitmore noted that “there has been a continuing long-term process of reducing camping opportunities throughout the park.”
That seems to be “part of the pattern of phasing out lower-cost accommodations and putting in higher cost accommodations, which has manifested itself so clearly in the Yosemite Valley Plan,” he said.
Plan safe for now
With the hearing behind them, plan critics are discussing their next move as their work seems far from over.
“A Clinton-era plan to restore the Yosemite Valley remains safe for now,” the Oakland Tribune reported, but added there is “no doubt” changes will come under a Republican-led Congress. Specifically, there will be more campsites than the plan allows at present.
Instead of saying he’d like to scrap the plan and start over, Radanovich suggested waiting a year or two until the first round of 15 projects are finished and the National Park Service asks Congress for more money to do the really expensive and controversial ones. That would be the transportation plan, which park officials said would be in place in about 10 years.
“Those (15 projects) are going to have an impact,” Randanovich told the press after the hearing. “Let’s revisit it [the plan] after these simpler, least costly projects are finished.”
Aceto calls the congressman’s wait-and-see approach and its selective implementation “cherry picking.”
“What people have to realize is that unless the entire plan – the Record of Decision – is overturned it will be implemented – all of it,” he said. This would, in turn, spell the commercialization and ultimately the destruction of the natural resources.
To him, it appears Radanovich is turning his back on a golden opportunity.
“As chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Radanovich is in a position to go down in history as the savior of Yosemite if he will have the Record of Decision overturned and lead the charge to base Yosemite’s planning on science, not on predetermined plans by the National Park Service and special interests,” he said.
For the Open Yosemite activists and other concerned area residents there is no turning back.
“We want to keep the pressure on Congress, making people aware of what’s going on. They can still contact their congressman,” said Peggy Mosley. “But we want people to know that if it’s happening in Yosemite, it’s happening everywhere.”
Editor’s note: Information about ongoing efforts to overturn the Yosemite Valley Plan and Visitors and Communities for an Open Yosemite is posted on the American Land Rights Association’s website.
Read Part 1: “Debate roars over future of Yosemite”