Worth Twenty Bucks?

The battle over restricting access to Yosemite Valley had been brewing for years. Then came the flood.

Yosemite National Park may exist in the national imagination as an unadulterated expanse of nature, but this summer 2.7 million visitors will experience something quite different: countless kid-filled minivans, retirees in RVs, and other urban- and suburban-weary folks who spend a few hours soaking up the scenery before grabbing a hot dog and heading home. And many environmentalists, including Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, say that's exactly how it should be.

"There can never be too many Americans coming to enjoy their parks," said Babbitt last January, voicing the populist opinion that our parks are worthless if they can't be fully and freely experienced by all. Then he added a controversial caveat: "I do believe, though, there are too many cars."

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Babbitt was speaking at the Grand Canyon's South Rim -- where on a busy summer day 6,500 vehicles compete for 2,400 parking spaces -- to announce plans to limit private automobile traffic in the park by implementing an as-yet-unspecified mass transit system. Plans are in the works at close to a third of the country's national parks to reduce congestion and protect natural resources.

At Yosemite, the National Park Service has instituted a number of traffic-calming tactics, including a user fee increase from $5 to $20 and a reservation system to limit the number of cars -- and passengers -- that can enter the park's popular Yosemite Valley on a given day.

The measures come in the wake of last January's devastating Merced River flood, which swept away $178 million in roads, housing, and amenities in Yosemite Valley; closed the entire park down for 21 days; and gave park planners a rare opportunity to restore parts of the valley to a more natural state. (Exactly what that might look like is also a matter of debate -- the NPS is currently taking public comments on its proposed "implementation plan" for reconstructing the valley.)

But even the Merced River won't stop hordes of people from descending on the valley this summer. And many argue that nobody -- especially not the park service -- should try. "We're never going to have another John Muir if the parks are regimented in this way," says Garrett De Bell, head of Earth Island Institute's Yosemite Guardian project. While De Bell isn't thrilled about the surfeit of cars in the park, he prefers incentives for mass transit and carpooling rather than "command and control" tactics that keep people from the park. For example, he says, the current telephone system for reserving camping spots can discourage people from camping. "If somebody doesn't speak English too well, or if they don't have a credit card, they can't participate," he explains.

"Society is used to making reservations for things," counters Linda Wallace, chair of the Sierra Club's Yosemite committee and a proponent of controlling visitation at the park. "We don't want wall-to-wall people in there. Air and noise pollution are part of the [Yosemite] experience these days. Presumably we come to Yosemite to escape those things."