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Yosemite: Nature Caught in Gridlock

By Matt Johanson
Blast San Francisco Bureau

Maybe it wasn't a life-and-death adventure, but it was a big trip for us: a December trek on skis to Yosemite National Park's Glacier Point. Accessible by car and mobbed with tourists in summer, Glacier Point is serene and magnificent in winter, blanketed in snow and separated from the nearest snowplowed road by 10 hilly miles.

After Christmas, I set out with two old friends for a four-day visit. We aren't expert skiers and fought to stay upright beneath heavy packs on the path's curvy, icy stretches. Making camp in the snow was tough too, and we shivered through the coldest night any of us have spent outdoors.

Yet the stars shone that night like we had never seen them, big, bright and countless against a moonless, black sky. Glacier Point offered a classic view of a vast expanse of Yosemite Valley. We saw the meandering Merced River and a trickling, frozen Yosemite Falls, but noticeably few cars and none of the "gridlock" of which we read so much.

As a frequent visitor and climber, I don't envy the Park Service in its task of reconciling Yosemite's conflicting interests, like the park's ecology vs. public access and motorists competing for parking spots on a crowded summer day. I recognize the need to address the problems associated with Yosemite's immense popularity and applaud the Park Service for devising a solution that doesn't involve one particularly bad idea officials have considered recently: day-use reservations.

But the Park Service's plan to halt all of Yosemite Valley's private automobile traffic contains frightening ambiguity.

The plan, in short, is this: Yosemite officials want to halt automobile traffic in the valley. Visitors with overnight reservations will get to drive to their accommodations, but after that, they'll have to ride a bus, a bike or walk to get around. The same goes for day-use visitors.

The details more or less stop there. How will day-use visitors get to the valley? Maybe they'll need to get permits to drive to a large valley parking lot. How will the permit system work? No information. Or day-use visitors may have to park outside the park and take a bus. Some visitors come in very late or early; when will the buses run? No information.

Climbers worry about this plan for two reasons. First, they never get overnight reservations in valley. If they're not spending the night thousands of feet off the ground, they're squeezed into the no-reservation Sunnyside Campground. How will the park's plan affect climbers who intend to sleep on the rock or in Sunnyside? No information.

Second, climbing requires cases of gear that fill up the back seat and trunk every time. If climbers had to park outside Yosemite, how could they transport it all by bus first to the valley and then on foot to the farspread rocks they want to scale? In practical terms, they couldn't, not without drastically cutting the amount of climbing they can expect to do in limited time.

Maybe -- probably -- sacrifices are needed to preserve Yosemite Valley. If so, climbers will have to pony up like everyone else. But we deserve some hard information about what those sacrifices will be before it's too late to debate them.

Everyone should demand a straight answer to this one: Why should the park install a year-round solution for a 12-week traffic problem? Visitors in winter, spring and fall enjoy a quiet Yosemite Valley that disappears in the rush of summer.

If you love Yosemite, I encourage you to write the Park Superintendent Stanley Albright, your representatives in Congress, or Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit.