Two consecutive lawsuits and three plans and we still haven’t properly resolved the Yosemite Valley dilemma. It’s one of the most gorgeous spots in the world, but that can be hard to appreciate in summertime when you spend most of your time staring at the rear bumper of the car in front of you because of traffic so intense that people can walk faster than you can drive. And that’s saying something, because the throngs of people are so dense that getting from Point A to Point B on foot can involve a fair amount of pedestrian maneuvering, braking and cutting in front.
The answer, according to the National Park Service, is not to reduce the number of people who can visit the valley, or the cars, but to eliminate a vintage ice-skating rink, raft and bike rentals, and horse rides. More campsites but no pools at the hotels.
As overcrowded as the valley gets—close to 20,000 people a day in peak season--the first part of that plan makes some sense. People come from all over the country, all over the world, to see Yosemite in summer. Would they have to buy advance tickets? That seems like a sad way to operate a national park. Even worse would be turning them away at the guard gate once the valley gets too full; imagine some family from China or Germany that had planned a Yosemite day on their summer U.S. tour, only to be rejected at the gate. (Though there are plenty of other beautiful, if not quite as iconic, places to visit nearby.) The skating rink isn't well used, and yes, more campsites would be wildly popular. So far, so good.
But what kind of sense does it make to eliminate the bike rentals and keep the cars?
Yosemite Valley was developed for public use at a time when the population was much smaller and less mobile and the wilderness seemed infinite. No national treasure would be designed these days for such intense use. That’s one of the reasons I tend to think that the O’Shaughnessy Dam was, in its way, more a protector of Hetch Hetchy Valley than a despoiler. The lack of tourism development in the valley keeps the number of visitors low and the uses gentle.
Now, because the Park Service must do something about Yosemite Valley because of required environmental protection for the Merced River, it has an opportunity to at least partly change the character of the valley’s use. That shouldn’t entail reducing the recreational opportunities but letting the cars continue rolling.
If Santa Monica could close off the Third Street Promenade to cars, why can’t the Park Service do the same for Yosemite Valley? Build expansive parking capacity at the park gate and let visitors know that if their plans include the valley, they need to leave their vehicles there and take park trolleys or buses? Without the cars, there would actually be more room in the valley for visitors. Roads could be turned into a combination of pedestrian walkways and bike paths. Rather than eliminating bicycles, the park could encourage bike rentals as a way of touring the valley and beyond. Environmentally appropriate launching pads for raft rentals could be constructed. There would be no need to eliminate swimming pools or horse rides.
The valley would become instead a recreational spot of extraordinary loveliness rather than a circular traffic jam.
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