- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — The hum of chain saws and clanking of steel on steel have replaced the buzz of crowds as officials push forward the largest effort to transform Yosemite National Park since its inception in 1890.

The $441 million Yosemite Valley Plan aims to “reduce the human footprint,” pruning parking spaces, moving campsites and roads, rebuilding housing destroyed by a 1997 flood and improving a shuttle-bus system, among other things.

But what some see as a back-to-nature scheme has drawn critics and at least six lawsuits trying to stop some of it.

“The thrust and the balance of the plan is development, and the singular intent is more development,” said Greg Adair, co-director of Friends of Yosemite Valley.

“It will also cost visitors their freedom,” Mr. Adair said.

Yosemite National Park Superintendent Michael Tollefson calls it a restoration project.

“Some do tend to look at it as new development, but in reality what we’re doing is taking facilities that often look very tired and making them more user- and visitor-friendly, but at the same time providing better protection of the resources,” Mr. Tollefson said.

Protective wooden walkways are being installed over wetland meadows, buildings are being moved from the flood plain, and an 85-year-old dam that once provided electricity for valley homes is being demolished, allowing 81 miles of the scenic Merced River to flow freely through the park.

Visits to the park are increasing, with Yosemite now seeing 3.5 million visitors annually. Thirty years ago, 80 percent of Yosemite’s visitors were overnighters; now, it’s 80 percent day-use.

Vehicle traffic has increased about 30 percent over the last decade. Seven bears were killed by cars on park roads in 2003.

Outside development is encroaching on park boundaries, bringing new housing projects and commercial construction — and thousands more people.

The newly opened Chukchansi Casino, one of the state’s largest, is just 30 miles down the road. SilverTip Resort Village, a 47-acre commercial and residential complex, was recently approved for the tiny park-border town of Fish Camp.

Writers, artists and photographers spread the fame of Yosemite during the early to mid-1800s, setting off a steady increase of visitors and, ultimately, drastic changes to the landscape.

Yosemite was made a national park in 1890, and since then it has struggled to find a balance between preservation and public access.

The Yosemite Valley Plan will achieve that compromise, supporters say.

Mr. Adair disagreed, calling it the urbanization of a natural wonder that will limit visitor freedom.

“There’s upward of 70 archaeological sites destroyed or impaired in the Yosemite Valley under the plan,” he said.

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