- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2012

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. | Falling boulders are the single biggest force shaping Yosemite Valley, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the national park system. Now swaths of some popular haunts are closing for good after geologists confirmed that unsuspecting tourists and employees are being lodged in harm’s way.

On Thursday, the National Park Service announced that potential danger from the unstable 3,000-foot-tall Glacier Point, a granite promontory that for decades has provided a dramatic backdrop to park events, will leave some of the valley’s most popular lodging areas permanently uninhabitable.

“There are no absolutely safe areas in Yosemite Valley,” said Greg Stock, the park’s first staff geologist and the primary author of a new study that assesses the potential risk to people from falling rocks in the steep-sided valley. The highest risk area is family-friendly Curry Village, which was hit by a major rockfall several years ago.

A newly delineated “hazard zone” also points to other areas, including the popular climbing wall El Capitan, where the danger posed by the rockfalls is high but risk of injury is low because they aren’t occupied continuously.

The move to close parts of historic Curry Village, a camp of canvas-and-wood tent cabins, comes four years after the equivalent of 570 dump trucks of boulders hit 17 cabins, flattened one and sent schoolchildren scrambling for their lives. The park fenced off 233 of the 600 cabins in the village.

The new report, obtained early by the Associated Press, identifies 18 more that were closed Thursday.

An examination by AP after the 2008 fall found park officials were aware of U.S. Geological Survey studies dating back to 1996 that show Glacier Point, behind Curry Village, to be susceptible to rock avalanches. Yet visitors were not warned of the potential danger, and the Park Service repaired and reused rock-battered cabins.

Rockfalls in and around the century-old Curry Village have killed two people and injured two dozen others since 1996. Since officials began keeping track in 1857, 15 people have died throughout the valley and 85 have been injured from falling rocks.

This new study, prompted by the 2008 Curry event, is the first to assess risk to people. Officials say dangers exist in nearly every national park but they are particularly acute in Yosemite, given its unstable geology, which causes rockfalls weekly. Park officials will use the study to develop policy to guide future planning.

Yosemite Valley is ringed by 3,000-foot walls of granite. Since the last glacier retreated 15,000 years ago, the biggest factor shaping the most popular tourist destinations in the park has been the sloughing of rock when granite heats and cools and eventually breaks along fissures and cracks.

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