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Monday, September 15, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 2/6/2007

A threat to nation's treasures

YOSEMITE National Park is a place of spectacular natural beauty, truly a jewel of the National Park system with majestic Half Dome towering over a granite-walled valley traversed by the Merced River.

It is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on the planet. On that, everyone can agree.

But there is no such agreement on what should be done to make the park more accessible or accommodating to visitors. In fact, a federal judge, at the urging of environmentalists, called a halt to construction projects at the park. The environmentalists asserted that the projects would encourage more visitors and threaten the ecosystem.

At Yosemite, the issue came to a head after the Merced River flooded in 1997, destroying campgrounds and parking areas, and damaging Yosemite Lodge. The park service came up with a multimillion-dollar plan to move campgrounds, re-route a road, and improve hotel rooms.

Friends of Yosemite Valley, one of the groups that filed the suit, argues that commercialization could harm the park for future generations of visitors. The government, which has appealed the ruling, worries that restrictions on development could lead to a cap on the number of visitors.

It is a familiar dichotomy, a debate heard at most of the nation's flagship parks. The issue may be snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park, or overflights by tourists of the Grand Canyon, but the fundamental question is the same: Where is the balance between allowing visitors access to the parks and preventing those same visitors and the amenities they require from spoiling the natural wonders they came to see in the first place?

Obviously there is no easy answer.

No one - at least, no one who cares about our national parks - wants to build gaudy motels and strip malls within the parks' perimeters to cater to the needs or wants of visitors. But is it fair to exclude those who might not be able-bodied enough to walk, climb, or camp? Should cars be banned? Should the number of visitors be restricted?

Yosemite presents some special challenges because of its popularity, and because the vast majority of its visitors crowd into Yosemite Valley and never see the magnificent high country beyond.

So many people want to experience its wonders that they are, it seems, in danger of overwhelming it. But the conflicting imperatives of access and preservation resonate throughout the park system, and across the country.

One thing is certain: The desire of Americans and tourists alike to sample the splendor of our national parks isn't going to subside any time soon. Steps will have to be taken to enable them to fully appreciate the experience without overwhelming each park's ability to cater to them.

Accomplishing that will require a meeting of the minds between the park service, advocates of wider access, and environmentalists.

Hopefully, that can take place outside the confines of a courtroom. In fact, they should hold such a meeting at the base of Half Dome. They'd understand the stakes for sure.



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