Never has this question been more timely or pivotal: Is America’s beloved Yosemite Valley being crowded beyond its “carrying capacity”?
At what point does the half-a-billion dollars generated annually by Yosemite for regional businesses need to be adjusted to keep from suffocating the goose that lays the golden eggs?
On July 10, The Modesto Bee’s website, www.modbee.com, ran my opinion piece describing being stuck for hours in gridlocked traffic on a summer weekend in Yosemite Valley. To compound the frustration, employees at the park’s entrance continued to send cars into the park, adding to the standstill traffic that awaited them just a few miles ahead. Many frustrated Yosemite visitors responded passionately to describe their own traffic-jam experiences.
Some feared the world-acclaimed national park is being “loved to death” by a flood of visitors.
Numerous park employees, who deal with visitors daily, emailed to share concerns that the growing congestion and crowding has affected their jobs and their customers. On busy days, long lines of frustrated visitors can be left waiting for up to an hour or longer to get onto packed shuttle buses. Cars circle endlessly in search of parking spaces. Employees who say they have worked in Yosemite Valley for a decade complain congestion has become the norm for the spring/summer season.
Chip Jenkins, acting Yosemite Park superintendent, spoke briefly to mostly business interests at a Yosemite Gateway Partners gathering just a few days later on July 13. He used words such as “disappointing” and “unacceptable” to describe the peak-season traffic jams that have become so common in Yosemite Valley – especially in the past two years.
Other top park officials have agreed that standstill traffic at times backs up vehicles all the way to the Wawona tunnel and equally far back on other routes entering Yosemite Valley. People who have driven from as far away as Canada have vented their frustration, not just at being forced to endure unexpected gridlock, but also because they ended up being sent back out of Yosemite Valley without even being able to stop. Every parking space was full; there was no place to park.
In 1980 – 27 years ago – the park’s management plan spelled out that Yosemite was “at a crossroads” due to congested facilities. Even then, the Yosemite Valley road system served more than a million vehicles a year. Park officials aimed to reclaim Yosemite Valley’s “priceless beauty” by gradually phasing out private vehicles from Yosemite Valley itself and redirecting vehicles and development to the periphery of the park and beyond. The goal, the plan stated, was to ensure that “overcrowding does not interfere with visitor enjoyment or threaten park values.”
Not surprisingly, political pressure pushed back against the park’s plan.
Over years of revised planning, a series of new park superintendents shelved the goal to remove or reduce private vehicles entering Yosemite Valley. In 2014, a long-delayed management plan was labeled the “enhanced visitor experience” alternative. It approved the construction of additional parking spaces, and it raised the “user capacity limit” (or “carrying capacity”) for the east end of Yosemite Valley by allowing in nearly 2,000 more people per day.
Yosemite officials took a politically safe approach by pushing the threshold higher and rejecting any sort of day-use visitor-permit system. They sidestepped any action to effectively deal with peak visitation periods, despite ample evidence (dating back to 2011) that traffic exceeded parking for most of the summer season.
For 23 years, official visitor counts for Yosemite Park stayed almost entirely in the 3-plus million visitor range. Two years ago, visitation pushed past 4 million, and in 2016 more than 5 million visitors crowded into the park.
Tour bus companies, lodging facilities, the park’s concessionaire, chambers of commerce, guide services and a host of others are all enthusiastically marketing Yosemite at the state, national and international levels. Even Yosemite Park officials have joined in the marketing – partnering with businesses at tourism conventions to encourage park visits.
With so many interests promoting Yosemite, National Park Service counts show that summer season vehicle numbers consistently exceed the Valley’s parking spaces and the capacity for cars to simply move on the limited roads. The result is gridlock.
Officials admit that the unpredicted 20 percent surge in park use has, at times, resulted in visitor levels exceeding capacity for Yosemite Valley. This is not just a potential legal violation.
Allowing excessive vehicle congestion conflicts with park service mandates to ensure visitors can have a positive experience. The challenge is to identify the best steps to take – not just to improve the deteriorating visitor experience, but more important, to truly protect the ecological health of Yosemite Valley, its Wild and Scenic River corridor, and other stressed resources.
Delaying actions for years to go through yet another round of planning won’t give Yosemite Valley the protection it deserves and needs. Never has visionary collaboration by the park service, business interests, regional politicians and the public been more vital to help craft strategic changes to limit congestion and allow use within the true carrying capacity of this iconic place.
With so much at stake, the park service needs public and political support to reduce the number of vehicles in the Valley and design a “peak-season” strategy.
The congestion crisis in Yosemite Valley challenges the Park Service to give up meaningful options for what a day-use reservation system could look like – and then to engage stakeholders so that aggressive testing can begin in 2018.
It is human nature to resist change, especially for a place that holds special memories for so many of us. But visitors can support seasonal limits on vehicles if they recognize that with a reservation they can avoid traffic jams and actually stop, park and savor the precious natural cathedral of Yosemite Valley.
John Buckley is executive director Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (www.cserc.org) in Twain Harte. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee. Email firstname.lastname@example.org