Cars face ban from gridlocked paradise

America's obsession with the automobile is ruining one of the country's most impressive beauty spots. Tim Cornwell joins the queues in Yosemite
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The Independent Online
The sun was just dusting the cliffs around the Yosemite Falls, on a morning cold enough to freeze the power windows on your sport-utility vehicle. Dwayne Frey, an amateur photographer from San Francisco, came out early to catch a shot of deer grazing on a meadow, against the backdrop of the Half Dome, where a 9,000 foot granite mountain cuts suddenly away to sheer cliffs.

The first cars were already passing by, followed by a lorry, and then a school bus. But on an early morning in the off-season, this is the Yosemite Valley as it was meant to be. "This is very, very quiet," he said. On a summer weekend, he said, "it's just like a major city down here with the traffic. It can get bumper to bumper along here. You get too many cars in your picture."

A couple from Liverpool show up, John and Sarah Power, having just seen a black bear running from their parking lot. The animals had just trashed a tourist's truck, apparently egged on by the sight of a Safeway bag inside.

In one sign of man's increasing intrusion, bears in the California backwoods are widely said to recognise the shape of a cooler box, and will smash in and then out of cars to get them. "You go to the Lake District and you see Sca Fell, that's big," John said, looking round. "You come here, and it's just dwarfed."

Like almost everyone else, we've arrived in our separate cars, stopped by the roadside. But the Yosemite Valley, like the Lake District, is becoming overrun with vehicles in the summer. The US National Park Service, in a move that could rewrite the way Americans and foreign tourists enjoy American public lands, is now proposing to ban most private cars. In a park-and-ride scheme, day visitors would be forced to park at the valley's edge and travel mostly by bus, bicycle, and on foot.

Supporters say it will show the way forward for crowded parks across America, and possibly round the world. Awe-inspiring Yosemite stands with Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon as one of the crown jewels of America's natural wonders. Barely 10 years after the first recorded European sighting, in the midst of the American Civil War, conservationists persuaded Abraham Lincoln in 1864 to sign a Bill putting the "incomparable valley" and the nearby grove of giant 3,000-year-old sequoia trees into a public trust.

It was the beloved tramping ground of the Scottish-born naturalist and writer John Muir, and an inspiration for the founding of the Sierra Club, America's premier environmental group, which he headed. But there were only 147 visitors in 1864, and the first car did not arrive until 1900. Four million people a year now converge on Yosemite, most in cars, double the number in 1980.

Yosemite National Park covers 750,000 acres, 1,169 square miles, the size of a small state. But most tourists are drawn to the cliffs and waterfalls of the Yosemite Valley, cut by glaciers as a narrow ribbon barely seven miles long and ranging in width from half a mile to two. The result in the peak summer weeks is not solitude and silence but gridlock, noise, and even smog, from exhaust fumes and camp fires.

Regulars complain of the smell of carbon monoxide, and the rumble of traffic that pursues you, even climbing 1,000 feet off the valley floor. It can take, it is said, 45 minutes to travel a mile and a half. The Park Service plan calls for removing 2,300 parking spots in the valley, tearing down the current visitor centre and tearing up roads through scenic meadows, and restoring 147 acres to their natural state. A two-lane, one-way road system that threads up the Merced River's south side and back along its north side would be partially converted into a bicycle path.

More broadly, planners are attempting to reverse a gradual increase in commercialisation that has put hundreds of hotel rooms, 400 camp sites, restaurants, gift stores, a jail, and even a school for employees' children in the valley. The problem in Yosemite, according to officials, is not just cars or overcrowding, but the way in which people now wish to see "nature".

Of the four million visitors, about 3.5 million come for the day, mostly in their cars, spending an average of 4.2 hours to do "Yosemiteland". "People used to come here for 10 days", said park spokesman Al Nash. "A journey into the valley took a whole day." Now, he said, fewer and fewer people are familiar with the out-of-doors experience. Many are unlikely to venture more than a few yards from their car.

The idea of restricting cars was first mooted 17 years ago. A major flood earlier this year, which washed out bridges, camp sites, and housing, has jump-started it again, and brought nearly $200m (pounds 128m) in compensation funds to help pay for it. But the Park Service is proceeding with extreme caution, in a country and a state - California - where the right to drive is virtually enshrined in the constitution.

At a series of hearings and open houses from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the public will be asked to declare what it wants. "Cars were given free rein for a long time," said Sam Hays, who as a bus driver and local conservationist firmly favours the new scheme. "Because Americans love their cars." So far, at least, opinion among the tourists seems to run strongly in favour, though some caution that diesel buses will leave their own trail of fumes. "It can be just like a traffic jam," said Dave Kennedy, on honeymoon from Baltimore. "People, and people, and people, tripping over each other. We've got to protect the area here, or we won't have it."

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