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Cars may be banned at Yosemite

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Most private cars would be banned from Yosemite Valley under a sweeping new plan to be released Tuesday by the National Park Service.

The proposal would require most visitors to park their cars outside the boundaries of Yosemite National Park in one of four staging areas and take a bus into the valley. Once in Yosemite, visitors could walk, ride a bike or take shuttle buses around the valley.The proposal calls for some of the biggest changes in public use of Yosemite since the famous valley, one of the most scenic places in the world, became a national park in 1890.

Although the Park Service and Yosemite advocates have been discussing ways to cut back on traffic in Yosemite for years, this is the first time the Park Service has formally proposed severe restrictions on private cars in the valley.

Zion National Park in southwestern Utah also will close its popular main canyon to most vehicles beginning in May 1999. The park has been open to vehicles since the 1930s but has seen burgeoning numbers of visitors in recent years. Last year, 2.5 million people visited the park.

National parks have always been accessible by cars, and placing severe restrictions on cars in Yosemite would be a first for the National Park Service. In addition to the traffic proposals, the 291-page document - formally called the Draft Yosemite Valley Implementation Plan - also calls for removing 2,300 parking spots, restoring 147 acres of the valley to their natural condition, increasing pedestrian and visitor trails, removing three Merced River bridges, tearing down the present visitors center and even removing the park superintendent's residence.

Park Superintendent Stanley Albright called it "a vision for the 21st century . . . a comprehensive blueprint for reducing traffic, restoring natural resources within the valley and improving visitor facilities and services."

"It would require changes in how the public visits Yosemite," said Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society. "It would make Yosemite a more enjoyable place to visit."

Nearly all of Yosemite's 4.2 million annual visitors arrive by car - and the Park Service plan would affect most of them. The most immediate effect, however, would be on the 3.5 million people every year who visit the park for the day.

The key to the proposal is a transportation system being developed by the newly formed Yosemite Area Regional Transportation Strategy, an organization of officials from the Park Service, Forest Service and the five counties neighboring Yosemite.

YARTS, as it is called, hopes to have a transit system in place within four years, according to Jeff Brown, executive director of the Merced County Association of Governments.

If the YARTS system is not operating by 2001, the park service would build a temporary 1,800-car parking lot near the Taft Toe in Yosemite Valley.

The Taft Toe, at the foot of the cliffs on the southern side of Yosemite Valley, is located near El Capitan.

The Taft Toe parking lot is one of two proposals offered by the Park Service. The other - a parking garage near the Pohono Quarry - is presented in the Valley Implementation Plan but is not being recommended by the planners.

The parking lots are viewed by the park service as only temporary solutions.

"It is the intent of the National Park Service and the YARTS group that the regional transportation system would eliminate the need for any day-use visitor parking," the report says.

The only visitors allowed to bring cars in the valley would be people with reservations at the park hotels or campgrounds. But these visitors would not be allowed to drive around the valley. They would have to park their cars until it was time to drive out, effectively eliminating automobile touring of Yosemite.

Environmental groups hailed the concept of the plan.

"It is the right thing to do, and it will make a visit to Yosemite a better and more natural experience," said Linda Wallace, chair of the Sierra Club's Yosemite group.

Watson said he preferred that the transfer area inside the valley be at the Pohono Quarry, instead of the Taft Toe, which would mean less of the valley would be open to cars.

The Valley Implementation Plan is the latest in a series of documents that have outlined the future of Yosemite, which has become increasingly crowded in recent years.

The biggest problem seems to be day-use visitors at Yosemite. The number of people who come to the park has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years.