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Park hearing draws a crowd

Dressed as prisoners, Donna Davis (left) of Mariposa and Joan Anderson of Oakhurst protest limited valley floor access. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).
Dressed as prisoners, Donna Davis (left) of Mariposa and Joan Anderson of Oakhurst protest limited valley floor access. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).

By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER

George Radanovich had people like the Ruiz family in mind yesterday, people who know what it's like to wake up under Half Dome, between the imposing granite walls of Yosemite Valley, and hear the sounds of the Merced River.

And like the U.S. congressman, the Ruizes — Johnnie, Carol and their four kids — came to the park to support creating more campsites in Yosemite National Park.

Each of the past 15 summers, the Sacramento family has brought two groups of 10 to 15 underprivileged, often inner-city kids, for a week of camping at the park.

They want to continue the tradition, but worry that the Yosemite Valley Plan's reduction in campsites will crowd them out.

The family took the day off yesterday to protest the plan and attend a Congressional field hearing in Yosemite Valley at which officials like Radanovich spoke.

The Ruizes and about 30 others, all dressed in black and white-striped prison garb, hollered out their disgust for the plan — a park management guide that took 20 years to finish and cost more than $400 million.

It proposes halving the number of campsites in Yosemite Valley, the park's most popular destination.

Before the hearing — at which no decisions were made — Radanovich, R-Mariposa, National Park Service Director Fran Mainella and National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands subcommittee member Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, recognized Earth Day by greeting busloads of school kids visiting the park.

Then they turned to the standing-room-only, three-hour hearing that brought House subcommittee members to see the lands and people their decisions might affect.

The subcommittee has the power through Congress to change the Yosemite Valley Plan.

Radanovich — whose district includes the 113-year-old park — led the hearing. He said he doesn't rule out Congressional action to override the plan and add more campsites.

Before a massive flood of 1997, more than 800 campsites sat in the 7-by-1-mile Yosemite Valley. But the New Year's Day event wiped out hundreds of sites, mainly from the banks of the Merced River. The sites were never replaced, and campers now have 475 sites to choose from.

The Valley Plan directs park officials to restore the river floodplain as wetlands, woodlands and shoreline habitat — not campsites.

Park Service Director Mainella defended that decision as she faced more than 200 people at the meeting.

In the early 1980s, 80 percent of park guests stayed for one to two weeks, spending most of those nights inside the park.

Now, she said, those numbers have flipped. Vacations last only five days, and 80 percent of visitors stop in just for daylight hours — only 20 percent sleep within park boundaries.

Citing those numbers, Mainella said money would be better spent developing hiking trails or other day-use activities.

Peggy Mosley, owner of the Groveland Hotel, blamed the press for the decline in long-term camping.

"I think the reason people don't come is because every spring the media draws straws as to who's going to write the ‘Yosemite is closed' story," she told the subcommittee.

Radanovich and Jay Watson, regional director of The Wilderness Society in San Francisco, responded that the struggling economy, rising gas prices and the Cary Stayner murders in the park are among factors that have more to do with her business than the Park Service public information staff and reporters.

Two studies released last week identified 788 new campsites that could be built throughout the park, and another 144 that could be restored near the river.

However, only 204 sites outside Yosemite Valley and 25 sites in the valley would meet Valley Plan requirements — the rest would put the plan on hold while the sites were researched and then added to the plan.

There will be further discussion in the House subcommittee, re-evaluation of costs, research on ways to restore many of the sites and more meetings in the next six months. Radanovich said it will probably take a year or two before any action is taken.


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