YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIF. — YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Beneath the imperious granite faces that stare out at one another across this fabled valley, the signs of devastation are everywhere.
The river that roared up just after the New Year is a quiescent mess, its banks splayed across meadows, its new shape carved from the roads and highways that ran alongside it.
Favorite campsites have vanished. Marks from the water reach eight feet on some buildings. The valley's high-tech sewer system is newly visible, in lengths of thick, broken pipe that lie scattered along with countless trees.
The park has been closed longer than at any other time in its 107-year history; it will be many more months, park officials say, before it is operating fully.
Seen another way, the sudden rage of the Merced River accomplished in a few days what federal policies have mostly failed to do at many of the country's most cherished national parks: It began to wash away the deep imprint of the more than 4 million people who visit this valley each year.
"This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Jay Watson, the western regional director of the Wilderness Society, said after tramping around in the devastation left by three days of heavy, warm rain on deep snow. "It's a chance to begin to restore the natural character of Yosemite Valley."
National Park Service officials said the damage to buildings, roads, sewers, power lines and bridges in the park could total $178 million. But rather than simply rebuild things as they were -- often right in the valley's flood plain -- officials said they hoped to use the crisis to push ahead with restoration of the natural habitat, a concept that has been plotted, discussed and delayed for years.
The flood has thus propelled the country's busiest national park back to the center of a national debate over how the park service should balance its often contradictory mandates. The agency is supposed to preserve the environmental quality of the national parks, but it is obliged to keep them accessible to tourists at the same time.
With enough money, park service officials said, they could use the rebuilding process to move hundreds of units of lodging and employee housing outside the park, move some campgrounds out of the flood plain, redirect a few roads to ameliorate traffic jams that can sometimes last for hours, restore some meadows and cede areas on the banks of the Merced back to wildlife.
"You want to reduce the congestion, to allow natural processes to prevail," park Superintendent B. J. Griffin said. "We are talking about spending some more money to do it right rather than just going out and putting everything back in place."
But the availability of such money is an open question.
The logic that underlies Griffin's dream has been on paper for at least 17 years. In 1980, as the park's popularity surged, the Department of the Interior issued a master plan for Yosemite that called for a reduction in accommodations, the elimination of parking lots, the relocation of some campsites and significant new limits on the number of visitors.
The plan suggested reducing the number of summer visitors to Yosemite Valley to about 10,500 a day, from an average of more than 17,000. The plan said car repair and rental services should be removed from the valley, shops and services should be reduced, and a shuttle-bus system might be expanded with the hope of one day eliminating cars.
Some goals of the plan, mostly modest ones, have been met. But within a few years, with Yosemite's popularity again booming and its federal financing on the decline, a park superintendent, John Moorehead, dismissed some of the more ambitious elements of the proposal as "unrealistic" and "unattainable." In 1989, the agency disavowed important parts of the plan in a later study, enraging environmental groups.
More recently, as the park's crowds have continued to grow, planning has drifted back to the thinking of the 1980 proposal.
A development plan expected to be made public in the next few months will suggest that more Yosemite operations be moved, park service officials said. But so far, the park has made scant headway in dealing with its most challenging problem: the flood of cars, trucks and recreational vehicles.
The campaign for Yosemite's restoration might get a lift from the Clinton administration, which has been taking an increasingly aggressive stance to try to limit the impact of visitors on national parks. Yet financing for the kind of changes that Yosemite's caretakers would like to make has not necessarily become more available as the naturalist ambitions of the park service have grown.
"Every single dollar of park service construction money has 376 hands and their corresponding congressional representatives after it," the chief of maintenance and engineering at the park, R. Kevin Cann, said of the competition among the entities of the national park system.
Yosemite's stewards hope the floods will give them an edge.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said he is optimistic that supplemental financing can be found.
Pub Date: 2/02/97