|AFTER THE FLOOD|
March 3, 1997
JIM LEHRER: Now the aftermath of this winterís destructive flooding in the West. Spencer Michels reports from Yosemite National Park in California.
SPENCER MICHELS: In early January heavy rains poured down on Yosemite National Park in Californiaís Sierra Nevada Mountains. The tropical storm melted snow in the high country, swelling the Merced River, which flows through the most heavily used portion of the park, Yosemite Valley. The rampaging river undermined roads. The rain triggered rockslides that blocked two of the three major mountain highways leading into the park. Nearly 400 lodge units and cabins were inundated and essentially destroyed. The park was immediately closed to all visitors. The flood, the worst since 1955, destroyed more than roads and buildings according to B.J. Griffin, the parkís superintendent.
B. J. GRIFFIN, Yosemite Superintendent: We have to restore our cardiovascular system. That was our job No. 1 after the event happened. The sewer system and the water system especially were heavily damaged, and theyíre still not operating in a reliable and automatic way.
SPENCER MICHELS: After a month-long assessment, the National Park Service announced the damage estimates at $178 million, 11 times the Parkís annual budget. But the disaster could have a silver lining. Ironically, the flood, despite its devastation, may provide a means of addressing an equally devastating problem Yosemite has been facing--an over-abundance of tourists. Normally, during the summer months Yosemite sees 17,000 visitors a day. The floods, of course, could not destroy the grandeur of Yosemite Valley. It is this spectacular high Sierra scenery that brings 4 million visitors a year to this park. And it is those hordes of people, rather than the floods, who threaten the environment here. All those visitors have necessitated more and more building in the park, more stores, more roads, more housing, much of it build in the flood plain. That growth has concerned environmentalists like Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society.
JAY WATSON, Wilderness Society: Itís really crowding, congestion, gridlock, and just over development. And now we have a chance to reduce all of those things and, in so doing, really improve the visitor experience at the park as well.
B. J. GRIFFIN: The growth in visitation, which has been about a million and a half people over the last ten years, has been in people coming in for the day. So we need to get control over that so people donít sit in their cars and idle for an hour looking for a parking place when they could be out enjoying the resource.
SPENCER MICHELS: Neither flooding nor overcrowding is a new issue. This general management plan issued by the Park Service in 1980 attempted to address both those concerns. After exhaustive hearings and studies, the planners declared Yosemite was a crossroad. This premier master work of the natural world, as they called it, was caught in the march of manmade development. The plan called for removal of all automobiles from the valley and the relocation or elimination of hundreds of buildings and campsites and Park Service maintenance facilities away from the occasional path of the river. That plan was written 17 years ago.
B. J. GRIFFIN: What happens normally is national parks will do general management plans, and then once those are done, theyíll get in line with 365 other parks and vie for a priority to go into the budget. What the flood did was sort of elevate our priority.
SPENCER MICHELS: Anticipating sympathy and money to rebuild, park officials saw a chance at last to implement long sought but expensive changes. Kevin Cann, the chief of maintenance and engineering, included in his $178 million repair request money for relocation to higher ground for some buildings.
KEVIN CANN, Maintenance Chief: Should you risk spending 20 or 30 million and repairing things and then maybe spending that again in five years? These things will be flooded again, so itís pay now or pay later. Iím told we have a snow pack right now in the high country thatís 220 percent of the average annual water content. We could be subject to the exact same occurrence next week with a warm rain.
SPENCER MICHELS: Besides fixing the roads and moving buildings away from the river park officials want to relocate employee housing and maintenance facilities outside the park, reduce slightly the number of rooms for tourists, restore meadows, institute a reservation program for one-day visits and provide shuttles and parking lots away from the valley to eliminate private cars. Environmentalists endorse those goals.
JAY WATSON: In the aftermath of the floods there really is a once in a lifetime chance to restore the natural character of the valley. Itís almost--itís like a chance to return the park to the days when visitors could stand in awe before its legendary granite and not have to endure its infamous gridlock and over development.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some park supporters have faulted Congress for skimping on federal funding for national parks and thereby thwarting changes that would help remove manís imprint on parks like Yosemite. Brian Huse is regional director of the National Parks & Conservation Association.
BRIAN HUSE, National Parks and Conservation Association: Congress in whole has been blocking a lot of change within the Park Service. The budget for the Park Service for 18 years now has remained essentially flat. We saw an attempt last year to introduce legislation that would privatize much of the national park system. Now, Mother Nature has come in and provided a tremendous, again, opportunity to start the process of moving along.
SPENCER MICHELS: While nearby communities once fought plans to reduce Yosemite tourism, today there appears to be consensus for change. Local Republican congressmen have introduced bills to pay the full request for repairs and relocation. And in nearby Mariposa, hard-hit by the closure of the park, local businessmen like attorney Art Baggett are also on board. Baggettís only quibble is that private business should be involved in building any new public transit system.
ART BAGGETT, Mariposa Attorney: The challenge with transit is to move people 30 miles on mountain roads in a timely, regularly scheduled fashion, much like they do in the Swiss Alps. The private sector can come forward to provide the parking areas, to provide staging facilities, to provide much of the--much of the solution.
SPENCER MICHELS: If Yosemite gets its money, as seems likely, it could point the way for other parks.
B. J. GRIFFIN: Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Zion, just to name a few, are having some crowding problems and are coming to grips with that right now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Park Superintendent Griffin is predicting much of Yosemite will be open to the public in mid-March, but the big changes she expects to get funded will take about three years to complete.