Here's the plan to ease crowding at Yosemite, from the park's new chief

Before Michael Reynolds leaves his office, he puts on his hat. As a 32-year veteran of the park service, he knows that a ranger is never caught outside without one.

Reynolds is Yosemite’s new superintendent, a Mariposa County native who began his career at the park he now leads. With his background, he believes he can be mindful of not only the park, but of Yosemite’s neighbors like Fresno and the gateway communities, too.

From January 2017 to January 2018 Reynolds was the acting head of the National Park Service, during a tumultuous time for the park service that saw clashes with President Donald Trump and his administration. Reynolds is taking over Yosemite’s leadership after former superintendent Don Neubacher resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment at the park.

The reports, along with long commute times and housing challenges, have led to morale issues among park employees, Reynolds said. To combat that, he supports establishing employee councils, including a women’s organization. He also said a clear, accountable process for reporting harassment and hostility is needed.

reynolds - 1.jpg
Michael Reynolds near the cemetery in Yosemite Village on Thursday, March 29. Reynolds took over the top job at Yosemite National Park earlier this year. Aleksandra Appleton aappleton@fresnobee.com

As superintendent, Reynolds will oversee the implementation of the Merced River and Tuolomne River plans, as well as a number of projects that have been in the works for years, like the restoration of Mariposa Grove. He also said deferred maintenance – all $550 million of it – is a priority.

While Reynolds said he would like to repair existing trails and facilities first, he said he understands the need for new parking lots too.

“It’s not that people are a problem at all. We want visitors,” he said. “The issue here is cars. An awful lot of cars in a small space, all at one time.”

Gridlocked traffic in Yosemite Valley during the park’s peak months has led to frustration among visitors looking for parking spots. Yosemite saw a record number of visitors in 2016, with over 5 million people visiting the park. That number dropped slightly to 4.3 million in 2017.

Reynolds believes adding parking lots and shuttle systems in accordance with the Merced River Plan would be an ideal solution to the overcrowding issue. Day-use reservations could also be coming, but daily quotas are not a part of the plan.

Reynolds also said the park does not have the infrastructure for a bus system that would pick visitors up in gateway communities like Oakhurst and drop them off in the Valley. If such a system is possible, it’s many years away.

Visitors this summer can expect to find 300 more parking spots around Camp 4, where a dirt parking lot is being converted into a paved one.

But there’s a fine line between the need for more parking and too much pavement, Reynolds said. He wants park projects to focus on repurposing existing facilities, and in some cases, even removing them.

Commercial buildings have been cleared from Mariposa Grove, which is scheduled to reopen on June 15 after a four-year restoration. The grove will now feature a boardwalk running over a creek, whose water flow will allow for more tree growth.

Bridalveil Fall is also getting a $12.5 million facelift that will focus on expanding the view of the waterfall via accessible trails and some tree removal. Reynolds said a wider viewing platform will accommodate crowds and allow for different angles of the fall.

fall 1 - 1.jpg
Yosemite Falls is full from recent winter storms as seen on Thursday, March 29. Aleksandra Appleton aappleton@fresnobee.com

A typical first stop for many visitors, Bridalveil Fall is also getting better bathrooms.

“That may seem minor, but it’s big when you’ve been in a car for two hours,” Reynolds said.

This year’s visitors will notice a new Starbucks at the Yosemite Lodge food court, which Reynolds said has gotten mixed reactions. However, he hasn’t noticed empty coffee cups lining the trails.

There are currently no plans to bring in other chain restaurants, but Reynolds would evaluate any additional proposals on a case-to-case basis.

Another concern among frequent visitors is the ongoing battle between the National Park Service and concessionaire Delaware North for the rights to the names of the park's landmarks: the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village, Badger Pass and Wawona Hotel. Reynolds couldn't comment on ongoing litigation, but said the park service has an interest in restoring the historic names.

Reynolds said the Trump administration has been very supportive of Yosemite.

“They have come in with very clear orders to us,” he said. “The secretary had spoken to me about really working on the visitor experience, and also really focusing the monies collected at the gate on our maintenance needs."

A proposal under the current administration has been a possible fee increase that would raise the entrance price for Yosemite to $70. An annual pass currently costs $60 but would increase to $75.

Reynolds emphasized that that proposal has stalled following overwhelming public comment. But he would be open to finding a way to help locals with increasing costs, should they be implemented.

Reynolds said he's happy to be back in the area after being away for nearly 14 years. His daughter was born at Clovis Community Hospital, and he's looking forward to a trip down to see the Tower District.

Aleks Appleton: 559-441-6351; @aleksappleton