Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Former lawmaker Coelho opposes Merced River Plan

A voice from the past has joined the backlash against the National Park Service’s plan to protect the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.

Tourism and business leaders in communities, such as Oakhurst, around Yosemite National Park are opposing the proposal, which would remove an ice-skating rink, a bicycle rental business and a few other amenities.

Now former Congressman Tony Coelho, who wrote an amendment to include the Merced River in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) , is opposing the removal of the amenities, saying the law was only intended to include the Merced River outside of Yosemite National Park to the west.

Coelho, once a powerful Democrat based in Merced, wrote a letter saying Yosemite Valley should not be considered wilderness. “Yosemite Valley should be left as it is,” he wrote.

The public comment period ends April 30 on the long-debated Merced River Plan, which has been in and out of court for the last decade. Park leaders have spent the last three years rewriting the plan to comply with court orders and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Yosemite visitor totals dropped slightly last year

Looking over the visitor totals for Yosemite National Park last year, I realized there was news that I had not written — there were fewer people.

In 2011, 4,098,648 visited Yosemite, according to the National Park Service. In 2012, the figure was slightly down — 3,996,017.

Even so, 2012 will go down as the park’s third biggest year since 1996.

Yosemite’s totals fell off noticeably in 1997 after the big January flood inundated Yosemite Valley, closing the park and triggering years of lower numbers. The total didn’t climb back over 4 million until 2010.

How about this year? The big crowds get bigger when the famous waterfalls are huge in May and June. A few snowstorms and a fatter snowpack could make that happen.

Will Yosemite activists buy the new valley traffic, crowd control?

Ahwahnee Meadow at sunrise Wednesday.

Counting Wednesday’s story, I’ve written 53 sizable pieces over two decades about crowds and plans to manage them in Yosemite Valley, one of the most spectacular places on the globe.

Since 1993, the valley has changed a lot — mostly for the good — but the core issue has not.

How many people can you fit in this seven square miles without ruining it or making it dangerous?

The National Park Service this week released another management plan — I’ve stopped counting, so don’t ask how many there have been since the early 1990’s. This is the third rendition of the Merced River Plan since 2000.

We will know soon if activists, led by Friends of Yosemite valley, agree with the park service’s approach to the capacity question. The park service is basically offering crowd and traffic management.

Here’s the pitch: The roads and parking in the valley will be designed to handle 19,900 people in a day. I’m told this number comes from extensive traffic studies based on the comings and goings in the valley.

One widely spread news story said the number of people allowed into the valley will remain about the same.   The conclusion defies logic. There was no number in the past. The first defensible estimates have just been made.

The real issue: How will the park service will determine the 19,900 number every day? Do they count heads as people drive into the valley? No way.

Rangers will monitor parking spaces and roadway congestion in busy times while remaining in touch with park gate employees. When it is clear that the valley is too congested, cars will be diverted at El Capitan crossover before they reach the east side of the valley.

The plan is to build a parking lot near the crossover where people can park and either wait or catch a shuttle bus. Other visitors might want to just continue out of the valley to Glacier Point or Tioga Road in the high country.

Is that a solid enough accounting of the visitors? In other words, how firm is that 19,900 capacity?

Look soon for the response from activists, who have been very successful over the last decade in legal arguments for a firm number.

Merced River Plan story will re-emerge in Yosemite Valley

The outbreak of dreaded hantavirus dominated the news from Yosemite National Park over the last few months, leaving the important Merced River Plan a distant second this year.

But after years of legal action and failed attempts at finishing this plan, it again will be in a spotlight, possibly as early as next month.

We’re talking about the removal of Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village Ice Rink and changes in major valley campgrounds. Trust me, you will notice.

The actions are part of the National Park Service’s proposed plan to protect and manage the Merced River, which runs through the heart of Yosemite Valley. The draft plan will be released sometime between November and the early part of next year.

Among the things I mentioned earlier, the plan is expected to set some limit on the number of folks who can be in this outdoor paradise. There are hundreds of thousands of people who pass through the valley each year

Outdoor paradise is no exaggeration if you’re talking about the views surrounding this seven square mile valley. People see Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall and a host of other granite features along the glacially carved cliffs.

If you haven’t followed the plan’s formation closely over the last three years, there is a pretty tall pile of documents you’d need to read for all the detail.

For a short version, go to this site and read the presentation that was part of the Aug. 2 public meeting about it. If you visit Yosemite Valley in summer, you really need to look at this.

The park service will take comment on the draft proposal. Federal leaders expect to have a final version sometime in 2013.