Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Backlash against new Merced River Plan in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park has extended the deadline for public comment on the embattled Merced River Plan , but not for the 90 days sought by some business leaders and a federal lawmaker.

The park has extended the public comment period from April 18 to April 30 so more people can have their say. Park leaders say they already have 25,000 comments.

In the last several weeks, there has been a backlash over the environmental protections in the plan, which is the third proposal that the park has written in the last dozen years or so.

The previous renditions failed to pass muster in federal court, partly because they didn’t specify a limit on visitors to the river in the heart of Yosemite Valley.

The new proposal — three years in the making and thousands of pages long — limits visitors to 19,900 on busy days and specifies removal of  some facilities, such as the Curry Village ice skating rink.

Yosemite leaders released the plan for public comment in January, adding 40 days to the usual 60-day comment period. Now they’ve added another 12 days.

Some business and tourism leaders outside the park had complained about the plan limiting recreation. They asked for 90 more days to comment.

In the last week, they got support from Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove. McClatchy reporter Michael Doyle in Washington, D.C., posted a twitter item last week about it, linking to McClintock’s letter to Yosemite about it. He said he is troubled by the proposed closure of  “bike rental facilities, snack stands, swimming pools, tennis courts, retail stores and horse stables.”

In joining the campaign to extend the comment period, McClintock says:

“It defies logic that NPS is proposing to close these facilities not because they degrade the Merced River, but instead because in NPS’s eyes, these longstanding facilities do not benefit the River.  What about the benefits that the American public will lose under NPS’s proposal?”

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.