Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Magazine urges loop visit of national parks

American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, published an article in the current issue advising travelers to visit Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks in a three-day trip.
“Ring Around the Mountain” highlights the “Majestic Mountain Loop” starting in Visalia, going through Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, then the Oakhurst area and Yosemite National Park.
Two photos illustrate the article showing giant sequoia trees in snow and Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.
The piece is the result of a marketing effort by the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau, Fresno Yosemite International Airport and the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau.
It’s producing results, said Danika Heatherly, tourism manager at the Visalia CVB.
“We have had about 20 visitor calls in the last few days,” she said. Many were from international visitors seeking to adjust their plans to take in the three parks, she said.
The article is here.

Fresno girl, 8, will take walk for Hetch Hetchy restoration campaign

An 8-year-old Fresno girl and her father will take a hike this summer in Yosemite National Park to raise awareness about the campaign to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley — a glacially sculpted masterpiece covered with 117 billion gallons of water.

Young Allison and her father, Tom Cotter, have stepped into an iconic environmental fight over a vast Yosemite feature that has been used most of the last century to store water for San Francisco.

We could fill several of these blog columns with just the headlines about the fight over Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. In 1913, pioneering conservationist John Muir lost his desperate fight to save the valley. He died the following year.

For the last several years, the nonprofit advocacy group Save Hetch Hetchy has organized hikes around the valley to push the campaign and raise money.

Called Muir’s March, the summertime event this year will include several guided backpacking journeys concluding on Aug. 3 at O’Shaunessy Dam. For those who don’t want to backpack, there’s a 6-mile day hike on Aug. 3.

Allison and her father have started a web site to collect donations.

Fed budget cuts might delay Tioga opening in Yosemite

The big federal budget cuts — known as sequestration — might delay the reopening of Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park this spring, the National Park Service says.

That could take a bite out of the tourist business along the Eastern Sierra.  If the road is closed, hordes of Yosemite tourists can’t drive out 9,945-foot Tioga Pass to Lee Vining, Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes.

Tioga Road, the key east-west artery across the Sierra in this part of the range, is closed after the first significant snow in autumn. Often, it reopens by Memorial Day. On big snowfall years, such as 2011, 2005 and 1998, the snow plows are working well into June.

But this is not one of those years. The Sierra snowpack is 62% of average right now. Yosemite’s high country might be a little more or a little less, but it is not high enough to worry about 20-foot snow drifts in early June.

One of the sadder stories I have covered in Yosemite was the death of a snow plow operator in mid-June 1995. His bulldozer was crushed by a huge slab of ice that broke loose and slid down the slippery granite at Olmsted Point in the high country.

Since then, there has been an abundance of caution when plowing the snow from this road.

This year, the reopening could be complicated if the Sierra is hit with late March and April snowstorms. But if the spring melt gets going early, the delay from the sequester may not be a big problem.

Folks on the Eastern Sierra stay pretty close to this issue. For updates, check here for Twitter and here for Facebook. Yosemite’s updates on Tioga and Glacier Point road openings can be found here.

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.

Yosemite plans $15 million makeover at Mariposa Grove

Yosemite National Park has a $15 million plan to make Mariposa Grove and its 484 mature giant sequoias a healthier place for the big trees, moving asphalt and structures away from their extensive roots.

Read the draft environmental documents and comment to the National Park Service by May 7.

The plan, which will be funded by the Yosemite Conservancy, is to rip out the lower parking lot and gift shop to get them off the widespread, shallow root system of the giants.

Most parking will be moved two miles away to the South Entrance, where shuttle buses will give visitors a free lift to the trees.

The Park Service wants to kick off  the facelift in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the grove’s protection in a federal law signed by Abraham Lincoln. The anniversary will be in June 2014.

“It was landmark legislation,” said restoration ecologist Sue Beatty, who is working on the project.

The work here is reminiscent of the makeover in Giant Forest during the 1990s when Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks removed many buildings to protect the trees.

Most of the remaining 75 groves in the world are located in the southern Sierra at Sequoia-Kings or in the Sequoia National Monument. They are considered the world’s largest tree with a life span of more than 2,000 years.

The Mariposa Grove is the largest of Yosemite’s three giant sequoia groves.

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.

Look for these stories in 2013

A year ago, the Sierra snowpack was an anemic 20% of normal. Now it’s a whopping 146%.

At this time last year, the San Joaquin Valley was gasping through a 44-day siege of federal air violations — dangerous soot and debris. This year, the Valley only had five violations in December.

California’s capricious weather makes all the difference.

At the same time, some things I cover in the Earth Log and in the news columns have not changed much. My beat has had a kidney stone of a year. Thankfully, it has passed. But 2013 might be more of the same.

— The complex San Joaquin River restoration continues to move forward. Experiments included trapping adult salmon and hauling them upstream near Fresno to spawn. The billion-dollar restoration still lags behind the initial and ambitious timetable. Many big projects, such as replacing Sack Dam, are expected to make progress this year.

— A dozen years after setting aside more than 300,000 acres for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, people are still arguing about how to manage it. The latest plan was released during 2012. The Sierra Club and others have appealed the plan.

— Yosemite National Park has an even longer-running discussion. A dozen years ago, I wrote a story about the park’s Merced River protection plan — which was already about a decade late. I lose track of how many times it has been rewritten by court order. By July 2013, the National Park Service is supposed to have another plan out. This might be the one that finally gets through.

— Dozens of cities are now lined up to sue Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, the manufacturers of a now-defunct farm fumigant. The fumigant contained a chemical called 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP, a powerful cancer-linked toxin. It’s in the drinking water across a wide swath of the Valley, including Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield and a host of other cities. It may take hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the public.

— Small towns throughout the Valley still wait for the California Department of Public Health for funding to clean up nitrates in their drinking water. Nitrates come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation. A University of California study says the problem threatens drinking water for 250,000 people.

— Kettleman City, the Latino town in western Kings County, has its own special water problem. It needs the financial help of Chemical Waste, the owner of the hazardous waste landfill near town. The landfill needs to expand so it can offer the financial help. But plenty of Kettleman residents would rather see that landfill close.

— The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District approved a new plan to clear up tiny specks of pollution called PM-2.5. As they often do, environmentalists did not think the plan was tough enough. That’s often a prelude to a legal challenge — a very familiar scenario.

Feinstein still turns thumbs down on draining Hetch Hetchy

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein hasn’t changed her mind on restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park — it’s still a terrible idea, she says.

The reservoir at Hetch Hetchy has long been a source of controversy because it occupies one of the country’s premier national parks. It provides San Francisco some of the most pristine water in the country.

Feinstein, who was at The Fresno Bee Tuesday for an editorial board meeting, has always opposed tearing down O’Shaughnessy Dam. In her days as mayor of San Francisco, she said the idea makes no sense.

The dam has been a sore spot dating back to venerated conservationist John Muir, who fought a losing battle against its construction.

Many environmentalists say Hetch Hetchy is the geologic twin of Yosemite Valley and would be an exceptional attraction in Yosemite if it were not under 17 billion gallons of water from the Tuolumne River.

The issue is hot right now in San Francisco with a vote scheduled next week on a measure aimed a drafting a plan to drain the reservoir.

“Maybe we wouldn’t build the dam today,” she said. “But it’s a terrible idea to tear it down now.”

She said the city would need more extensive water treatment if it obtained drinking water from lower-elevation reservoirs. Also, two irrigation districts have long-term hydroelectric power agreements that would be threatened, she said.

“I’m not opposed to dam removal,” Feinstein said. “But not in this case.”


Yosemite Lodge probably won’t be torn down, readers say

Tearing down the venerable Yosemite Lodge is not likely to happen in the National Park Service’s actions to protect the Merced River.

That’s what callers and emailers are saying today after I mentioned the possibility in my column on the Merced River Plan, which is supposed to be completed some time next year.

The removal of the lodge is just part of one preliminary concept from the National Park Service. Nobody is serious about it, some said.

A few readers added that they doubted that the Curry Village Ice Rink would be closed — another concept in the preliminary options that I mentioned.

Apologies to anyone who might have read this as a done deal. I would only point out that these ideas really are among the proposals, and I found it interesting.

I wrote the item only to raise awareness, and I didn’t couch it quite right. Next time, I’ll tweet it.