A tale of two rivers


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearinghouse

Recently I came across a spectacular video on YouTube, posted by the National Park Service (NPS), called “One Day in Yosemite.” It’s the work of 30 filmmakers who fanned out across the park on one day last June. From dawn to sundown and beyond they captured day-in-the-life details of some staff and visitors to Yosemite—a ranger on horseback spreading good will; hang gliders floating into the valley; riverside campers cooking dinner; and a moving segment of a father and son climbing Cathedral Peak. Half Dome is well-represented, including a dizzying segment of a hiker on the infamous cables and several individuals or groups in quiet contemplation of the iconic rock.

There’s a lot the video gets right, and beautifully, but one aspect not well represented are the hordes of humanity that pack themselves into Yosemite Valley in the summertime. Bumper-to-bumper exhaust-belching traffic, horns honking, people yelping, rushing around and jockeying for the best photos are all part of the scenery. Also not depicted is the hair tearing positions park staff find themselves in an attempt to fulfill their paradoxical mandate, laid out in the Organic Act of 1916: “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Yosemite lookout. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

This video intersects interestingly with three additional NPS releases—their latest statistics abstract which covers visitation numbers for all park units in 2011, and two long awaited and highly anticipated management plans. In 2011, 4 million visitors poured through Yosemite’s gates. The report projects that number will continue to climb, to 4.1 million in 2012 and 4.25 in 2013. A look at historical visitation to Yosemite shows it hit 1 million visitors in 1954; 3 million in 1987 and 4 million in 1996. Since Yosemite Valley was added to the national park in 1906, a whopping 170 million people have plumbed its charms.

It’s this position the NPS currently finds itself in while attempting to craft management plans which will take the preservation and enjoyment of the park into the future. Both plans now open for public comment address the fate of the two rivers that transect Yosemite are protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 (WSRA)—the Merced and the Tuolumne.

The Tuolumne River planthe less controversial of the two but still contentious—would spend $65 million over the next 20 years to “protect and enhance river values by restoring ecological conditions at Tuolumne Meadows and by improving conditions that pose risks to water quality, sensitive meadows, archeological sites, scenic vistas and recreational experiences.” This would include adjustments to transportation, lodging, camping, parking, employee housing and concessions along the Tuolumne River corridor. This plan can be commented on through March 18.

The Merced River plan is the hot potato, the result of over a decade of legal wrangling. The proposal is the agency’s third swing at a workable document since 2000, when the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with two groups suing the NPS, saying it had failed to adequately address user capacities. The WSRA requires a management plan to include “specific measurable limits on use,” including land within one-quarter mile of the rivers’ banks. The court said the NPS must “deal with or discuss the maximum number of people that can be received” in a Wild and Scenic River corridor. An attempt to remedy this in a plan released in 2005 again failed. A court-mediated settlement in 2009 directed the NPS to have a Merced River plan in place by July 2013.

Merced River and Half Dome. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

The current proposal, which would cost $235 million over the next 15 to 20 years, resulted from 40 public workshops and the input of user-capacity experts. It offers some bold suggestions. All development will be moved away from the Merced and significant restoration of land within 100 feet of the river, including meadow and riparian habitats, will be done. Improving traffic circulation would be a major focus of the preferred alternative and day parking would increase by 5 percent, an addition of 500 parking spaces. Camping inventory will also get a 28 percent boost along the river and 37 percent in Yosemite Valley. The valley’s ice skating rink would be shut down in this scenario, and commercial horseback riding, rafting and bicycle operations would be banned.

The elephant in the room is the plan’s consideration of user capacity. The Merced plan proposes to accommodate 19,900 visitors per day in East Yosemite Valley, which is roughly the daily average in that area in the high season. The NPS offers this number in response to input in which the public overwhelmingly enjoined it to provide more camping and to maintain private vehicle access.

Reaction to this vision of Yosemite’s future has been bleak. Greg Adair, co-founder of Friends of Yosemite Valley, the lead plaintiff in the 2000 lawsuit said, “They have to make their capacity [number] meaningful and not just a receding target.” And John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center said of both the Merced and Tuolumne plans: “Overall, our center is disappointed that the park is setting such high levels of user capacity rather than making it a priority in these plans to reduce crowding and congestion… The park's enthusiasm for maximizing visitor use apparently hasn't changed based on the preferred alternatives for these two latest plans.”

Despite all the proposed management plans promise in terms of restoration and impact mitigation for both rivers, the criticism regarding user numbers is legitimate. In 2006, the district court found that the 2005 Revised Merced River Plan failed to address user capacity in accordance with the Ninth Circuit Court’s 2003 opinion. The Ninth Circuit Court also held that since the visitor-use limits in the 2005 plan were based on current capacities, the NPS did not demonstrate how such “limits” would protect and enhance river values. This preferred alternative does not successfully address these longstanding concerns.

Lower Yosemite Falls. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Next year Yosemite celebrates its sesquicentennial, marking 150 years since Yosemite became the first parkland set aside for the public by the federal government. When he signed the legislation in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln said the land was to be preserved “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.” That may be Yosemite’s legacy but it is hard to see how that can be its future, or the future of our other rock star parks (seven out of 10 of the most visited national parks are in the West: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Grand Teton and Zion).

The Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan is open for comment through April 18.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

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