How Many Tourists are Too Many in the Yosemite Valley?

The Merced River and El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Photo by vanallensb via flickr.

When last we visited the legal wranglings over Yosemite National Park's Merced River Plan, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had taken under advisement arguments over just how far the Park Service most go to meet federal laws (specifically the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Environmental Policy Act).

Well, the court still has not spoken, but that hasn't put a halt to this issue. On February 6th, 7th, and 8th Yosemite officials will offer the public an opportunity to discuss user capacity in the Yosemite Valley.

The purpose of the User Capacity Symposium is to further the understanding of and explore approaches to addressing user capacity in national parks and other public lands by engaging public land managers, researchers, elected officials, tribes, and the general public in an open dialogue. User capacity is the types, locations, and extent of visitor and other public use in the parks.

Addressing visitor use in national parks as vast and complex as Yosemite requires a variety of methods and perspectives. During the symposium, the public will have the opportunity to understand further why planning and managing user capacity is important, to build a common understanding of and language for user capacity, and to identify and understand the effectiveness and consequences of different management strategies.

You can find details of the session here.

What will be interesting to see coming out of this forum, aside from what the public says and how Yosemite officials respond, is whether there will be any impact across the rest of the national park system? After all, Yosemite Valley is not the only corner of the system that has crowding problems. Ever visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon during the summer months?

It's a bit ironic, of course, that at a time when there is concern over whether overall visitation to the national parks is stagnant or on a decline, that there are worries over how many people are too many in the Yosemite Valley. But if you've ever visited the valley in June, July or August, you know how little elbow room there can be. Ditto with the South Rim.

(Thanks to Rick Deutsch at Hike Half Dome for tipping the Traveler to this upcoming meeting.)


Thank you for your article about the Yosemite User Capacity Symposium. To my knowledge, your article is the only one published in a news paper.

I believe that the park has not released an actual news release article to the media on this upcoming event because they would like to control what information about this subject gets to the media. After the event, I am guessing the park service will spin an article to the media news people that puts their perspectives in a good light, as they relate to the changes in the park they intend to make, and are making. The park service has already stated that they do not want a carrying capacity, and will find a way around it, as is the case with their faulted V.E.R.P. system, which allows for growth as perspectives change over time. The changes they have made to Yosemite Valley and are making will be to the intended exclusion of average Americans who want to camp in Yosemite Valley, and the increase of the foreign day trip visitors that arrive on tour buses from San Francisco each day by the droves, swarming the park with people wandering all over the park by the tens of thousands each day. That is where the park service is headed with their new development plans for Yosemite Valley, with the removal of campgrounds and campsite is the Valley over recent years.

If you'll notice, the park has managed to eliminate three and a half entire campgrounds from the Valley recently, while they have invested in the development of spectacular tour bus friendly infrastructures that enables the Valley to accommodate ten times the amounts of daily visitors that it ever did on the busiest of days at any time in the past. Specifically, I am referring to the strengthening and widening of various roads into and out of the valley, that they say will accommodate the large tour buses better, the expansion of paved trails at the Lower Yosemite Falls area, that they say will accommodate more people, which they feel is a positive statement. Clearly their new Yosemite Lodge plans will accommodate more people and is going forward as planned, along with their new city like sewer expansion project, which has been underway now for ten years.

However, the U.S. court of appeals is now reviewing the issue of a Carrying Capacity for our beloved Valley, for all the right reasons. The park service had wanted to eliminate the requirement of a “carrying capacity” in their latest Merced River Plan, but the public created a law suit to hold their feet to the fire. The public won the law suit in regards to the issue of a “carrying capacity”, because we the public understand what they meant by their statement that the park service wanted to "accommodate all who want to come", something of a mantra they have used over time. This is a term they use which actually means that they intend to update the park to accommodate as many people as possible, on any given day, to accommodate a burgeoning foreign tour bus industry. The park service is paving the way for these new tourist businesses capitalizing on Yosemite National Park, while eliminating campgrounds* for Americans who like to recreate there by way of the most popular method of visiting the park; which is camping.

Campers bring their food with them, they often have kids and campfires, and they don't meet the modern "green" compliance requirements the park wants to aspire to. This is where the public needs to jump in. Many of us either like to camp or we want to protect the rights of future Americans who will want to camp in Yosemite Valley, like many of us have done. We can be "green". More often than not, we are environmentally concerned. We are okay with limiting the number of footprints on the ground, to preserve and protect our park.

If the park would replace the campgrounds they removed, they should establish a use carrying capacity for the park around the inclusion of those park visitors first, before they decide to establish a carrying capacity that might include five-million international tour bus visitors in the park per year. The park service's manipulation of the demographics of the visitors, targeting visitors who spend money over Americans who just want to camp, is wrong. Please consider attending this symposium, if you want to contribute your views to their so called efforts to establish a plan for moving forward with a Carrying Capacity for our park. Join the efforts, if you agree, with the Yosemite Valley Campers Coalition, or, in their effort to protect camper’s interests in Yosemite, by setting a limit on how many people can swarm into Yosemite Valley each day or year, but only after the campsites that they removed in 1997 without public comment are replaced.

Mark Sutherlin

* The campgrounds removed, as mentioned above consist of Upper and Lower Rivers Campgrounds, half of Lower Pines Campground and the Yosemite Valley Group Campground.


Thanks for the comment. If I recall, the Record Flood of 1997 is what wiped out part of the Yosemite Lodge and the campsites you refer to. The valley was under 8 feet of water from the overflowing Merced. The park intended to rebuilt them but a lawsuit by the "Friends of Yosemite Valley" and "Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government" opposed it, seeking a capacity number from the park. Injunctions have halted the park from this work but allowed the road and sewer repairs you mentioned. Supporting the NPS are the following non-profits that are not a direct part of the case: The Yosemite Fund, The Access Fund, The American Alpine Club, California Trout, Friends of the River, National Parks Conservation Assn, and The Wilderness Society. The 9th District court has not yet rendered an opinion in the appeal of November 2007.

For more information go to the Park Planning website

Rick D

Hi Rick,

In response to your comments, the “record Flood of 1997”, of which you speak, was actually deemed by the U.S. Forest Service as a one hundred year flood in the Sierra, north and south. Yosemite National Park however, has stated that it was a fifty year flood, but this does not corroborate with studies made by other professionals. There have been large floods, but this one was larger than any we have heard of or seen before. This said, it should also be recognized that camping in flood zones is a common use and recognized as acceptable use in a Wild and Scenic River, as long as it is included in the ORVs ("Outstanding Remarkable Values") when establishing the current historical uses of the river.

The flood damaged man-made infrastructures, which included part of Yosemite Lodge and the campgrounds, as you say. The flood water actually covered many if not all of the campgrounds in the valley, but the park only took out, or refused to repair, the portions that complied with their wishes. If you recall, the year prior to the flood, the then park superintendant, Dave Mihalic, stated that they would like to remove all campsites on the north side of the Merced River, and interestingly, after the flood of ’97, this is exactly what they accomplished. The then park superintendent Dave Mihalic stated that nature had done what the public would never have allowed them to do by damaging these campgrounds, and he refused to talk about reopening them.

The park service solicited congressional funds to repair the damaged campgrounds, along with other things damaged. They used a lot of congress’s money to replace the El Portal road with a new one at that time, wideningand straightening it, while also installing a new city like sewer line down the hill throughout most its length, most of which was not even flood damaged. They admitted at the time that they did this to pave the way for easier access by large tour buses and discounted the public's outrage.

The park said that they intended to rebuild the campgrounds, as you say, but only while standing eye to eye with a congressional board, when they asked for flood recovery funding, which by the way they got. Once the money was in hand, their position changed immediately.

The "Friends of Yosemite Valley" and "Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government" began a law suite associated with the issue that they felt the park had not adequately addressed the subject of a User Carrying Capacity for the park, among other things. The Federal Court agreed with that point, and some aspects of the park’s hastily completed Yosemite Valley Plan had to be put on hold until after the court’s mandates were addressed. Many in the public believe that no Yosemite Valley Plan from back then can be respected until they first demonstrate that they are following the guidlines of a Wild and Scenic Merced River Plan which adequately addresses user capacity mpacts, and how to control those impacts. To date, there is no Merced River Plan that addresses these issues, according the the court.

This is why the park should not be allowed to move forward until the first court order is addressed, unless the higher court does not approve the lower court's rulling. If the higher court agrees with the lower court, the Yosemite Valley Plan should be deemed outdated, once the new Merced River Plan is completed. The appellate court has not yet responded to the park’s appeal of the lower court’s ruling. But, there is a court order in place right now that mandates that the park comply with that court’s ruling, and until a higher court says otherwise, the park should be moving in that direction. If the appellate court does not overturn the lower court, the first court will want to know why the park has wasted time by not complying with their mandate.

These injunctions halted the park service from making some other changes to the campgrounds, where they claim they want to put in some RV campsites, some drive-in and walk-in campsites, but they were and still are not willing to address the previously flooded campgrounds. Lets look at their numbers:

Pre-1980 General Management Plan: 800 drive in sites

1980 General Management Plan: 684 drive-in sites

Merced River Plan: 432 "interim" drive-in sites (402 auto-based + 30 RV sites)

Yosemite Valley Plan: 330 drive-in sites (282 auto-based + 48 RV sites)

Does this look like the park is really serious about camping in Yosemite Valley?

The park had agreed to adhere to the prior park manager’s 1980 GMP (General Management Plan) when they embarked on a new plan to revise previous park plans, in the Draft Yosemite Valley Plan, as it relates to the valley’s campgrounds. This is because many years of study and thousands of hours of public input had gone into those plans, where they relate to these former campgrounds. The public would have been outraged if all their years of effort was tossed aside. And, in the end it was, and yes, the pubic is outraged.

The park refused to discuss the repair of the campsites in these former campgrounds, even though these areas should have been listed in the "Outstanding Remarkable Values" (ORV) section of the Merced River Plan as having an historic camping use, which would have allowed camping in what the park now calls a flood zone, though other areas that were flooded along the river were spared, such as Housekeeping.

North Pines Campground is also listed in the Yosemite Valley Plan record of decision to be removed, though current park managers claim that for the time being they have decided not to move forward with that part of the plan. They do not say, however, that they will rescind the YVP record of decision in this regard, leaving the door open for future park managers to remove North Pines should they care to, from that record of decision authority. The Yosemite Valley Plan needs to be resinded and public planning needs to be started anew.

The road work that you referred to and the new sewer line from Yosemite Valley to El Portal were performed prior to the litigation commencement. The portion of the sewer and road repairs that were held up by the court, of which you are speaking, pending the park service’s acquiescence to the legal mandate that the Merced River Plan establish a more specific User Carrying Capacity, were allowed to proceed after the park pleaded with the court that these improvements needed to take place due to pending hazards. That road work from hwy 120 and 140 intersection east, is moving forward.

Some of those supporting the NPS are groups like The Yosemite Fund, the primary solicitation arm for park funding of special projects, who would not have a reason to exist if it were not for the projects that they fund in Yosemite. The Lower Falls project is their biggest project to date, where they brought in their own architect, Mr. Larry Halprin, while the park service stepped aside. Mr. Halprin designed a colossal project there, which was clearly over built, literally doubling the pavement of the area. I’d love to be more specific, but in the interest of time I will avoid that topic unless you would like to talk about it. You also mention The Access Fund and The American Alpine Club, both organizations which have been promised by the park that they would see a Climbers Museum in the valley, which pledges their allegiance to the park’s side of the court case. The local Southern Sierra Miwok (unrecognized tribe) also sides with the park. But, of course the park has promised a new Cultural Center for them for their allegiance. With respect to these organizations and another large group of partners that side with the litigants, one can only speculate as to the many special interest reasons any group has that dictates their allegiance to one side or the other.

You are correct that the 9th District court has not yet rendered an opinion in the appeal of November 2007, as we see the park dragging their feet when it comes to addressing the previous court’s mandate to address the User Carrying Capacity better than in their V.E.R.P. position. The recent Symposium on the matter held by the park last month placed people who would support the park’s position on the V.E.R.P. method of crowd control at center stage, i.e., Mr. Robert E. Manning, who wrote the book. Parks and Carrying Capacity: Commons Without Tragedy The park is hoping to sell the appellate court on their position that they are doing all they can do to address the issue, but have yet to discuss any other method than the V.E.R.P, which the court has deemed inadequate. They would like the public and the court to believe that the V.E.R.P. system is the only way to address the subject, because as Mr. Michael Tollefson has stated, he doesn’t want to turn anyone away. His predecessor, Dave Mihalic used the term that they “want to accommodate all who want to come”. How is this park management ever going to ever get their arms around subject if all they can do is think along the terms of accommodating all who want to come?

How about AMERICAN TAXPAYERS have a priority in visiting the park? Yosemite Valley is full of foreign tourists, who occupy space, while Americans, who supposedly own this NATIONAL park have to enjoy the leftovers. It's time to establish a quota for the number of non-US nationals who can visit--run a lottery for them, or whatever. I'm sitting in the lounge of Curry Village, as I'm writing this--guess do I hear ENGLISH spoken here? No I don't. It's mostly European tourists. Time to end this.