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Merced Wild And Scenic River Management Plan III: Will The Latest NPS Plan Protect The River (Or Hold Up In Court)?
With their latest management plan for the Merced River now out for public review, Yosemite National Park officials now face the task of defending it. Will it protect the river, and can it withstand a court challenge?
Those are not rhetorical questions, but rather pertinent and realistic ones in light of the National Park Service's history with trying to craft management plans for this river as it runs through Yosemite Valley.
The Merced gained status under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1987, and the Park Service was to prepare a management plan by 1990. The agency released a plan in 2000, only after being sued over inadequate planning for repairs and improvements to the El Portal Road, which runs next to the river. The NPS has been in litigation over river planning ever since.
The agency produced two plans—in 2000 and 2005—but neither was deemed adequate by the courts. Why not? The key issue is “user capacity.” How many people can recreate or “use” the river, and in what ways, while not degrading river values?
The latest draft is the Park Service’s third attempt. My review focuses on the Yosemite Valley river segment, and on biological and ecological aspects, because I am most familiar with these areas.
The draft proposes lots of changes for Yosemite. Alternative 5—the Preferred Alternative—proposes hundreds, if not thousands, of major and minor “actions” in the park. For Yosemite Valley, examples include removal or addition of campsites, lodging, and parking; removal of existing, or construction of new, road segments; removal of historic stone bridges; elimination of commercial horseback rides, raft rentals, swimming pools, and an ice rink; and limiting the number of people allowed in at one time.
Oddly, many of these changes will not benefit the Merced River. Normally, I would urge everyone interested in Yosemite to read the draft and send comments to the NPS. Unfortunately, though, the draft is massive—more than 2,300 pages long in three large volumes, plus 15 appendices. In addition to being super-sized, the draft is hard to understand. Even with experience in planning and biology, and familiarity with Yosemite, I found it impossible to fully grasp all of the proposed actions.
The draft’s organization requires constant flipping from one volume to the next; and there is conflicting information within and among volumes. There are missing words, sentences in the wrong places, and sentences that make no sense. I didn’t read every word of the draft. I couldn’t—it would have taken months. I apologize for errors or omissions in my review.
I felt better when I saw the List of Preparers. It took 100 people to prepare the draft. Yet, the NPS seems to think individual citizens will be able to understand what’s in store for the river and surroundings if the plan is implemented. If you do have time, comments are due by April 18, 2013.
Free Flow, Water Quality, and Outstandingly Remarkable Values
The WSRA requires protection and enhancement of the river’s free flowing condition, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs). The first element, free-flowing condition, seems straightforward. The problem: The Merced River in Yosemite Valley is far from free-flowing.
In 1866, according to Geologist J.D. Whitney, the Merced made “…many sharp and curiously angular bends, touching the talus first on one side then on the other.” In other words, the river meandered back and forth across the entire Valley. Studies of abandoned river features such as oxbows and terraces indicate the system once was an interwoven series of braided channels.
Because of human actions, including application of riprap to stabilize river banks, one channel now largely confines the river, except during floods. The Merced River’s free-flowing condition needs enhancement.
Imagine my disappointment with the management standard for this element: Preservation of the river in its current state. (emphasis added) This standard requires the NPS to do nothing, even though the river has been so altered by human activity.
The draft then describes several actions the agency claims it will do to enhance free flow: river bank revegetation, removal of bridges and abandoned infrastructure like sewer lines, and removal of riprap (however, the amount of riprap to be removed varies by alternative, which makes no sense—if it needs to be removed for the sake of a free-flowing river, it needs to be removed).
The draft commits to not develop anything new within the bed and banks of the river, but the agency is not holding itself to any standard beyond the status quo. This assumes the river’s free-flowing condition is not already degraded, which is not true.
The draft also proposes to build artificial log jams and use bioengineering techniques, like willow planting, where riverbank stabilization is needed to protect infrastructure. This sounds good, but it seems one method of stabilization (riprap) is just being replaced with other methods, which doesn’t make sense if the goal is to enhance river free flow. Protecting infrastructure still appears to be the top priority, despite the directives of the WSRA.
To protect the Merced’s water quality, the NPS has committed to maintaining standards in compliance with those already set by the California Water Quality Control Board and Environmental Protection Agency. There seems to be no change from the status quo here, either.
The ORVs are the third critical foundation of river management. Chapter 5 (River Values and Their Management) describes the ORVs and their past and present condition, presents standards and monitoring protocols, and lists management actions that might be taken if standards aren’t met. I was surprised to find fewer ORVs in this draft than in the first two river plans. This is important—the WSRA only requires protection and enhancement of specifically identified ORVs. For Yosemite Valley, earlier plans included riparian, meadow, wetland, and riverine habitats; river-related species; and special-status species such as neotropical migrant songbirds and bats.
In 2008, a new set of ORVs was produced that also included the Happy Isles fen and several special-status species (willow flycatcher, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, harlequin duck, black swift, and Tompkin’s sedge). In 2011, a Draft Baseline Conditions Report for Yosemite Valley stated: “The large, moist meadows and associated riparian communities comprise one of the largest mid-elevation meadow complexes in the Sierra Nevada, supporting an exceptional diversity of plant and animal species.”
These earlier efforts all indicated that the Merced River in Yosemite Valley supports large, complex biological systems. But the only biological ORVs in the new draft are meadows and riparian plant communities. The lack of biological ORVs contrasts starkly with cultural ORVs, which include all American Indian ethnographic, archeological, and historic resources in Yosemite Valley.
I support this holistic approach, but why wasn’t the same approach applied to biological resources? All of Yosemite Valley is inextricably linked to the river, and you will find no more Outstandingly Remarkable Value anywhere else in the world.
Frederick Law Olmsted expressed this almost 150 years ago. He was impressed by the Valley’s individual features—the chasms, cliffs, streams, meadows, trees, and bushes—but was even more compelled by the Valley in its entirety, the way all the features flowed together in a seamless tapestry. “The union of deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the Yosemite the greatest glory of nature.”
Why did the NPS over-simplify biological ORVs? Perhaps because the agency will only have to protect and monitor the condition of meadows and riparian communities—the rest of the outstandingly remarkable biological entities in the Valley will fall outside of protection afforded by the WSRA. I propose all biological entities in the Valley be included in the ORVs, and protected accordingly.
Chapter 5 was tedious, reminding me of the Thomas Dolby song, “She Blinded Me With Science.” The text is filled with statistics and detailed technical information. I found it to be rough going, and I took a lot of statistics classes in college. In the end, I wanted to hire biostatisticians I trust to review this chapter and tell me if they feel the indicators, standards, and monitoring methods that will be used by the NPS will actually ensure long-term protection and enhancement of the Merced River and its values.
In lieu of this, I have to trust the NPS, which, sadly, I am reluctant to do. To ensure biological ORVs in Yosemite Valley (meadows and riparian habitat) are protected and enhanced, the draft proposes to monitor three things: fragmentation of meadows due to informal, social trails; riverbank condition; and the abundance of five native bird species, four of which are neo-tropical migrants. This monitoring is supposed to identify changes (for better or worse) in Valley meadows and riparian zones, but I fear they are not fully representative of all the important parameters in these habitat types. They will not tell us if plant species composition is changing toward more non-native species, or if we are losing native sedges, or if we are losing important soil invertebrates in meadows, or if there are disruptions in the aquatic food chain, or if we are losing special-status bats.
The NPS does other monitoring for some of these elements, but the draft doesn’t describe these other efforts or explain how WSRA monitoring will complement existing programs. This monitoring effort is the most important element in this plan. If specified user capacity limits are too high, and too little is done to remediate past impacts, the ORVs will suffer.
This monitoring program must be able to identify this suffering in its early stages so the damage can be addressed, remedied, and reversed. I am not confident that either the narrow range of ORVs or the proposed monitoring program will accomplish this critical mission.
And, to top it all off, for each of the river values, the draft provides tables of management actions that could be implemented in case standards are reached or breached. All of these actions are labeled as “possible” management actions. The NPS can choose to act or not—there is no solid commitment to take any action at all.
Actions Common To All Alternatives
The National Environmental Policy Act requires agencies to develop a range of reasonable alternatives for proposed actions that will solve the problem or issue at hand. In the draft, Alternative 1 (No Action) would maintain the status quo. Alternatives 2 through 6 contain a mix of actions that include ecological restoration; removal of from zero to three of Yosemite Valley’s old stone bridges; changes to numbers and locations of campsites, lodging, day use parking, and commercial services; changes to traffic circulation patterns; a range of numbers of people per day allowed in East Yosemite Valley; and two options for managing day-use: a parking permit/reservation system, or traffic diversions and monitoring.
A lot of actions will occur regardless of which alternative is selected. Some of these are laudable: no new development within 150 feet of the ordinary high water mark; relocate or remove campsites at least 100 feet away from the ordinary high water mark; remove abandoned infrastructure like abandoned sewer treatment facilities, sewer and water lines, and manholes; restore damaged and eroded riverbanks; remove 5,700 feet of riprap (although there are a total of 15,589 linear feet of existing rip-rap, so there will still be thousands of feet that hinder river flow); reroute trails out of sensitive habitat; fill ditches in meadows; fix roads that run over meadows to enhance natural hydrology; and remove informal shoulder parking along Cook’s Meadow and Sentinel Drive.
I agree with proposals to discontinue the concession-operated horseback rides and river rafting. I suggest the NPS go one step farther, though, and remove both stables in Yosemite Valley, and terminate both commercial and private rafting. My position is based on the significant impacts both horses and rafting have on the river and associated ecosystems.
To remove both stables, though, the Merced High Sierra Camp would have to close (which I’m not against, but it’s another highly controversial issue), because stock are used to haul supplies to the camp.
There are a few not-so-good actions common to all alternatives as well. These include constructing a 50-space parking lot east of the Ahwahnee Hotel, formalizing (i.e., paving) a 190-space “wilderness” parking area east of Curry Village, and reconstructing (i.e., paving) the Valley Loop Trail. If nothing else changes, the NPS must stop laying down pavement in Yosemite Valley.
I don’t understand why the draft proposes to remove the Yosemite Lodge and Ahwahnee Hotel swimming pools, the Curry ice rink, and bicycle rentals. The agency has cherry-picked a few activities/facilities for elimination to try to demonstrate that they are “reducing unnecessary facilities and services.” I see little point in this; the pools, ice rink, and bicycles don’t have adverse impacts on the river.
The draft calls for a lot of habitat restoration work and efforts to re-direct visitor use away from sensitive or previously damaged riverine and riparian areas. Yosemite visitors take note: This work will involve the noise and ugliness of construction for months or years on end, as well as the intrusions of permanent fences and signs.
Experience has shown me the NPS often plans backwards: A Preferred Alternative is crafted, and then a range of other, non-preferred alternatives are built around the preferred. If the non-preferred alternatives can be made odious enough, in one way or another, the public and reviewers will think the preferred alternative is indeed the best choice.
Let’s see how this strategy played out with the river plan. Alternative 5 is the Preferred Alternative.
Alternative 2 would benefit Yosemite Valley ecologically. It calls for the largest number of “restored” acres (347) in meadow and riparian habitat; the most riprap removal; removal of road segments through Ahwahnee and Stoneman meadows; a slight reduction in camping (3%); a huge reduction in lodging (43%); a moderate reduction in day use parking (23%); a day use parking permit/reservation system for the East Valley in summer; and a maximum of 13,900 visitors per day (the maximum number of visitors per day in the Preferred Alternative is 19,900—about the number in Yosemite Valley on a busy summer holiday weekend). Alternative 2 would help the river, and result in the highest quality, most “natural” visitor experience.
However, the NPS made this alternative unacceptable and politically toxic. The poison pills are large reductions in lodging and day-use parking, and removal of three historic bridges. Alternative 2 eliminates Yosemite Lodge and Housekeeping Camp. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if Housekeeping Camp disappeared, but, if the Lodge is removed, the only lodging in the Valley would be Curry Village (substandard) and the Ahwahnee Hotel (very expensive). Not acceptable. And the NPS could expect a loud hue and cry if they seriously proposed removing Ahwahnee, Stoneman, and Sugar Pine bridges. So, Alternative 2 will never pass muster.
Alternative 3 also appears okay, with a slight increase in campsites, and slightly fewer people per day in Yosemite Valley (13,200). This alternative seems less beneficial ecologically than Alternative 2, with fewer restored acres (302) and less riprap removed. But there are poison pills here, too: a 40 percent decrease in lodging, a 32 percent decrease in day-use parking, removal of three bridges, and a day use permit/reservation system for east Yosemite Valley during the summer. Alternative 3 is dead in the water.
Alternative 4 strongly caters to campers with a 50 percent increase in camp sites, a 20 percent decrease in lodging, and a 12 percent decrease in day-use parking in Yosemite Valley.
Only two bridges—Ahwahnee and Sugar Pine—would be removed, and people per day allowed in Yosemite Valley goes up to 17,000. A day use permit and reservation system for east Yosemite Valley would be implemented during the peak summer season.
Alternative 5—the Preferred Alternative—has the second fewest numbers of acres restored (203); camp sites in Yosemite Valley increase by 37 percent, lodging inventory goes up 2 percent, and day use parking increases by 11 percent. The maximum number of people per day would be 19,900.
At the outset, there would be no day use reservation/parking permit system under this alternative. Such a system would be implemented, but only after “day-use visitation to the East Yosemite Valley from private vehicles exceeded parking availability, AND formal traffic diversions at El Capitan Crossover were instituted for 14 days or more during the summer season for 2 consecutive years.”
In other words, they won’t institute day-use parking permits until things get really bad.
And, finally, Alternative 6 is a joke. In Yosemite Valley, it would increase campsites by 59 percent, lodging by 21 percent, and day-use parking by 11 percent. The smallest number of acres would be restored (170), and facilities and services would be expanded. The maximum people per day in Yosemite Valley would be 21,800—more than are there now on a very busy holiday weekend nightmare day. There would be no day use reservation system or parking permit system.
The NPS is required to develop a range of alternatives that are reasonable and protect the Merced River. Alternative 6 isn’t and won’t.
To summarize, Alternative 1 is the status quo. Agencies never implement Alternative 1. Alternatives 2 and 3 have poison pills: significant reductions in camping, lodging, and/or day use parking. Although such reductions are in the best interest of resources and visitor experiences, and these changes should occur over time, they aren’t something the public will accept all at once—the changes are too dramatic. The NPS knows this.
Alternative 4 seems reasonable, but there is another poison pill in Alternatives 2, 3, and 4: the day-use parking permit/reservation system that would be required immediately once day-use parking is reduced.
Ever-increasing day use is the key management issue in Yosemite Valley (after money and politics). Lodging capacity is relatively fixed, but day use has skyrocketed. To reduce crowding and protect the river, day-use visitor numbers must be reduced. But local gateway businesses and park concessioners have reacted very negatively to past efforts to limit day use.
In addition, the draft states, “If implemented, the day-use parking permit system would require follow-on planning and environmental compliance.” This seems to guarantee that the NPS has no intention of implementing Alternatives 2, 3, and 4 because the day-use parking permit system would have to go into effect immediately. And you already know how I feel about Alternative 6.
So, Alternative 5 will be implemented unless it contains significant flaws, generates a great deal of public or political opposition, or triggers another lawsuit. Under Alternative 5 Sugar Pine Bridge and the berm/bike path that links it to Ahwahnee Bridge would be removed, and the bike trail relocated. I recognize most of the Valley’s historic stone bridges are not wide enough to accommodate river flow, and this causes channel changes, but if the NPS is serious about restoring free flow, it should remove all riprap and all bridges, not just Sugar Pine Bridge.
Removing one bridge will not restore the river or surrounding area; it will have a localized effect, and will destroy a valuable piece of history. Although it might be expensive, I suggest the NPS determine the feasibility of rebuilding those bridges, as opposed to removing them.
Under Alternative 5, employee housing decreases slightly, overnight use and day use both increase, and the park will accommodate current peak use levels. New camping areas will erupt next to Upper Pines Campground (36 new RV sites, 49 new walk-in sites, 2 new group sites), east of Camp 4 (35 new walk-in sites), west of backpacker’s Campground (16 new sites), in former Upper River Campgrounds (30 new walk in and 2 new group sites), and at a completely new site called Eagle Creek east of El Capitan picnic area (40 new auto sites and 2 group sites).
It is very important to note that all of the proposed campsites are in presently undeveloped areas. Some of these areas have suffered from past impacts, but the NPS should not be increasing the development footprint in the Valley at all.
Alternative 5 also proposes new parking lots in undeveloped areas. A 100-space lot would be built south of the El Capitan crossover road, a day use parking lot for 300 cars would be constructed west of Yosemite Lodge, and an overflow lot for 200 cars would be constructed in El Portal.
Climate Change And Costs
Despite the fact that global climate change could have dire consequences for the Merced River and all of its associated values, the draft addresses this issue only in terms of the impact of the alternatives on greenhouse gas emissions. The NPS admits global warming has changed the water cycle and caused sea-level rise in California; that the precipitation mix of snow and rain has shifted in favor of less snow and more rain over the last century; and that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is melting earlier in the spring. Temperatures in the region are expected to rise significantly during the 21st century, continuing these trends.
Further, the draft acknowledges that “these changes have significant implications for water supply, flooding, aquatic ecosystems, forest health, and recreation, both throughout the state and within Yosemite National Park.”
The draft says observations and modeling of surface-groundwater pumping on streamflows in the Merced River is small. But, will this be the case if climate change results in drops in groundwater tables? How will visitor impacts on resources be exacerbated by climate change, and what will the NPS do when these combined impacts become reality?
The $235 million required to implement the Preferred Alternative apparently will come from existing sources. But that begs the questions: What programs will not be funded in order to fund river plan actions? What impacts on resource protection and visitor experience will result from this diversion of funds? And the draft really needs a detailed timeline. What actions will occur first, and which ones will be highest priority?
Ecological restoration and actions that clearly protect the river should be completed first, not construction of new campgrounds and road re-routes.
A discussion I heard at a public meeting about the draft highlights the deeper questions the NPS should be addressing. The issue was river rafting in the Valley. The Preferred Alternative calls for terminating raft rentals, but allowing private rafts. A meeting participant thought the rental system might be better than allowing private parties to bring their own rafts because the rental system provided a drop-off and pickup service for rafters; whereas private rafters need two cars and do more driving in an already congested Valley.
I wanted to pull my hair out. I wanted to know why rafting in the Valley is allowed at all. The activity has adverse impacts on riverbanks, wildlife, vegetation, and soils, as well as the experience of visitors who are not rafting.
“But people want to raft!” advocates would clamor.
My response: “Would you allow finger painting in the Sistine Chapel if people wanted to do it?” Of course not. You don’t desecrate the temple.
Yosemite Valley is small. A lot of people want to visit. Yosemite National Park’s annual visitation is about four million, and 70-80 percent (2.8 to 3.2 million) of visitors go to the Valley. In the Preferred Alternative, the NPS proposed a daily capacity of 18,151 people for the Valley. If park use continues to skyrocket (and nothing indicates it won’t), visitation will increase in the shoulder and off-seasons. Ultimately, under the Preferred Alternative, there could be 18,151 people in Yosemite Valley every single day of the year. This would mean approximately 6.6 million people in Yosemite Valley every year. This is more than double the present number. This is completely insane.
This is not good planning. This plan is supposed to protect and enhance the Merced River in Yosemite. With respect to the Valley, nothing in the draft justifies additional campsites, lodging units, or parking spaces. Nor is there anything that justifies allowing increases in visitor use.
The truth is current types and levels of use are not compatible with long-term protection and enhancement of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. It’s my understanding that the court decisions indicated user capacities should be based on the impact of such capacities on river values. As far as I can tell, the NPS based user capacities on infrastructure alone. I doubt this plan will pass muster.
I appreciate the fact that a lot of time and hard work went into the production of this plan. The work provides a good, solid foundation for a river plan that will protect the Merced River in Yosemite; unfortunately, this draft is not that plan.
I suggest the NPS try something different. Take the current estimate of 3.2 million Valley visitors per year and divide by 365 days, for 8,767 visitors per day. Make this the maximum daily capacity for starters, and then monitor carefully to see if, in fact, the condition of river values is enhanced with this level of visitation. This will ensure that capacity is held to no more than about 3.2 million per year in the Valley, while allowing for increases in the shoulder seasons.
It will end traffic jams, which will eliminate the need for costly road re-construction. If the condition of resources improves under this scenario, then (and only then) consider increasing visitation.
The draft states current overnight capacity is 6,564 people. For the moment, maintain the status quo in terms of lodging and camping. Remove campsites and lodging that are too close to the river, remove shoulder parking along meadows—do all that positive ecological restoration work. And go ahead and create more camping in already developed areas to offset losses.
Of course, this limit will require a day-use reservation system. That’s okay. In fact, in July of 2012, the NPS surveyed people’s perceptions of crowding. More than 50 percent of visitors surveyed felt crowded while driving, parking, riding the shuttle, hiking, biking, boating, and relaxing. The only activity where less than 50 percent of respondents felt crowded was while swimming in the river.
Limiting access to popular places is not a new idea. We readily accept all kinds of limits because we recognize that goods, services, and spaces are finite, and we adapt accordingly. We understand theatres, stadiums, and restaurants have limited seating. We know museums can accommodate only so many people before the experience is ruined because no one can see the exhibits.
So we plan ahead and make reservations. In Yosemite, visitors already reserve rooms, wilderness access, cabins, campsites, tables in restaurants, and space on tours. The numbers of people who can stay overnight in Yosemite’s wilderness has been limited since the 1970s to protect resources and ensure a high quality visit. We accept limits and the subsequent need for advance planning and reservations because they ensure our experience will be something special—something to cherish.
Let’s bite the bullet and do the right thing for Yosemite Valley: Let’s limit day use and institute reservations now. I heard a rumor that a certain powerful California politician stated the Merced River Plan should not result in a loss of a single dollar in revenue. If the NPS limits the number of people allowed in Yosemite Valley, revenue would be lost. Is this the real reason the Preferred Alternative essentially maintains the status quo (plus a little here and there) relative to visitor use?
Less than one quarter of 1 percent of river miles in the United States is protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. These remaining fragments of a once seemingly endless network of wild and free waterways are precious, and require the very highest levels of protection--especially the one tiny stretch that runs through the heart of America’s oldest park.
In its present form, the draft Merced River Plan will not provide that protection. Increasing accommodations and parking, and not reducing numbers of visitors in Yosemite Valley is not a sound strategy.
The NPS has once again succumbed to political and economic pressures. If this river plan is adopted with the proposed high user capacities, trying to reduce those capacities in the future (when river values continue to be degraded by overuse) will be even more difficult than it is now.
The NPS has the opportunity to reduce visitation and protect Yosemite Valley right now, before climate change tips the scale in a direction that rapidly accelerates deterioration of the Merced River and all of its associated values. In light of the unpredictable changes in climate that loom on the horizon, the NPS needs to be bold, fight the good fight, and set responsible limits.
It’s time for Yosemite’s planners to return to the drawing board once again. And this time, don’t invite the politicians.
Barbara J. Moritsch worked for the National Park Service as an ecologist and interpretive naturalist in five western parks, including Yosemite. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in natural resources and environmental science, and currently lives in Eagle, Idaho with her husband Tom, two cats, two dogs, and three horses. She is the author of The Soul of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, and Saving the Valley's Sacred Wild Nature.