Yosemite Valley can feel like a bustling town at times, with traffic jams, wailing emergency sirens, and tour buses and tractor-trailer trucks snaking along the roads. While Yosemite National Park planners are trying to better manage some of that crowding, the American Recreation Coalition fears they're going too far and threatening the visitor experience.
In comments filed in response to the park's draft Merced Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, ARC President Derrick Crandall stated that, "We strongly object to reductions in visitor experience opportunities in Yosemite, an outcome under each of the offered alternatives in the proposed plan. We believe that the NPS has failed to meet the requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to offer any alternative that would add to the opportunities for quality visitor experiences in the park."
The draft plan is just the most recent attempt by park staff to address the human footprint on the valley and the Merced River, a wild and scenic stream. Twice previously Yosemite officials released a draft management plan intended to provide protection for the "outstandingly remarkable values" of the Merced River, which was designated in 1987 as a "recreational" river through the Yosemite Valley under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Both times the plan was struck down by the courts.
In the most recent rejection, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2008, the judges both directed the park staff to set a daily visitation capacity limit for the river corridor through the valley and quite clearly implied that the Park Service needed to consider reducing commercial activities that do not "protect or enhance" the Merced's unique values.
In trying to meet the court's directive, park staff decided that by relocating parking areas, by removing some Housekeeping Camp units, demolishing a bridge (the Sugar Pine Bridge), by adding boardwalks and fencing, taking out the Curry Ice Rink and even doing away with the horseback ride concession, by adding a 36-site RV campground, boosting campsite numbers to 690 over the current 565, and by adding 111 day-use parking spots for a total of 2,448, they could not only maintain visitation levels in the valley at current levels of just under 20,000 per day, but also restore 203 acres in the valley and improve traffic flows so visitors aren't idling on the roads.
But in his review of the draft, Mr. Crandall said the proposed alternatives show "clear bias" against concessions that hold permits to provide visitor experiences in the valley, such as the horseback concession.
"Yosemite has a long and rich history of joint concessioner/National Park Service efforts serving families and groups," he said in a release. "Yet in the offered alternatives, provisions for services to visitors ranging from bike rentals to tube rentals to horseback experiences are either heavily reduced or eliminated – even when those activities would be allowed for those bringing their own equipment."
ARC officials, whose group represents park concessionaires, RV campgrounds, manufacturers of snowmobiles and motorboats, the American Horse Council and the American Motorcycle Association among many others, said the Yosemite Valley proposal runs counter to Park Service efforts nationally to boost visitation to the parks.
"The current direction of the National Park Service is now to invite more visitors and be more relevant as the Centennial of the NPS approaches," Mr. Crandall said. "In fact, NPS has now launched a multi-year, multi-million dollar campaign . . .with a key KPI (Key Performance Indicator) being to reclaim historic levels of NPS visitation proportionate to the U.S. population."
ARC urged Yosemite to consider an alternative management protocol currently being implemented by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages America’s national forests. Mr. Crandall described that agency’s more gradual and consensus-based approach to visitor management, noting that it "largely rejects dramatic changes in visitor services in favor of an iterative process that defines clear resource goals and monitors key indicators, adjusting visitor numbers and management protocols in consultation with key interests around agreed-upon goals."