A congressman, after hearing from select witnesses about the impacts of a draft management plan for the Merced River through the Yosemite Valley, charged that the National Park Service is "discouraging" visitation to the iconic valley.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, made the charge after taking testimony from several individuals with ties to the Yosemite Valley, as well as from Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
The hearing Tuesday was scheduled after a California congressman complained about Yosemite's proposal for better managing the Yosemite Valley to benefit the Merced River corridor. That draft management plan is 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.
Two earlier plans the park drafted to address protection of the river were 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.
Particularly drawing Congressman Tom McClintock's ire was a section of the draft plan calling for the removal of the ice-skating rink in Curry Village, as well as the horseback riding concession in the valley. Bike rentals also would no longer be allowed if the proposal is approved, nor rentals of tubes for floating on the Merced.
During the hearing Tuesday, Wendy Brown, the founder of Yosemite for Everyone, claimed that the park plan would do a disservice to visitors who couldn't bring their own bike, horse, or raft into the valley.
"It appears it is not the activity itself that is harmful to Yosemite, but only if it can be rented in the park by visitors who are unable to see the park from a hiking trail or shuttle bus," she said.
A Mariposa resident, Ms. Brown said "Our citizens, local merchants, and those employed by them are concerned about their futures and the future of our community" if any alternative but the "No Action" option is selected by the Park Service.
Ms. Brown, who identified herself as a member of two horse organizations, went on to say that "(T)he Plan discriminates against minorities, those of modest means, the very young, the elderly, and the disabled. For example, many visitors are unable to hike the trails due to disabilities. Many lack outdoor experience and have concerns for their safety, and many visitors are unwilling to venture out on their own. "
"The availability of stock outfitters encourages park visitors to get out of their cars, get close to nature and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime National Park experience," she continued. "Seeing Yosemite on horseback is an experience that cannot be replicated by other means."
Also testifying was Peter Hoss, a writer from Mariposa with a long connection to the Yosemite Valley. He maintained that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act cannot be applied retroactively to the Merced River as it runs through the valley, but "pertains only to future development."
"The NPS, driven by fear offuture lawsuits by (Friends of the Yosemite Valley) and (Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Government) MERG, has violated this directive and has attempted to apply WRSA guidelines to existing infrastructure, historic bridges, and traditional recreational activities in place long before the WSRA was enacted," he noted in his written testimony. "The current draft plan goes too far in this direction. This adds up to a draft plan fatally flawed and grounded on the false premise that WRSA guidelines supersede and nullify the terms of the original grant of Yosemite for the enjoyment of the general public and future generations, and the (National Park Service) Organic Act of 1916, which reaffirms this objective."
In a press release, Rep. Bishop claimed that the draft Merced River Plan is "an anti-visitor agenda" that would limit opportunities to camp, bike, and raft in the Yosemite Valley.
“The National Park Service is discouraging visitors from visiting Yosemite through policies that unnecessarily eliminate recreation opportunities,” said Rep. Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. “The NPS exists to maintain outstanding places for Americans to visit and recreate. It is not the role of the NPS to keep Americans out of parks and it is concerning that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has been abused to litigate American families out of Yosemite National Park. Our national parks belong to the all of the American people, not just a select few.”
In his testimony, Director Jarvis said part of the rationale behind the draft plan was the limitations imposed by the mile-wide, seven-mile long valley.
"Yosemite Valley is narrow with an area that is limited by a river corridor in the center and the known hazard of rock falls on either side. The Draft MRP had to consider these limits when analyzing space allocation for structures and facilities," he pointed out. "As a safety measure for those who visit and work in Yosemite Valley, structures, cabins, and campsites that have a high risk of being affected by rock-fall would be phased out or relocated."
The director maintained that the preferred alternative was "a balance between resource protection and providing for visitor use and access."
Director Jarvis, countering claims that the plan was anti-recreation, pointed out that it would increase campsites in the valley by nearly 200. He also hinted that some of the commercial uses eyed for removal might simply be relocated to other areas.
"As Yosemite National Park proceeds to complete the final MRP, all comments about recreational uses and other aspects of the plan will be thoroughly considered and evaluated. In some instances, these commercial services may be reasonably relocated outside the river corridor but remain in Yosemite Valley, or in other locations inside or outside of the park, and available to park visitors," said the Park Service director. "It is important to note that no reductions are proposed in any alternative for the private use of horses, bikes, and rafts."