Yosemite National Park Planners, Critics, At Odds Over Merced River Plan

Were Frederick Law Olmstead, or his son, alive today, they likely would much prefer the view of Yosemite National Park from their namesake overlook along the Tioga Pass Road, and not from the floor of the Yosemite Valley.

Whereas both Olmsteds talked of the great need to protect the natural beauty found in the national parks, and Yosemite Valley in particular, today the valley floor is a rush of humanity with vignettes of nature. To some visitors it has become, perhaps, what Olmsted senior feared.

"Before many years, these hundreds (of visitors) will become thousands, and in a century the whole number of visitors will be counted by millions," he noted shortly after the Yosemite Park Act was adopted in 1864.

As Alfred Runte noted in National Parks: The American Experience, Olmsted wanted protections in place to protect the valley, laws that "must be made and rigidly enforced."

Construction in particular should be limited to "the narrowest limits consistent with the necessary accommodation of visitors." The alternative to imposing standards would be the proliferation of their opposite, activities that "would unnecessarily obscure, distort, or detract from the dignity of the scenery." -- From the National Parks: The American Experience

It has been argued by many over the years that neither Olmsted's will, nor that of his son, Frederick Olmsted, Jr., have been honored in Yosemite, that no number of John Muir mantras can save the iconic valley.

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The 2014 Merced River Plan aims to reduce over-crowding. Barbara Moritsch photo.

The release earlier this month of the Park Service's preferred management plan for the Merced River and the surrounding valley floor has renewed the criticisms that the plan is not a management plan but rather a development plan.

"The 2014 (Merced River Plan) is a huge disappointment because of the missed opportunities to bring about a change in direction," said George Whitmore, who in 1958 made, along with Warren Harding and Wayne Merry, the first ascent of the "nose" of El Capitan, in 47 days. "It calls for maintaining present levels, or having more, of almost everything. The one exception is the stock rides in the valley. The plan actually calls for eliminating these, but at the cost of further impacting Wawona by transferring the operation there.

"After an immense expenditure of money, time, and human energy, the conclusion is that we will keep on doing practically everything we have been doing, except we will be doing more of it," he lamented.

Yosemite planners disagree, saying the voluminous plan that took several court battles to produce finally sets a cap on daily visitor numbers in the valley, will improve the health of the Merced River, and will vastly improve the experience of Yosemite Valley visitors.

“I think we will win with this plan. I think this plan is a win," said Kathleen Morse, the park's chief of planning. "I think that it strikes a really good balance between access and protecting the resources. It’s an aggressive restoration plan, it’s an aggressive and sophisticated monitoring program, and it’s a commitment to user capacity that we haven’t had in the past."

Protecting The Merced

Driving the plan has been the legal requirement under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that the National Park Service protect the "outstandingly remarkable values" of the Merced River, which was designated in 1987 as a "recreational" river through the Yosemite Valley under the Act. While the plan does take steps to protect the river corridor, critics such as Mr. Whitmore argue that it does feebly little to protect the Yosemite Valley, one of the top geologic, natural, and scenic wonders of the world.

Both the 2000 and 205 versions of the Merced River Plan, which were tossed out by the courts, removed a daily limit on valley visitation, Mr. Whitmore noted, adding that while the current plan institutes one, it's too high.

"The NPS finally got the message, after losing two lawsuits, and decided that they had to address user capacity. I believe that the 2014 MRP actually does this," he said in an email. "Certainly not in a way that we would like, but in a way which will avoid losing another lawsuit on that issue. They might have problems with litigation on other issues, but I think that they have covered their bases on the user capacity issue.

"Of course, the capacity they arrived at is not protective of river resources, but they generated so much paperwork in arriving at that figure that I can't see a court telling them to do it again."

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A view of Half Dome reflected in the Merced River. QT Luong photo, www.terragalleria.com/parks.

As endorsed by park managers, the 2014 plan would see:

* A nearly 40 percent increase in campsites.

* A 5 percent boost in lodging.

* A reversal on initial plans to remove ice skating and raft rentals from the valley floor.

* Adoption of current user levels as daily capacity "caps."

What shouldn't be overlooked is that the 640 campsites that would be allowed under the plan still are fewer than the 828 that existed before flooding along the Merced River washed away hundreds in 1997, that nearly 200 acres of meadows and riparian areas would be restored, and that some 6,000 linear feet of riprap would be removed from along the river.

Add to that improvements in traffic flows, creation of a 300-vehicle satellite parking lot in El Portal with shuttles taking visitors into the valley, and monitoring that will ensure the plan's targets are maintained, and Ms. Morse sees an approach that will both lower the human footprint in the valley and make for a better visitor experience.

"I do think that it’s possible to have a win out of this one. This is a well-thought out and very solid plan to get us where we need to go," the planner said. "It’s not going to meet everybody’s expectations, or desires, but it’s pretty darn close to providing a good future and it does begin to stop and to say, 'OK, how much is too much?' We think we’ve got it right. We have protective mechanisms in the plan to do a course correction if we don’t.”

Peak Capacity = 20,100

Drive into the Yosemite Valley and you'll be awed by the spectacular granite monoliths, the wispy waterfalls, the looming profile of Half Dome. But, if your visit is in June, July or August, you might also be overwhelmed by the humanity with its fire engines, delivery trucks, RVs, SUVs, cyclists, picnickers, and campers.

How many are too many when it comes to a human head count in Yosemite Valley? According to the calculations made by Ms. Morse and her staff, more than 20,100. Outwardly, that is a lofty number, one that makes the valley more of a city than a bucolic destination. But, apparently, it's a number most folks can live with.

“One of the things that we found is there is a natural capacity to the valley, there is an ultimate capacity. You can only have so many people," she explained. "The ultimate limiting factor is social conditions. We did the research to find out how much crowding is too much crowding. What’s an acceptable level of visitation to these iconic sites?"

After going out and surveying people at places such as the base of Yosemite Falls, planners discovered that "there is a limit, and if you get a certain number of people, even if you dropped them in there by straw, you’re going to reach this social limit. And that limit is about 25,000," said Ms. Morse. "You can’t have 25,000 people come into the valley at one time, in the course of a day, and not run into that limit. So that’s what we found. That’s the upper limit.”

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The view from Olmsted Point. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The preferred plan ratcheted that number down a bit, to 20,100, as the upper, managable and socially desirable, number of people in Yosemite Valley on any one day. Over the past number of years that number has been reached only a small handful of times, she said, and at times when it has there were driving factors, such as a heavy snowpack that either closed off places like Glacier Point or the Tioga Road corridor or resulted in spectacular waterfall displays that drew valley crowds.

When the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture in 1984 evaluated the United State's nomination of Yosemite National Park as a site worthy of the World Heritage List, its staff noted that threats to Yosemite revolved around "excessive vehicle traffic, overcrowding, uneven distribution of use, inappropriate development and commercial services."

Today, 30 years after those threats were identified, have Yosemite's managers managed to address those issues head on with this management plan?

The preferred Merced River plan "is supposed to be consistent with the over-arching General Management Plan for Yosemite Park, which is the programatic direction for all other Park plans," notes John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. "The General Management Plan calls for removing or phasing out private vehicles from Yosemite Valley, reducing congestion, reducing parking and air pollution, and making the Yosemite Valley visitor experience more natural and enjoyable.

"The just-released Merced River Plan does the exact opposite. It actually supports an increased level of private vehicles in Yosemite Valley by approving more parking spaces and avoiding limits on use that were contained in Plan alternatives that the Park chose not to adopt. The new Plan does nothing to reduce peak season visitation in the heavily-utilized east portion of Yosemite Valley," he said. "Instead (it) actually approves more campsites along with new construction of lodging facilities that will continue to cause high levels of crowding and congestion."

Disagreeing with Ms. Morse over this view is Neal Desai, the Pacific Region field director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“You can ask folks who love parks and work there and have different standards and you’ll get all different responses (to the plan). You’ll get folks saying you’re not doing enough, and that was a major reason why this was held up in lawsuits," said Mr. Desai. "As a result, this plan I would say is much better than anything in the past.”

A public meeting will be conducted to provide information about the final plan. The meeting will be held on Thursday, March 6, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Yosemite Valley Auditorium.

After a 30-day no-action period, the plan will be finalized and a Record of Decision will be prepared and signed.

Comments

"A public meeting will be conducted…" Oh Joy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ng_-HgRfGBY
I wish I could say that any plan likely to be approved is going to do any good. Twenty thousand people in the Valley at once sounds like a nightmare. But who's going to tell all those people they can't come?
Thank you "Traveler" for an excellent article on the Yosemite Merced River Plan. The persons interviewed were extremely interesting and creditable, the focus of the article was thought provoking. My biggest disappointment with the MRP was the failure to address the unlimited day use automobile issue more directly. I also agree with megaera that the day use number is to high, it can be nightmare on those peak visitor days. I do think the park staff is dedicated and competent, and as Mr. Neal Desai stated, it may be the only plan that could that could pass all the contentious debate over the issues involved. Just like so many other NPS planning efforts, the park staffs have a difficult job in balancing visitor enjoyment with ecologically sustainable policies. In my own view, we visitors need to err on the environmental side of these issues. One additional comment, I did attend many of the public hearings leading up to the decisions made. I thought Park Planner Kathleen Morris was an attentive listener and civil in all her responses to questions asked, she was quite effective.
There is no way that this plan could ever make everyone happy. I would love to see a project that could remove cars altogether from our National Parks, but that would create huge accessibility problems for the public that is supposed to be able to enjoy these spaces. The Yosemite Valley is iconic, hence its massive visitation, and awareness about the threats that our park managers face is important (and is there a better way to educate people about our public lands than IN our public lands?). What better way to share this beautiful valley than to try and accommodate its carrying capacity? The valley is already heavily impacted by visitors and infrastructure; the added campgrounds and lodging will not influence much. The visitation cap will alleviate the heaviest days while still allowing for access to a park that stands, in part, as our American identity. There are also some very important riparian restoration initiatives in the plan that will allow the Valley to be more natural. If peace and solitude and nature are what you are seeking then the Valley may not be your ideal Yosemite experience. But go anyway. The Valley walls will amaze you regardless of the amount of people around you. And then leave the Valley and backpack 5-10 miles in any direction and you will have a peaceful experience. As for the cars, hopefully that can be addressed soon- but as far as I can tell the Merced River Plan is doing a decent job of balancing park use with park conservation.
I am sure the Merced River Plan is doing its best to create an even balance between public access and conservation, though I do not see how adding more campsites and parking will achieve the goal of the restoration efforts. Why not instead eliminate some of the campsites and parking, effectively reducing the visitor capacity for the park? I believe adding the parking lot to El Portal, and shuttling day use visitors to the Valley is a great idea, but if they still keep the parking in the Valley won't that allow for an even higher volume of visitors to the park? I do not like the idea of refusing park access to the public, but if Yosemite is in need of restoration, then it should be the public's duty to make an effort, or sacrifice some convenience in order to conserve its beauty for future generations. There are so many unnecessary facilities taking up space in Curry Village alone, not to mention Yosemite Valley as a whole. I'm sure they could eliminate the Pizza deck, or Peets coffee for starters. Yosemite is a wonderful place to experience and "get away", so why do there need to be the same shops that we frequent in the city?
"I'm sure they could eliminate the Pizza deck, or Peets coffee for starters. Yosemite is a wonderful place to experience and "get away", so why do there need to be the same shops that we frequent in the city?" Because the concession coffee sucks. God Almighty, you want to deny a hiker/ranger a decent cup of coffee?!
jsloan, a thoughtful post, thank you. I agree with much of what you say. The eastern end of Yosemite Valley is already heavily impacted, but less so than when I first started working there in 1960. Much has been removed, some replaced. I must admit I am a camping fanatic, so I support the replacement of some of the campsites removed post 1997 flood event. The biggest change that I have witnessed over the years is the volume of unrestricted day use automobile access, the plan makes a significant start in addressing this issue. It is difficult to balance the visitor access with ecological concerns, I give the park staff a great deal of credit for being so sensitive to that issue. Thanks for the post.