Barring another lawsuit, a nearly 40 percent increase in campground space and 5 percent more lodging will be allowed in the Yosemite Valley under the final Merced River plan released Friday by the National Park Service.
Yosemite National Park officials seemingly acquiesced on initial intentions to remove ice skating, rafting, and bicycling from the scenic, but compact, valley. Those activities, which a congressman rose to defend after the draft plan was released a year ago, will continue to be allowed, though the Curry Ice Rink and the rafting concession will be moved away from the river corridor.
The plan does, however, call for the restoration of nearly 200 acres of meadow and riparian areas.
“This plan will protect the Merced River and its outstandingly remarkable values into perpetuity and provide quality visitor facilities and access,” said Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher in a press release.
Years in development, this is the Park Service's latest attempt to satisfy critics, and the courts, that it can adequately protect the Merced River. 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.
Park officials Friday did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on details of the plan.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Neal Desai thought the plan was a good solution to protect the river corridor through the Yosemite Valley. He acknowledged Friday that the daily cap on visitors is similar to what it has been -- 20,100 measured in the eastern end of the valley -- but thought that once all elements of the plan are incorporated that the valley wouldn't feel as crowded as it does now at the peak of summer.
"I think there will be a reduced feeling of congestion. The traffic would be reduced in this," Mr. Desai, NPCA's Pacific Region field director, said, pointing to plans for more shuttles and rerouting roads to alleviate vehicle-pedestrian conflicts.
"Once this plan is in place, the main construction elements, the things are done, there will still be the same number (of people) at peak levels, but it won’t feel like that. It might feel like something much different, much lower," said Mr. Desai.
Here's how the Park Service outlined the plan's high points:
Protecting the Merced River’s Health and Other Resources
Preserving and Enhancing Recreational Opportunities
- Restoring 189 acres, mostly in meadows and riparian areas. This includes the removal of 6,048 linear feet of riprap (stones and cement in and near riverbeds used for stabilization).
- Improving meadow hydrology by removing artificial fill, filling ditches, and adding culverts.
- Planting native vegetation to stabilize riverbanks and improve scenic views along the river.
- Retaining the historic bridges.
- Implementing the Scenic Vista Management Plan to protect views from historic vista points.
- Removing informal trails, non-essential roads, and infrastructure causing impacts to archaeological sites.
- Retaining and preserving the Ahwahnee Hotel, Wawona Hotel, Wawona Covered Bridge, LeConte Memorial Lodge, Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, and other historically significant properties.
Improving Transportation System
- Camping will be increased by 37% in Yosemite Valley. This includes building 72 sites in the location of the former Upper and Lower River Campgrounds, 35 walk-in sites east of Camp 4, and 87 sites at the existing Upper Pines Campground. An additional 40 drive-in campsites will be provided at the Trailer Park Village in El Portal.
- The ice skating rink in Curry Village will be moved to its historical 1928 location outside of the river corridor.
- Lodging is increased slightly corridor wide (3%) and in Yosemite Valley (5%).
- Bicycle and raft rentals will remain available in the park, with rental facilities located outside of the river corridor.
- Picnic and day-use opportunities will be improved and expanded at Yosemite Village, Church Bowl, and Happy Isles.
- Wawona stables services will be expanded.
Managing Visitor Use to Ensure High Quality Visitor Experience
- Additional shuttle bus service in Yosemite Valley will alleviate private vehicle congestion.
- Regional transit to the park is expanded.
- Park roads will be rerouted to improve traffic flow and visitor safety by reducing vehicle-pedestrian conflicts.
- Significant changes to traffic circulation patterns will be made to meet ecological restoration goals and reduce traffic congestion.
- There will be an 8% increase in parking for day use visitors to Yosemite Valley. This increase includes a new 300-car parking lot located in El Portal with shuttle service to the Valley.
- Marked improvements in parking availability, traffic flow, and signage, along with the removal of administrative and industrial facilities will give visitors an enhanced “sense of arrival” to Yosemite Village and the heart of Yosemite Valley.
- Visitation levels will be similar to those seen over the past several years. A user capacity of 18,710 people at one time is established for Yosemite Valley, which will accommodate a peak visitation of approximately 20,100 visitors per day.
- User capacity for East Yosemite Valley will be managed using advanced monitoring and communication systems and rerouting traffic at the El Capitan Traffic Diversion prior to reaching established limits.
- Overnight-use capacity will be managed through wilderness permits and reservation systems for lodging and camping.
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.