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The Merced River Plan and the Future of Yosemite National Park

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio

Beneath the shadows of Half Dome and El Capitan, in the heart of Yosemite Valley, lies the Merced River. It’s been known as a Wild and Scenic River since 1987. It’s a federal designation that aims to preserve river ecosystems and values. But after a major flood damaged much of the park’s infrastructure in 1997, environmental groups and park management clashed over plans for how best to restore the park in compliance with the law. Now, after 15 years marked by lawsuits and studies, a new management plan for the Merced River has been released. The controversial proposal, known as the Merced River Plan, would not only guide the restoration efforts for decades to come, but would also result in the removal of a number of features that are popular with tourists.

Valley Public Radio reporter Rebecca Plevin spoke with Kathleen Morse, chief of planning for Yosemite, about the future of the park.

Question: What’s the big picture goal for the plan?

Answer: Really, there are two objectives we’re trying to accomplish under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

One is to protect the resources and the river values, which include the free-flowing condition of the river and the water quality, and a number of other values that we’ve identified as being outstandingly remarkable under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Those include the large meadow systems, riparian areas, the scenic quality of the park, and some of the cultural and historic resources. So that’s the fundamental underlying foundation for the plan. The second objective is to provide access, to provide recreation and resource uses in the river corridor, as long as they’re consistent with protecting the river values.

Question: What sorts of changes will visitors notice?

Answer: Alternative 5 will really totally renovate the visitor experience.  The main problem we have today is traffic congestion and crowding. And it’s not necessarily the number of cars, the number of people that are in the valley - it’s our transportation system. It’s got a number of flaws in it and things that are causing gridlock and problems in peak periods.  So we’re addressing those issues through the preferred alternative with some transportation re-routes, and some changes in the way our parking is laid out. One particular thing is that pedestrian underpass at Yosemite Lodge and Yosemite Falls intersection. 

"The main problem we have today is traffic congestion and crowding" - Kathleen Morse

The other thing that people will notice is the visitor experience will be enhanced. We’re going to look at a lot of the areas where we have localized impacts to resources. So, we have El Capitan meadow, where people go out to watch the climbers. We’ve got some social trailing going on there, some fragmentation of the meadow, and we want to address that with a system of boardwalks and viewing platforms that will allow the meadow to recover and still allow people to see the climbers.

Another area of impact is along the river, the riverbank riparian areas between Clark and Sentinel bridges. We’ve gotten a lot of riverbank erosion and what we want to do is restore those areas with new vegetation, with redirecting use, so that will be a more healthy ecosystem and a more visually appealing part of the riverbank.

Q: In some other plans, there have been ideas about restricting car use, or using more buses, but it sounds like that is not in these plans, right?

A: The idea of mandating mass transit was explored in previous plans. The thing that you run into when you try to do that is, unlike a place like Zion, which has one entry and one exit, the park, and especially east Yosemite Valley, has many ways to get into that particular location, so you can’t have an in-and-out system because people are coming from all these different directions, and in many cases they are having a through-park experience - they are coming in one entry and going out another. So it’s hard to have a system that would service that adequately.

The second problem with mass transit in large quantities is that it’s very expensive. The corridors are lengthy, so you’re going to have a long transportation piece where people are going to be riding a bus for quite a period of time. You run the shuttle from a long distance, it costs quite a bit.

So developing all of that is extremely expensive and it’s not very practical in a park like this, so what we’ve looked at doing is developing parking systems in east Yosemite Valley, and outside of the park boundary, to help give some pressure release valves on those real peak days. Ultimately, we’ll manage to a capacity, and in the event that we exceed that parking capacity, we’ll redirect people to other areas of the park, just like we do today. 

"It’s relying on a more sophisticated transportation system, augmented by supplementary parking supply" - Morse

We won’t be relying entirely on shifting to mass transit, but we do contemplate additional services on all the corridors, so people can have the option of taking a transit or bus, like the YART system, into the park. They’ll have that option, and they’ll be increasingly available to them, but it won’t be mandatory, so it’s not relying on mass transit entirely. It’s relying on a more sophisticated transportation system, augmented by supplementary parking supply.

Q: I know a lot of people have focused on services that will be eliminated. Can you talk about those?

A: We do have a couple things that we’re trying to balance here, and one of them is just basically, the footprint of the developed area in the park, and again we’re talking about east Yosemite Valley. We have a number of things that we’re proposing to remove, and the ones that people have been focused on have been primarily the bike rentals, the raft rentals, and the ice skating rink. We have a number of other duplicative retail operations that we’re proposing to remove and some other facilities that are redundant. We are also proposing to eliminate day rides, horseback rides, in the Valley.

So people ask: Why are you doing this? What’s the thinking behind this? There are at least three reasons that we’ve had to look at these services and facilities. 

"The dilemma that we run into is that in a national park, what is really necessary for public use?" - Morse

Number one is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires us to look at major public-use facilities in the river corridor and determine whether or not they are necessary. The thrust behind the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is to remove, or not have a lot, of development in the river corridor unless it’s really necessary for public use. The dilemma that we run into is that in a national park, what is really necessary for public use? It’s a little bit different than having a simple boat access point with a restroom and parking. There’s a national park experience that we’re trying to provide, so what is necessary for that experience? So we’ve looked at the facilities and services in the corridor and tried to pass them through that screen - is it really necessary? And part of what falls out in that test are those redundant services, redundant retail, some services are necessary, sure, but do you really need this much? So we’ve tried to look at it through that screen.

The second thing is, we’re dealing with the 2008 Court of Appeals decision, which includes a footnote that gave us a laundry list of activities and said, basically, you need to look at everything that’s going on here and make a conscious choice of what should continue, and give us some rationale for that. We just feel like there’s a lot of commercial activity going on here, and they allude to it as being degradation.

The last reason is that when you look at managing activity in the Valley, there’s such a limited amount of space between the rock-fall hazard zone on one side, the river corridor on the other side, the flood plain, the meadows you’re trying to protect, and existing infrastructure. There’s really not a lot of room to work with, so we have to make some choices about what needs to be in place and what package of services should we have in place, versus infrastructure. If you want more parking, you probably can’t have more camping. If you want more camping, you can’t have more lodging. So it’s a tradeoff thing. So we tried to look at packaging up the different things that were available, in light of that limited land base we were working within.

Q: That does seem like you’re balancing a lot of different concerns and opinions, but it seems like public participation has been a really important part of this process. 

"Every step of the way, we've involved the public" - Morse

A: Oh, it’s been huge, the way that we’ve interacted with people, and the way people have interacted with us, has been unprecedented in any other planning process I’ve ever participated in. Every step of the way, we’ve involved the public. We have had over 40 workshops and webinars to this point, so we feel like we’ve got a pretty good understanding of the perspectives out there. It doesn’t mean that they are any closer to each other or there’s a clear choice, but we pretty much understand the playing field and more importantly, we feel like we’ve listened and we’ve incorporated public concerns at every stage in the process.

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