Yosemite National Park was set aside by an act of Congress in 1864. More than 100 years later, the park finds itself walking a fine line between improvements and eliminations in a pair of proposals for both the Tuolomne and Merced Wild and Scenic River Management plans.
As National Park Service (NPS) Project Manager Mike Yochim explained during a public meeting held recently in Mammoth Lakes, the Tuolomne was granted Wild and Scenic status in 1984, and the Merced in 1987. “[Our national] parks “haven’t always been here … they’re the result of efforts of people to save them from destruction.”
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts (WSRA), which was passed in 1968, allows for protection and regulation of the free flowing water, the water’s condition and the river’s “outstanding and remarkable values” when developing management plans.
Impacts from mining, logging and the railroads have since given way to impacts from tourism and the automobile, and when it comes to a bureaucracy and geographic footprint as big as that of the NPS, even its staff acknowledges that change takes awhile.
While change takes awhile, it’s gotta start somewhere, and Yochium discussed the immediate plans for the future at length on Saturday.
According to Yochim’s presentation, the Park’s preferred version, would cost about $66 million to implement, phased in over 15-20 years. Accounting for changes in costs over time, the funding would come from gate revenues, conservancy funds and concessionaire contracts, with no additional funding from Congress. The goal for Tuolumne is a maximum of 4,569 people at one time (PAOT), assuming all campsites and lodges are booked. (Daily pass through figures would be somewhat higher.)
Under the alternative, roadside parking would be eliminated. Parking is limited by the number of spaces and bus runs, thought Yochim said the plan is for YARTS service to run 4 trips each way each day. Some new day use parking is planned, while current parking would be retained.
He also mentioned results of a Baseline Condition Assessment recently conducted by the park, which revealed several impact areas to be addressed, including sheep grazing in the meadow from more than 100 years ago, the effects of which can still be clearly seen. “Meadows at that altitude take a long time to repair themselves,” he noted. So-called “social trails” that were not constructed have also impacted the meadow from years of foot traffic.
“Ecologists say the meadows could be ‘more pretty and vibrant’ with restoration efforts,” he went on to say. Also assessed were wetlands, plant life, archaeological sites, wilderness and water availability. The latter is of particular interest, since the meadow actually doesn’t contain much groundwater as a secondary water source, and relies on the river for most of its hydration. “Water is a driving factor,” Yochim stated. “We can’t increase our average daily usage much, since it’s based on the current flow.” The upper limit draw from Tuolomne is about 70,000 gallons per day under normal snow pack conditions.
Yochim said the project would likely add about 12 jobs, in both restoration and enforcement.
Gone would be the nearby gas station, though two stations would remain, one in Wawona and another in Crane Flats.
Also eliminated would be the Mountaineering School, though climbing and guided climbs services would remain. Pack station rides would be curbed to reduce conflicts between hikers and pack stock. “We get lots of complaints about that,” he said. Day trips would still be available out of Wawona.
Don’t look for much in the way of additional cycling space. There are no shoulder areas on Tioga Road and bike lanes are not in the plans at this time. Yochim said they could be in future consideration where applicable (i.e. where a lot of granite blasting isn’t required). He is, however, doubtful any lanes would be suitable to road bikes. For one thing, lane width is grandfathered in at 10 feet.
The Park’s preferred alternative, #5, is not “quite as aggressive” as #6, the full build-out option. It’s also nowhere near as pricey ($235 million versus $484 million).
Much comes down to the need for certain public use facilities. As Park Planning Division Chief Kathleen Morse put it, “If they’re necessary, the uses should be mitigated. If not, they should be in the use corridor.” In its 2008 decision stemming from the case Friends of Yosemite v. Kempthorne, in which Friends of Yosemite Valley sued the NPS alleging management of the Merced River violated the WSRA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals alluded to many public facilities as “contributing to degradation.”
“You can’t have everything everywhere,” Morse stated. “You have to think of what’s the best use of a limited land base.”
A redesign of traffic and parking is a big planning item. A consultant recently told the NPS that it’s not about enough parking or cars, but a systemic problem of too much foot traffic and motorist interaction, poorly designed intersections and parking in the wrong places.
Also on the drawing board is expansion of low-cost camping by 37%, in part by restoring 300 campsites washed away by a 1997 flood, this time placing them outside the flood plain on higher ground.
Merced’s goal is to increase the PAOT from last year’s 14,836 to 16,700, with a total of about 19,000 in daily visitation.
One meeting attendee, Allen Berry, suggested, in opposition to eliminationof an ice rink, that “policies are being driven more by lawsuits … It’s a manifestation of the wants of certain people and lawyers, who don’t want other people to have fun in Yosemite, unless they’re sitting in front of El Capitan, reading Thoreau and contemplating their navel.” Morse took that point, adding that not everything might need to be removed, but it all needs to be looked at and quantified.
Berry also suggested that, rather than eliminating an ice rink, perhaps part of a parking lot could be fitted with underground piping for use during the winter, when it’s not needed to house vehicles. The Yosemite Valley, he said, was “created by ice,” and the rink could be part of an interpretive exhibit on how glaciers formed part of the park. “Do you want people inside watching ‘Seinfeld’ reruns or outside skating?” Berry asked, rhetorically.
Park staff said the draft preferred alternatives could be modified in light of public comment, and any of the alternatives’ elements can be mixed and matched to create revised alternatives.
Yochim added that Hwy 120 traffic wouldn’t be affected by any of the alternatives.