A new plan that outlines the future of Yosemite National Park was discussed with more than 70 area residents last week during a public meeting in Oakhurst with National Park Service staff, who described the plan and answered questions.
Most of the discussion centered around people's concerns with the Park Service's "preferred alternative" for the revamped Merced River Plan, what would remove many popular commercial services in Yosemite Valley -- including the Curry Village Ice Skating Rink, raft rentals, bicycle rentals, and commercial horseback day-rides out of Yosemite Valley. The proposed removal of the historic Stoneman Bridge was also a concern raised.
After more than a decade of lawsuits over the controversial Merced River Plan, the Park Service is conducting its final stretch of public comment -- to end April 18 -- before the final plan must be submitted to the court this July for final approval.
"It's critical we get your input so we can work together, because this plan is going to set some policy for some very important changes," said Kathleen Morse, chief of planning for Yosemite National Park, during the March 14 public meeting at Sierra Senior Center in Oakhurst. "We had over 40 public workshops before the draft ever hit the street. We've learned together, and we've shared every step of this together."
Morse said many people who have spoken with them about the plan said it is "really important that the essence of Yosemite is maintained" and that people get to choose how they enter Yosemite and are "not mandated to take buses."
The preferred alternative calls for leaving visitor use levels similar to already allowed maximum capacity -- about 19,900 people coming through Yosemite Valley throughout one day.
"Only three days last year reached that peak visitation number," Morse said. "If visitation gets to that point repeatedly over the years, we may go to a reservation system (to enter the park) on those peak days ... but it's not necessary to employ it at this point."
If the preferred alternative is chosen, Yosemite Valley would get a moderate increase in campsites and parking -- including an overflow parking area in the east end of Yosemite Valley and neighboring El Portal for peak visitation days. The preferred alternative also calls for new road construction to allieviate traffic congestion; rearranging the Yosemite Village parking area to create a more pleasant "sense of arrival" feeling; building a boardwalk in the meadow beneath El Capitan; 203 acres of essential restoration within 100 feet of the river; improving employee housing; and moving some offices out of Yosemite Valley.
Morse said the final draft of the Merced River Plan can include a mix of elements from the six different plan alternatives, and that the plan will amend and replace outdated information in Yosemite's General Management Plan of 1980.
The proposed changes are estimated to cost more than $200 million. Morse said while that "sounds like a big number ... some plans in the past were half a billion," and changes would occur over a 10-year period, paid for using a combination of Yosemite's entrance fee dollars, concession franchise fees, federal highway dollars, and help from Yosemite Conservancy.
The majority of the three-hour public meeting held last week in Oakhurst about the park plan was devoted to listening to many public comments and answering questions.
Residents were reminded that public comments were not formally being recorded during the meeting, and should also be submitted to the Park Service in writing.
"I didn't expect to be impressed, I expected to be confrontational," said Ted Fischer with Backcountry Horsemen of California after the Park Service's presentation -- relieved to find out that private stock would still be allowed in Yosemite Valley and the stables will not be eliminated, although commercial day-rides are proposed to cease.
"I really hope you find some way to maintain the bike rentals and the skating rink," said one woman. "There's not many outside rinks left and my family really treasures it."
While several people also stuck up for the raft rentals, one elderly woman -- who's visited Yosemite since the early 50s with her family, and whose parents have visited the park since the early 20s -- spoke about her early memories of the riverbank that parallels the portion of the river where commercial rafting now takes place.
Walking along that section of the river used to be "my pleasure," she said. "There used to be tiger lilies and it looked pristine, and now, it looks like a freeway has gone through there, and that's because of the rafting."
John Pero of Ahwahnee said that while he's glad the Park Service is adding parking spaces, the proposed additions still amount to much less parking in Yosemite Valley than existed prior to the flood of 1997 -- a sentiment also echoed by Oakhurst resident Lou Aceto regarding the park's proposal to add camping.
Max Stauffer, president of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau located in Oakhurst, said that it seemed like the Park Service was listening more to a small group of litigants to make their decisions instead of the opinions of most people who visit Yosemite National Park who enjoy the park's commercial services.
"Without these activities Yosemite really wouldn't be a place we'd choose to go with our kids unfortunately," said one mother who spoke against the proposed elimination of many of the popular commercial services in Yosemite Valley. "I hope we are heard and can find a common ground."
Several individuals in last week's meeting said the Park Service's proposal to remove many popular commercial services in Yosemite Valley seems to be driven by "Footnote #5" in the 2008 court decision on the Merced River Plan litigation.
The footnote was challenged at last week's meeting, stating that as a footnote, it should be taken as more of a suggestion than as an absolute requirement. Part of Footnote #5 says: "To illustrate the level of degradation already experienced ... we need look no further than the dozens of facilities and services operating within the river corridor ...
"Although recreation is an ORV (outstanding remarkable value) that must be protected and enhanced ... to be included as an ORV, according to NPS itself, a value must be (1) river-related or river dependant, and (2) rare, unique, or exemplary in a regional or national context.
"The multitude of facilities and services provided at the Merced (River) certainly do not meet the mandatory criteria for inclusion as an ORV. NPS does not explain how maintaining such a status quo in the interim would protect or enhance the river's unique values as required under the WRSA (Wild and Scenic Rivers Act)."
"Our legal advice says there is a piece of Footnote Five we have to pay attention to," Morse said last week.
How to learn more and submit a comment
Public comments will be accepted through April 18 regarding the preferred alternative. Those who have submitted public comments in years past should resubmit if still applicable, because former public comments were only used for previous scoping efforts.
The Merced River Plan in its entirety, along with summary guides, and a list of other upcoming meetings, is available online at: http://www.nps.gov/yose/parkmgmt/mrp.htm
Public comments can be submitted online through the park's Planning, Environment, and Public Comment website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/mrp_deis, by email through http://www.nps.gov/yose/parkmgmt/mrp_comment.htm, by fax at (209) 379-1294, or by mailing letters to Superintendent, Attn: Merced River Plan, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite, CA 95389.
The public comment period for the Tuolumne River Plan ended March 18. The public can also comment on a new plan regarding the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias near Yosemite's south entrance through May 7. The plan is available online at nps.gov/yose/parkmgmt/mgrove.htm.