There are few places better known or more loved than Yosemite National Park. As our third most visited national park with nearly four million annual visitors, countless memories have been made. From its tumbling waterfalls and stately granite cliffs to flower-filled backcountry meadows and pristine wilderness, Yosemite showcases the best of America -- But it does much more than that.
Yosemite tourism creates more than $379 million in local economic benefits that support more than 5,000 in Oakhurst and throughout the surrounding communities.
To ensure that Yosemite maintains its "crown jewel" status over the long-term, park officials face the challenge of welcoming large crowds to Yosemite Valley -- particularly during the summer months -- while providing a high-quality visitor experience and protecting the park's outstanding resources. It is clear that we need to do more to find a balance that secures Yosemite as the region's economic engine for years to come. Thankfully, the park's Merced River planning effort gets us to this place.
Visitors to Yosemite Valley understand that driving around in circles to find parking, sitting in a mile or more of gridlock traffic, or not being able to find a campsite runs contrary to the welcome feeling we expect when entering such a majestic landscape. Observing trampled meadows and poorly-planned development doesn't help the sense of arrival one expects either.
To ensure that the public continues to visit and spend money in our local economies, we need the National Park Service to enhance the visitor experience and that requires making long-overdue improvements.
With its Merced River planning process being held up for more than a decade by litigation, Yosemite has been unable to proceed with crucial changes in infrastructure and management. Fortunately, through tremendous public engagement and a lengthy scientific process, the park released a new version on the plan earlier this year.
The public engagement and comment period for the plan, which included meetings in Oakhurst and other gateway communities to the park, as well as in cities across the state, recently closed. The park will now begin reviewing comments on the various alternatives the draft plan presented, including a preferred alternative proposal (called "alternative 5").
The National Parks Conservation Association supports the proposed preferred alternative of the Merced River Plan because it comprehensively improves the experience for visitors. The proposal maintains access for all visitors, near and far, while decreasing vehicle congestion in the Valley through improved parking areas, increased free public transportation, and conflict-reducing ways to circulate vehicles and pedestrians through the park.
It is essential that our national parks remain affordable and welcome visitors of all ages and economic levels. The proposed preferred alternative addresses this need by proposing a 37% increase in campsites, allowing those on a budget who love the pure sights, smells, and sounds of nature more options to stay overnight. The proposal also restores more than 200 acres of meadow and parkland which, in time, will allow the riverbank to return to a more natural state.
Because Yosemite National Park is beloved by so many who have different opinions about how to best manage the park's iconic natural wonders, it's impossible to completely satisfy everyone. For example, while the proposed preferred alternative retains 99% of summertime and 92% of wintertime recreation opportunities, some believe all commercial recreational services and their associated development footprint should remain in the Valley. But this plan requires compromise from all stakeholders.
We applaud the park for listening to the public by considering a redesigned bike rental facility that has a smaller development footprint, for example. The plan calls for continuing overnight commercial horseback rides that start from the Valley while consolidating day-use rides in the Wawona region. In addition to the commercial, recreational service offerings, Yosemite Valley's trails, pathways, and river will continue to provide access to the public who wish to explore by bringing their bikes, rafts, horses, or hiking boots.
Nearly four million people travel to Yosemite each year to walk among the ancient, massive trees, marvel at its sheer granite walls, and feel the spray of waterfalls on their face. Now that the comment period has ended, the National Park Service faces the next step of taking into consideration the surely thousands of comments from interested citizens like myself, and producing a strong final Merced River Plan, which we will see this summer. This will help Yosemite National Park provide world-class experiences for our generation, our children, and grandchildren to come.
-- Emily Schrepf is the Central Valley program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.