Editor's note: The following is a portion of a letter sent to Yosemite National Park superintendent Don Neubaucher, by Max Rodriguez, chairman of the Madera County Board of Supervisors regarding the Merced River Management Plan.
Madera County greatly appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Merced Wild and Scenic River Draft Comprehensive Management Plan (MRP). As you know, the Eastern Madera County portion of our county is largely composed of southern gateway communities that directly benefit from tourists visiting the park. Accordingly, we consider our county a park partner who is directly impacted by park policy, particularly policy regarding recreational opportunities.
Our board certainly understands the difficult task the National Park Service faces in balancing protection of the river with providing public recreation. We also understand that the Park Service must adhere to a court settlement that viewed commercial activities as unnecessary or inappropriate in the Merced River area.
However, in the often referenced "footnote five," the Park Service is asked to make a "conscious choice" with regard to which commercial activities should be allowed. Our board believes that the choice should favor the general public instead of those few represented in the litigation and advice from your legal counsel. Fear of further legal action should not supersede what is best for the visitor experience and our tourism economy.
Under the Preferred Alternative 5 in the plan, the Park Service attempts to add more campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. Although our board appreciates this effort, we strongly encourage the Park Service to make available at least the number of sites that existed prior to the flood of 1997. We believe that this can be done without encroaching on the river's edge. Camping is the low-cost, traditional family way to over-night in Yosemite Valley and has been enjoyed for many generations.
Additionally, the preferred alternative calls for an increase in parking spaces. Since adequate parking is essential to preventing traffic congestion in the park, our board is grateful to see the increase. However, we encourage more parking be restored than is indicated in Alternative 5 to adequately provide for visitor needs and to help address traffic congestion. Increases in campgrounds will certainly provide more parking.
According to NPS statistics, the were approximately 500,000 fewer overnight stays in Yosemite in 2011 than in 1996 when the park previously recorded four million annual visitors. This is due to the many lodging/camping units not restored after the 1997 flood and correlates to a large increase in day-use traffic coming from the gateway areas, thus increasing the probability of congestion.
At least 3,500 day-use parking spaces should be maintained in the Valley with further increases where environmentally compatible. Adding additional camping/parking will allow for increased user capacity and may prevent a movement to limit visitation by initiating a day-use reservation system.
Providing visitors with recreational opportunities is critical to better experiences for the guests of Yosemite Park. We believe that visitors are guests and park management should be cognizant of the needs of these guests.
To deprive guests of the ability to have activities that promote exercise, that enable the disabled, elderly or young to access scenic areas of the Valley, and that provide river experiences for all, is unacceptable.
According to Volume One, Chapter 7 of the MRP, none of the following "affect river values," nor require "mitigation" to address local effects: Curry Village raft rental, Curry Village Ice Rink, commercial horseback day rides in Yosemite Valley, Curry Village Bike Rental, Ahwahnee swimming pool, Yosemite Lodge pool and snack stand, Yosemite Lodge bike stand.
These recreational opportunities are traditional, historic and family-based activities that contribute greatly to the Yosemite experience. Our board adamantly opposes the elimination of any of these elements of the plan. We believe that no harm is done to the Merced River by continuing these uses, nor are their elimination required by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
It would be a travesty for the Park Service to remove the Curry Village Ice Rink. Similarly, horseback riding offers Yosemite visitors a unique opportunity to see many of the sites not available to those unable to hike to locations in the Valley. Riding bicycles in Yosemite Valley is also an experience unequaled anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the same can be said for commercial raft rentals. A survey conducted by Confluence Research and Consulting in July 2012 clearly indicated that the public, 86% of those surveyed, do not want to see raft rentals eliminated. The Board, therefore, opposes the removal of commercial bike and raft rentals.
We believe that the Merced River Plan extends beyond the historic intent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and National Park values.
The Act does not require removing any recreation activity or infrastructure that existed prior to the 1987 designation in support of these activities. To restrict recreational activity and remove infrastructure will affect visitor experience and ultimately impair our tourism economy.
It is our hope that Yosemite Park management will consider our comments and formulate a plan that reflects what is best for the public, our county and our gateway communities.