Almost everyone who visits Yosemite National Park has fond memories. Some may be tied to spectacular waterfalls thundering with spring snowmelt. Others might be just sitting with a family member, watching deer browsing in one of Yosemite Valley's lush meadows.
Few people have fond memories of jostling crowds or noisy congestion or thick campfire smoke blanketing the valley when inversion layers hold in the smoke. Few people would support crowding so many people into Yosemite Valley that the quality of the visitor experience is diminished for travelers who have come as far away as Australia, Europe, and Japan or as close as Stockton, Modesto and Merced.
Yosemite represents different things to different people, but there is one thing almost everyone agrees on. Yosemite Valley is a natural cathedral that should be treasured and protected for future generations.
Yet in recent years Yosemite Valley has suffered traffic jams that have brought traffic to a stop. At times visitors have sprawled out from parking spots, trailheads and campgrounds in numbers never imagined 20 years ago. As a result, riparian areas along the river have been trampled and denuded. Western pond turtles, foothill yellow-legged frogs and willow flycatchers have disappeared from Yosemite Valley's Merced River corridor. Having 3 million people and a million vehicles a year crowd into Yosemite Valley is one reason for the degraded river corridor.
After decades of delay, the park staff is striving to finally approve a Wild and Scenic River Management Plan for the Merced River, including the portion in Yosemite Valley. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act spells out clearly that all facilities and uses that are unnecessary for protection or enhancement of the river values should be removed or relocated outside of the river corridor. That is the law.
In Yosemite Valley the areas below cliffs are hazardous due to rockfall, so over the years many structures were built right in the river corridor. Campgrounds, lodging, and other facilities damaged by the 1997 flood event lie within the boundaries of the wild and scenic river corridor.
It is not just the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that justifies removing many of those facilities, but also their vulnerable placement in the floodplain. Yet every building or use has some interest group saying: "Don't touch!" So while park planners aim to comply with a very clear law that requires removing unnecessary facilities, there is strong political pressure to keep everything especially facilities profitable to the park's concessionaire.
On top of all the above, the park has a general management plan that directs park managers to aim to remove private vehicles from Yosemite Valley to reduce the noise, glare, crowding and pollution they cause. Past park superintendents openly promised the public to reduce not just cars but also crowding and congestion. Yet due to political pressure, current park leaders are openly defying their own general management plan and are proposing to build more parking spaces and allow more vehicles. They also are proposing to add more campsites, keep high levels of lodging and allow high levels of day visitors so that as many as 19,900 people a day can crowd into Yosemite Valley.
Twice the park has lost in court over challenges to previously approved river plans. Will the park create yet another Merced River Plan that fails to follow the law? At this time, park staff plans to keep the Wawona Golf Course, tennis courts and other facilities that are highly debatable in a national park, let alone in a wild river corridor.
The Preferred Alternative Merced River Plan now proposed by park officials would cost more than $200 million, yet it promotes the same high levels of use that caused so many people in recent years to feel crowded and stressed during summer visits.
Yosemite Valley deserves better.
If the Park Service reduced lodging facilities and crowding in Yosemite Valley, that would actually benefit private businesses outside the park, where visitors will lodge in greater numbers, eat in local restaurants and often take public transit into the park. There are balanced, economically viable solutions that meet the letter of the law and truly protect the values that make Yosemite such a precious place.
This Merced River planning process will be a highly visible test to see if park officials can resist the political pressure to maximize tourism and instead make protecting Yosemite Valley and the river corridor the very highest priority. It isn't about turning people away or preventing visits. It's about managing use so that visitors know they can be assured of having a quality experience in a healthy Yosemite Valley when they do visit.
Buckley is executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, based in Twain Harte.