Ruling puts Yosemite construction in question

FRESNO -- An appeals court ruled Thursday that Yosemite National Park can't continue with more than $100 million in planned construction projects because the development threatens the fragile ecosystem of Yosemite Valley.

Environmental groups sued the federal government in 2000, claiming the National Park Service's plans would jeopardize the federally protected Merced River, which courses alongside the valley's cherished granite walls and glimmering waterfalls.

Last year, a U.S. District Court judge sided with the conservationists and temporarily barred crews from moving campgrounds, rerouting a key access road and upgrading hotel rooms on the valley floor.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Thursday means the park service must halt those repairs and others until September 2009, when the agency is slated to produce a new plan to manage and protect the river.

Yosemite officials, still reeling from the decision, said they feared it could push the park service to limit the number of people allowed into Yosemite each day in order to safeguard its natural resources.

"The implications here for Yosemite and all national parks are huge," said park spokesman Scott Gediman. "Any further restrictions on visitors or further things we need to do because of this could potentially be detrimental to the visitors' experience, and detrimental to running the park."

Neither of the two small conservation groups that filed suit returned calls seeking comment Thursday.

Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government have long argued that the government's plan to manage the California black oaks, flowering meadows and delicate vegetation growing along the riverbanks was inadequate.

Three federal judges agreed, and said the park service had broken federal law "by not requiring a response to environmental degradation until it already occurs," Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote.