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Environment & Science

Merced Plan delay a setback for National Park Service planning at Yosemite

Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite National Park.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

The National Park Service now says it hopes to finalize a key planning document for the Merced River - a plan that will shape how visitors experience Yosemite National Park - by the end of the year, rather than this summer. 

The delay comes after a contentious Congressional hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources. 

KPCC reported back in March that the plan drew fire from several quarters; folks were upset about the loss of amenities. Some of the groups I talked to were on yesterday's witness list. 

In a comment letter on the Merced plan, Wendy Brown-Barry, one of the founders of Yosemite for Everyonewrote that none of the alternatives proposed for the Merced River corridor were acceptable

We don’t believe that the WSRA [Wild and Scenic Rivers Act] intended to take away something that was already there if it was not causing degradation. In Chapter 7, in the Facilities and Services chart of the EIS you show that the Curry Village Raft Rental, the Curry Village Ice Rink, the Curry Village stables, the Commercial Horseback Day Rides in Yosemite Valley, the Curry Village Bike Rental, and the Ahwahnee Swimming Pool, do not affect the River Values, and that there is no required action or mitigation measures. So you have no justification for removing them. 

And Brian Ouzounian, one of the founders of Save Yosemite Valley Campgrounds, spoke on behalf of "access for affordable, family-friendly, auto-based drive-in camping." The group wants 872 drive-in campsites (a number that existed before another planning effort in 1980), which would include more riverside campsites. Ouzounian argued that the NPS has no evidence that campgrounds along the river degrade it. 

The hearing also featured a letter from former Democratic congressman Tony Coelho, who commented on the original intent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which offers the protection of a planning process. He wrote: 

The Merced River in Yosemite Valley has been recreational for almost 150 years. Yosemite Valley has never been wilderness...Yosemite Valley should be left as it is under any Plan required by the WSRA, subject only to traditional management by the NPS.

As reported back in March, park managers say the Merced plan would maintain current visitor  levels, with capacity just under 20,000 people a day  - the kind of crowd you might see in July. The number of hotel rooms and campgrounds would shift slightly from what's available now, but not by much. And while concessions would disappear, or move, visitors could still bring their own bikes, rafts, and other equipment now available for rent into the park for recreational use. 

In fact, some groups believe the plan as proposed still permits too many amenities and concessions inside the park, not to mention people. (Those groups weren't invited to testify by a Republican-chaired committee.) These groups have sued over the implementation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act along the Merced River in the past, and they have not ruled out taking legal action again. 

The National Park Service continues to defend the plan. NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis told the House committee that more than two-thirds of the comments supported the outcome.