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Yosemite Valley's Continuing Legal Saga


    Little did I know yesterday when I planned to post the Santa Barbara Independent's story on the Yosemite Valley saga that news on that very topic would arrive today.
    That news, of course, is that seven groups ranging from the National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society to the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club have filed a "friend of the court" brief backing the National Park Service on the question of whether Yosemite's Merced River Plan is flawed.
     A U.S. District Court judge believes so. The Park Service disagrees, though, and later this fall the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to render its opinion on the matter.
    While the judge agreed with the Friends of Yosemite Valley that Yosemite's approach to managing the Yosemite Valley violated both the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, the groups backing the Park Service are focusing on one primary issue: whether the Park Service must quantify a human "carrying capacity" for the scenic valley through which the Merced River winds.

    If you drive into the Yosemite Valley on a summer day, you'd very likely agree that there should be a limit on its human capacity. The valley floor, just seven miles long by one mile wide, is a sea of humanity. There are visitors floating in tubes down the Merced River, climbers scaling cliffs, cyclists and joggers looping the valley, sightseers on trams, and hardly a place to park.
    At the NPCA, Ron Sundergill says the Park Service, through its "Visitor Experience and Resource Protection" plan, adequately and professionally can manage the valley without a specific number being placed on its capacity.
    "That's the method used throughout the park system and it's a tried and true method," Mr. Sundergill, NPCA's Pacific regional director, told me. "The district court seems to have rejected use of VERP. That's not a good thing for Yosemite and for the park system in general. We don't want it to be a precedent-setting ruling that would somehow invalidate the Park Service methods for managing resources in the park system."
    Mr. Sundergill also said NPCA believes the Park Service has met its obligations under the Wild and Scenic River Act.
    Over at Friends of Yosemite, though, there's a very different take on the issue.
    Current plans for 'restoring' Yosemite will greatly harm the park environment, and the result will be a more developed, more urban atmosphere in the valley, the group says in a story posted on its web site and illustrated by a snapshot of Half Dome framed by construction equipment.
    Moreover, new facilities will push average Americans further away through significant price increases. The National Park Service recently announced that the entrance fee for Yosemite is being raised to $25. (Actually, that's just a proposal for now.) Accommodations now range from about $20 per night for a campsite to nearly $1,000 for a suite in the deluxe Ahwahnee Hotel.
    Picnic sites are being eliminated. A 2006 visitor use survey found that families from the nearby Central Valley generally do not visit Yosemite because it is too 'expensive.' Park plans ultimately call for elimination of private vehicle access in favor of urban mass transit.
Now, according to the Park Service and the seven groups on its side, the Merced River Plan that has been in the works would actually reduce lodging options while restoring natural habitat and improving visitor access.
    Beyond that, notes Mr. Sundergill, the Park Service has built-in mechanisms for reducing human traffic in the valley if it causes impacts. Currently, visitation largely is controlled by the finite number of lodging rooms, tent cabins, campsites, and parking spaces, he said.
    "If they begin to notice that the limits they have set are not going to be adequate then they should make a change and put in more stringent limits," he said.
    Of course, a big, big problem with managing the human flow in and out of Yosemite Valley is telling folks who might enter the park via the South Entrance near Wawona, the Tioga Pass Entrance, or the Big Oak Flat Entrance that they can't visit the valley floor, the most-sought destination in the park.
    To control traffic from those access points, checkpoints would have to be built, perhaps at Crane Flat and Chinquapin. And if that were done, how'd you like to be a ranger at one of those stations telling folks to turn around?
    But how long can the current traffic flows be tolerated on the valley floor, which transforms into a not-so-small village every day of the high season? Conversely, if you cap the valley's human capacity and reduce lodging options, doesn't that drive up the cost of those lodgings and so make a visit even more expensive than it's becoming?
    Stay tuned, folks. Unfortunately, there's much, much more to come in this saga before it's resolved.

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