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Updated: Strong Positions Developing As Yosemite National Park Officials Again Attack Merced River Plan

El Capitan, copyright QT Luong

A group that represents climbers is worried a redrafted Merced River Plan could limit their access to climbing routes in the Yosemite Valley. Photo of El Capitan by QT Luong, , used with permission.

Climbers are expressing concern over how a renewed effort to craft a plan that controls development along the Merced River in the Yosemite Valley could impact their access to certain routes. But while the climbers are worried largely about their access and camping opportunities in the iconic valley, others are urging Yosemite National Park officials not to turn the valley into a "Popcorn Playground."

In a backdrop to this back and forth over the future of Yosemite Valley, park officials just released a series of documents that formally settled a decade of litigation over development in the valley.

It was late September when the National Park Service and the Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government settled their differences over the Merced River Plan and agreed to stop sending their lawyers to court. The gist of the litigation -- which claimed the Park Service was allowing inappropriate development to intrude upon the wild and scenic river corridor-- began shortly after Yosemite officials completed their first Merced Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management plan in August 2000.

The settlement calls for Yosemite officials to start anew on developing a Merced River Plan. A key aspect of that new plan, however, will be to identify a user capacity for the Yosemite Valley. While no number has yet been placed on exactly how many visitors the valley can handle on a regular basis, in the end that determination could result in a reduced human footprint on the valley.

The Access Fund -- a national advocacy group that works to keep U.S. climbing areas open and conserves the climbing environment, and which sided with the Park Service in the legal battle with the Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government -- is worried that how Yosemite officials approach a user capacity in the valley could impact some climbing access areas.

At issue is access to iconic climbs including those found on The Rostrum, Cookie Cliff, and Middle Cathedral Rock (everything ¼ mile on either side of the river). This plan will also affect all travel through the management area to locations just outside the river corridor, which brings into play all climbing in Yosemite Valley including El Capitan and even Half Dome. Another consequence of this litigation is the increased likelihood that camping will become even more scarce while the number of lodging units remains largely unchanged.

In a suggested letter to park officials, the Access Fund says climbing in the valley should be identified as "one of the Merced River’s outstanding remarkable values." As such, the group argues that,"(T)he Wild and Scenic River Act provides for the preservation of 'outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values.' Climbing in the Merced River planning area fits the “recreational” category for an outstanding remarkable value and should be protected and enhanced as such."

Furthermore, the letter states:

Yosemite National Park should consider the unique characteristics of climbing, and develop management policies in the MRP that enhance the climbing experience while protecting current use levels and environmental conditions. To protect and enhance Yosemite climbing, the MRP should address:

• Transportation into the Park.
• Increased camping opportunities, with more primitive sites.
• Parking spaces at traditional climbing access trailhead locations.
• Intra-Park transportation with bus stops placed at major climbing access trailheads.
• Maintained climbing access trails, staging areas and descent trails.
• Ability to stay in the Valley for extended periods. The climbing in Yosemite is among the most difficult in the World and takes weeks to master even for expert climbers.
• Amenities such as groceries and showers and the climbing equipment shop.
• Interpretive and educational facilities for and about climbing, including a climbing museum.
• NPS support facilities and services, including Search and Rescue and the Climbing Ranger program.

Critical to maintaining the outstandingly remarkable values of the climbing experience in Yosemite Valley and Merced River Gorge are the following qualities:

• A healthy and protected natural environment.
• Reduced development in Yosemite Valley.
• Primitive camping opportunities.
• Effective transportation to and from climbing access trails.
• Maintained climbing access trails.
• A quiet soundscape consistent with the Valley’s wilderness designation, NPS regulations and the California Vehicle Code.

Unlike other recreational activities, climbing is a widely dispersed activity taking place in a vertical landscape with thousands of possible routes and destinations. Other uses, by comparison, are limited to far fewer established trails, picnic sites, and boating locations. Accordingly, Yosemite planners should take into account the unique characteristics of climbing and not unnecessarily affect Yosemite’s climbing access in the MRP.

The Merced River Plan Must Allow for Access to Areas Outside of the Planning Area Boundary

The Merced River Plan and any user capacity model adopted by the NPS must allow climbers to access areas outside the Merced River Plan boundary. Many approach trails used to access climbing walls (such as El Capitan and Half Dome) pass through the MRP planning area. Yosemite’s user capacity model should not unreasonably restrict access to outstandingly remarkable recreational values within the planning corridor. Importantly, YNP should also not place unreasonable restrictions on legitimate activities located just outside of the Merced River Plan boundaries but which require access through the planning area. No other activity has the same dynamic as climbing whereby passage through the planning area at many dispersed locations is necessary, and it is critically important that YNP recognize this circumstance and manage for reasonable use limits at least consistent with existing low-impact climbing use levels.

In clarifying that letter Monday afternoon, Jason Keith, the Access Fund's policy director, stressed that his organization's desires would not lead to a greater impact on the valley floor. For instance, more bus routes could use existing stops and help reduce the number of vehicles in the valley, he said.

As for camping, Mr. Keith said that, "We’d like to see the NPS follow their own management policies which 'promote enjoyment through a direct association with, interaction with, or relation to park resources.' NPS 8.2 Visitor Use. So, in our perfect world, the park would decommission those campsites that least conform with this policy. Fewer lodges and RV sites, more walk-in sites, smaller overall footprint."

Outside of a small building for a climbing museum, something that Mr. Keith said was initially proposed during a look at remodeling Camp 4, the climber's camp, his organization is opposed to any more buildings in the Yosemite Valley. "Sure, a few of the existing services are desirable to many climbers, but we don’t need or want more stores, just some of the existing services," he said. "The park could eliminate 75 percent of the infrastructure in the valley and climbers would have what they want. But no new infrastructure."

Meanwhile, a group that works to "preserve and protect opportunities for low impact recreational activities on public lands" dispatched a letter Monday to Yosemite's acting superintendent, Dave Uberuaga, urging that as park managers move forward with redrafting the Merced River Plan that they "ask themselves whether any action they are considering will have the effect of further commercializing, privatizing, motorizing or Disneyfying Yosemite National Park. If any such action facilitates any of those outcomes, we ask that the NPS rejects that proposed action and instead chooses an action which protects and preserves the park for less base purposes."

The group, Wild Wilderness, a non-profit based in Bend, Oregon, added in its letter (attached below) that, "It is our opinion that the decision-makers for Yosemite National Park have been amongst the worst offenders and, if left to their own devices would further transform Yosemite, a prime example of "America's Best Idea," into a mere Popcorn Playground", to use a favorite expression of our national's foremost living National Parks champion, Michael Frome."


I'm curious what they mean by "wilderness designation". As far as I can tell, Yosemite Valley doesn't carry a wilderness designation. It has front-country campgrounds, extensive buildings, commercial businesses, power/water/sewer infrastructure, roads, etc that clearly aren't compatible with an official wilderness designation.

It's about time "user capacity" is considered for Yosemite Valley. Wilderness Permits have been in use for many years to preserve many areas of the park and prevent overuse. If there's any place in Yosemite that needs more protection and limitations it's "The Valley".

I am in total support for the establishment of "user capacities" for Yosemite Valley. Reduced traffic and crowding will definitely enhance the visitor experience and protect resources.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Yosemite valley is a large city not a wilderness. The situation is completely out of control. The level of front country develolpement is wildly out of alignment with the purpose of the national park service. A realistic user capacity is less then 10% of the current visitaion.

The biggest problem is that glutonous city-like front country crowds actually block legitimate back country users from getting to the back country. You sometimes cannot get to a trailhead to hike 10 miles in and be in the wilderness because the roads are choked with thousands of chattering city-fools who are only there because they have acces to food service and flush toilets.

The system needs to be completely reversed to accomodate the deepest back country users first, the shallow back country users second and front country users last. The answer is to eliminate nearly 100% of all services. Take out all food service, all bathrooms, and all sales of any kind beyond the entrance gate.

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