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Op-Ed: Yosemite, The Fate Of Heaven Revisited

Tuesday is the final day to comment on a draft plan for managing the Yosemite Valley in the best interests of the Merced River. But is the park's proposed alternative the best solution? Barbara Moritsch photo of Yosemite Fall.

Editor's note: Barbara Moritsch has very definite ties to Yosemite National Park. She worked for the National Park Service as an ecologist and interpretive naturalist in five western parks, including Yosemite. There she worked in the resources management division working on habitat restoration. Her time there coincided with park efforts to restore the Yosemite Valley following the 1997 floods. She is the author of The Soul of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, and Saving the Valley's Sacred Wild Nature.

When I pulled up to the Arch Rock entrance station on a recent Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t miss the sign that read, “Valley Campgrounds Full.” According to the Internet, all available lodging in Yosemite Valley also was full.

As always, though, the Valley was splendid. Meadows showed off their fresh emerald grasses, mallards floated in circles on the river and quacked repeatedly to locate their mates, and mergansers quietly surveyed their domain, perched on emergent driftwood. The morning sun warmed the dry air as soon as it crested the eastern ridge, and the waterfalls, Merced River, Tenaya and Yosemite creeks, and all the myriad ephemeral tributaries were filled with the glorious white water of life.

The Valley was crowded on Friday, but not overwhelmingly so. But, on Saturday morning, the situation changed. At about 8:30 a.m., cars packed with day visitors began to roll in and fill up all available parking spaces. Starting at 9 a.m. huge shiny buses filled to capacity arrived about every half hour at Yosemite Lodge. The buses disgorged wave after wave of tourists, who then made their way across Northside Drive and up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall.

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Traffic control in the Yosemite Valley. Barbara Moritsch photo.

Tour guides led the marchers, waving uniquely colored flags to and fro over their heads to make sure they did not lose any members of their flock.

At about 3 p.m. the day use exodus began as people started to journey home. Traffic quickly backed up. Long lines of cars inched their way from the Village and Camp 6 parking lot past Cook’s Meadow and the Yosemite Falls trailhead. A visitor tossed a handful of chips to a coyote from the driver’s seat of her car. Litter lined the pathways of the Lower Yosemite Fall trail network.

Ah, yes, all the signs of summer in Yosemite Valley. But, it wasn’t summer. It was April. Ironically, it also was the day the National Park Service chose to celebrate Earth Day in Yosemite. Sunday was very busy, too. That afternoon, though, the traffic jam was alleviated by an NPS Traffic Management employee who used all the tricks of a London bobby at the Yosemite Falls area crosswalk to keep traffic moving and pedestrians safe.

When we checked out of the Lodge on Monday, my mom was surprised to see we’d been charged an equal rate (a painful $250/night) for all four nights. Usually, she told me, when they came in April (which they’ve done for many years) they paid less for Sunday through Thursday nights, with a higher rate for Friday and Saturday nights. When she asked the registration desk worker about this, she was told that during the “high season” rates were the same every day of the week. And that this year, the high season started on March 9th, and would likely run through the end of October.

According to the Sierra Sun Times (April 20, 2013), the total number of recreation visits to Yosemite National Park for March, 2013 was up 21 percent compared to March of 2012. Non-recreational visits were up more than 14 percent, and the number of buses also was up more than 14 percent. If April 20th was any indicator, April is likely to reflect similar, if not greater, increases.

All of this information that indicates an ever-increasing period of peak visitation in Yosemite is cause for great concern to those who enjoy relatively quiet, contemplative visit to the Valley in the “off season,” and to anyone who cares about the state of the Valley’s natural resources in any season.

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Mid-April looked a lot like mid-summer in Yosemite Valley. Barbara Moritsch photo.

The recent visitation data become even more worrisome when one considers the Merced Wild and Scenic River Draft Comprehensive Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. The Preferred Alternative in the plan allows for 19,900 people per day in Yosemite Valley. This is equivalent to a very busy summer holiday weekend day right now.

What this means is, under this plan, every single day in Yosemite Valley could be just like a very busy summer holiday weekend day. The only things that would stem this tide of visitation are major floods, large rockslides, or the occasional big snowstorm.

Is this in any way acceptable? No. We should not have to rely on natural disasters to save Yosemite Valley. The proposed Merced River plan will not preserve and protect the Merced River or Yosemite Valley. The plan is a sham and a disgrace, reflecting the extremely powerful influence of Yosemite’s concessioner—Delaware North Companies, as well as gateway business owners operating near the park, tour operators, and the politicians who represent these interests. More visitors equal more money—it is that simple. (Note that my criticism of the plan does not in any way extend to the people who prepared the plan. In fact, I am quite sure many of them share my opinion of the draft.)

In 1989, Robert Redford and Jon Else produced a film about Yosemite called The Fate of Heaven to explore whether or not this very special place could be protected from a public that threatened to “love it to death.” In 1989, total visitation for Yosemite was just over 3.3 million. Visitation in 2012 was over 4 million. Without the application and enforcement of limits well below those proposed in the draft river plan, this number will continue to climb.

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The beauty of water in Yosemite. Barbara Moritsch photo.

Nature will continue to be degraded, and the Valley visitor will encounter a year-round amusement park.

Is this what you want for and from this precious Valley? If your answer is “no," please take a moment to submit comments to oppose implementation of the draft Merced River plan, and to support greater protection of nature in Yosemite Valley. Time is short; the comment period closes on April 30th.

You can find the website for comments here.  Yosemite Valley thanks you.

"If you don’t believe in something and keep pushing on it, what is your life worth? If you just sit there and say, ‘What the hell, what does it matter? What does one vote matter?’ I don’t believe that’s a life worth living." -- Robert Redford



Thank you very much for this, Barbara. I just submitted my comment in opposition on the website.

Another excellent op-ed by Barbara Moritsch. Thank you Traveler. As I have worked the last 4 years as an emergency hire "Fire Information and Education Specialist" in Yosemite, I can verify Barbara's comments on the day use traffic congestion issue. in fact, I do think it is the the driving issue of this planing effort. Alternative 5 does address the issue indirectly, but Barbara is correct in stating the day use number selected is higher than the GMP number of 1980. I do think there is more to be gained by supporting the NPS at this point, but that is something each person must decide for themselves. Thank you again Traveler for another thought provoking op-ed on National Park issues.

Thanks Barbara for a great piece about the continued deterioration of leadership in the National Park Service. I will definately submit my comments before the deadline to get my two cents in.

From my 35 year NPS perspective I don't see how any senior manager with an ounce of green blood running through his/her veins could seriously release and support a plan like this for one of the nations crown jewel parks. Even if his intention was to use the anticipated intense public backlash as a shield against the political commercial pressures, doing it this way shows to the world a general lack of spine and environmental leadership by the superintendent and the NPS. Unfortunately, this approach is all to common these days.

At Point Reyes, Neubacher lead the charge to try and remove a commercial activity (and public use) in that urban park that was seen as interferring with an NPS wilderness proposal. Many saw this as a noble goal cause. At Yosemite, now, he seems to be taking a very troubling opposite approach. It just makes no sense to me that he/NPS, on the one hand, is planning for a super crowded yosemite valley, and then on the other, proposing the elimination of one of the key commercial concessions (river rafting) that would allow these visitors to actually experience one of the premier valley resources.

The problem with Yosemite is the same problem all national parks that are close to too many population centers have (Great Smokies, I'm looking at you, just for starters). But it's exacerbated at Yosemite for two main reasons -- the number of day trip distance cities, and the tiny size of the Valley. I really do wonder if there *is* a solution for the Valley because of these two reasons. How do you limit the number of people visiting the Valley without, well, keeping people out?

Which is why I'm really grateful that Yellowstone is as large as it is and as far from big cities as it is.

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