Coke Hallowell: Favoring the Merced River Plan

August 2, 2013 

As a native resident of the San Joaquin Valley, a founding member and now chairman of the board of directors for the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, my commitment to the incredible natural resources that we have in our back yards grows with each passing year.

When our daughters were young, my husband James and I would always take them to Yosemite National Park for birthday celebrations, where we would picnic along the Merced River. As they grew older, we would bike around Yosemite Valley and enjoy the wondrous views. Now, our children and their own college-aged sons and friends make visits to Yosemite. These experiences hold a timeless place in my memory, and have become ingrained in our family's cultural values.

Upon experiencing Yosemite Valley, John Muir famously and accurately remarked, "It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter."

Yosemite Valley visitors certainly understand that driving in an endless circle to find parking, sitting in gridlock traffic, or observing trampled meadows and cluttered retail stores and development along the breathtaking Merced River are not desired experiences in such a natural temple. Providing exceptional national park experiences for the visitor has unfortunately taken a back seat.

For these reasons, I welcome the National Park Service's Merced River Plan proposal that finds sustainable solutions to the significant challenges currently facing the park. These long-overdue solutions are needed, and Americans are not well served by threats of Congressional intervention on the plan.

It baffles me to hear the complaints expressed by certain elected officials over the plan. Instead of focusing on how the park service is presenting opportunities to alleviate the current, negative visitor experiences and impacts to the Merced River and surrounding corridor, headlines have been made by the proposed change of location of services like an ice skating rink, rental facilities, and even ice cream stands! With the park service's current Merced River Plan — the third presented in over a decade of planning — I believe that a reasonable balance between preserving and protecting nature, while maintaining high-levels of visitor access and a strong recreational experience for visitors of all ages and interests, has been achieved. And it was rightly informed by public input, science, and the law, not politics.

If the park service's proposal of the Merced River Plan is implemented, more visitors will have the opportunity to experience the scents and sounds of nature from their tents, with the proposed increase in camping sites. The joy that my family experienced, riding bikes around Yosemite Valley will continue, with modern-day solutions in the works of implementing mobile bike rental opportunities. The park service is also reviewing plans to continue rafting on the river and smartly redesigning the ice-skating facility from a permanent to seasonal feature. Less time idling in cars and more time being amazed by the park's natural wonders will be achieved through the park service's proposed expanded parking areas, redesigned traffic flow, and hybrid shuttle vehicles. Plans to consolidate retail services and administrative buildings will also help repurpose valuable space for public benefit. And, getting to the heart of protecting the Merced River, which is awarded the highest level of protection as a Wild and Scenic River, the park service calls for restoring over 200 acres of meadow and riparian habitat. All of these enhancements that benefit the visitor will be achieved while still allowing nearly 20,000 people to enter the Valley on any given day.

San Joaquin Valley Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, is also no stranger to the importance of protecting Yosemite and the waterways that flow throughout our communities and surrounding areas. During his time as a state Assemblyman, Costa played an instrumental role in convening the San Joaquin River Parkway Task Force Plan, which became a guiding document of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust's mission.

He recently sponsored legislation to expand the boundary of Yosemite, a move that would restore John Muir's original vision of the park. I hope Costa lends his strong support to the National Park Service in its efforts to successfully implement the Merced River Plan. The public has waited far too long to see Yosemite's luster restored.

Hallowell is a founding member and chairman of the board of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, and member of the National Parks Conservation Association's Regional Council.

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