YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Far humbler corners of America have faced a similar dilemma: How much human activity should be allowed in a natural setting that is also promoted as a tourist destination?
The National Park Service is proposing a significant makeover of Yosemite that would change the way future generations of visitors experience the park, especially the 7-mile-long Yosemite Valley at its heart. The park service's plan would restore more than 200 acres of meadows, reorganize transportation and reduce traffic congestion. To shrink the human presence along the Merced River, park officials are proposing closing nearby rental facilities for bicycling, horseback riding and rafting, as well as removing swimming pools, an ice rink and a stone bridge.
As with most things related to one of the nation's most beloved national parks, the plan has ignited fierce debate among environmentalists, campers, and officials in California and Washington.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, whose district includes Yosemite, said at a recent House hearing that the idea of removing commercial facilities was meant to satisfy "the most radical and nihilistic fringe of the environmental left." But some environmentalists said the plan did not go far enough in protecting Yosemite Valley and the Merced River, which flows through 81 miles of the park.
Even among tourists on a recent weekday, there was little consensus regarding a park that is many things to its 4 million annual visitors.
At the bicycle rental stand that could be closed, Fred Chytraus, who was picking up some bicycles with his family, said he wanted the facility to remain open. It was more convenient for his family, he said, than bringing their bicycles or renting from a shop outside the park, alternatives that the park serv- ice is recommending. At the same time, he said that reducing traffic congestion in Yosemite Valley should be a priority.
"There's just too many people here," said Chytraus, a resident of Carlsbad. "It's a beautiful place, but we have to be conscious of our footsteps. But the bikes have no emissions. I have more problems with the number of cars coming in. If they bused people in and added biking, that would be the way to go."
The park service early this year released the 2,500-page plan, called the Merced River Plan, in response to a long-running lawsuit charging that it was failing to preserve the river. The stretch of the Merced inside Yosemite was designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1987 and is protected under federal law.
After the Merced flooded in 1997 and destroyed many facilities, the park service drew up a rebuilding plan in 2000 that would also protect the river. Two environmental groups sued the park serv- ice, and a succession of courts rejected the first plan as well as a revised plan in 2005. After a federal appeals court ruling in 2008, the park service began working on its current, third plan.
The park service was required to produce a final plan by the end of July but was granted a five-month extension Thursday.
Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite, said that the current plan incorporates more scientific analysis and public input than the two previous ones. In the public comment period after the release of the plan in January, he said, the park service has held 60 public meetings and received 30,000 comments, two-thirds of which supported the plan. The final plan, while taking into account the public feedback, must satisfy the 2008 federal appeals court ruling, which pointed specifically to the commercial services near the Merced as contributing to "the level of degradation already experienced in the Merced."
"We want, for the American public, a plan that not only protects the river and provides the access but has to be legally sufficient," Gediman said.
Greg Adair, the leader of Friends of Yosemite Valley, one of the two groups that sued the park service, said there was insufficient scientific analysis underlying the current plan. He said the plan was about the "status quo" and should have done more to decrease commercial services, which also require office and housing for support staff.
The commercial services that the current plan proposes to remove, he said, was "tokenism," adding, "There could have been 30 or 40 such things put on the chopping block."
Adair said that the plaintiffs have retained the option to litigate. "We do think they could probably revise this plan, but significantly, not a tweak or tinkering, to get it right," he said.
The other plaintiff, Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government, sounded more conciliatory. Its leader, John Brady, said the group had "reluctantly endorsed" the park service's plan, though he said he would like to see more restoration of the riverbanks and a significant reduction of the daily maximum capacity of visitors 19,900 that is proposed.
"We feel that more could be done," Brady said, "but we recognize that there are a lot of demands for use on the park."
Over the years, Adair said, the plaintiffs have financed their lawsuits through the sale of T-shirts and donations from individuals, as well as two companies, Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, and Clif Bar, an organic food producer.
At the congressional hearing, the plan drew rebukes from critics of the reduction in commercial services.
Brian Ouzounian, head of the Yosemite Valley Campers Association, said the number of camping sites would be increased under the plan but would remain at less than the numbers that existed before the 1997 flood.
Wendy Brown, a resident of Mariposa and a leader of Yosemite for Everyone, said that removing bicycle rentals and other services would make such activities inaccessible to most visitors.
"We want the amenities and recreational activities that have been there for 150 years to continue," Brown said. Referring to the Merced's designation as a National Wild and Scenic River, she added: "We need to undesignate it and leave that section of the river alone. That would solve a lot of problems."