Conservative lawmakers used harsh rhetoric Tuesday to denounce a Yosemite National Park plan that they say would exclude park visitors.
In a House of Representatives hearing dominated by critics of the plan, the Republican congressman who represents the park warned that it would be harder to buy ice cream, get groceries or find a swimming pool in Yosemite Valley under a plan he associated with the "most radical and nihilistic fringe of the environmental left."
Along with others, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, wants the park service to backpedal on proposals to remove some of the valley's visitor amenities.
"The park service insists the law compels these radical changes, and yet the law does no such thing," McClintock said, adding later that "the local community sentiment seems to be very negative toward that plan."
Under what's called the Merced River Plan, the National Park Service spells out how to preserve the waterway as it flows through Yosemite, including the heavily visited 7-mile-long, 1-mile-wide Yosemite Valley. The $235 million undertaking would restore green areas, remove traffic, create additional trails and in general reduce congestion.
But in the 100-minute hearing Tuesday of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, there were pronounced feelings from all sides, and every indication that the controversy could keep percolating for a long time.
"The great thing about Yosemite," park service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said, "is there are very strong opinions about everything."
The park service is entangled in its third effort to write a Merced River Plan, and it's under a court order to complete its work by July 31. Park service officials hope that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will grant an extension until the end of the year, so the agency can fully analyze some 30,000 public comments.
Jarvis said that about 20,000 of the comments were generally supportive of the proposed plan. McClintock, on the other hand, said that about 80 percent of some 25,000 participants in a recent telephone town hall meeting, convened by robocalls from his congressional office to constituents, expressed opposition.
Parking, camping spots
The park service's draft plan, released in January, encompassed 81 miles of the Merced River that flow through Yosemite and are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. A lot would remain roughly the same. The 2,337 Yosemite Valley day-use parking spaces, for instance, would increase to 2,448. Valley camping sites would increase to 726 from 565, which is still less than was available before a 1997 Merced River flood.
Most of the public attention, though, has focused on the proposal to remove two bicycle rental centers, two swimming pools, a snack bar, an ice rink and several other facilities.
McClintock termed the plan "exclusionary and elitist," and asked, if facilities are removed from Yosemite Valley, "where does a dad go to get ice cream for a kid on a hot summer's day?"
Jarvis sought to reassure skeptics that recreational opportunities would be available even if some infrastructure were removed, but he was fighting against the tide Tuesday.
One witness joined Jarvis to speak in support of the plan. The Republican-controlled panel summoned three witnesses opposed to the plan; two of them, author Peter T. Hoss and Mariposa resident Wendy Brown, are associated with a group called Yosemite for Everyone.
"We are regular folks who believe in a common-sense approach to preservation," Brown said, adding that "none of the activities slated for removal degrade the river in any way."
McClintock and the panel's chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, tag-teamed in voicing skepticism or outright opposition to the park plan, while Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno offered a more sympathetic ear. "We're not going to make everybody happy," Costa said.
Costa is the sponsor of a bill that would expand Yosemite park boundaries by about 1,600 acres. McClintock hasn't taken a public position on the bill, but he visited the affected area for the first time several weeks ago.