A well-intentioned plan to preserve the natural beauty of the Merced River may wind up limiting the number of visitors U.S. national parks can have at any one time.
A 1987 federal law designated the river as a "wild and scenic" location that needed to be preserved. To do that today, however, it seems that restrictions could be imposed on the number of visitors allowed into Yosemite and, ultimately, all other national parks.
Under a federal court order, Yosemite National Park officials will have to limit the number of people allowed in park locations at any one time. The ruling is aimed at protecting the Merced River under its "wild and scenic" designation.
Once approved, the plan probably will set a precedent for how all national parks regulate protected lands and waters around the country.
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Public comments on the plan can be made until Dec. 14.
Based on a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009, the Merced River Plan must include specific numbers for how many people can be in areas of the park at one time. This will be the third proposed plan by park officials after more than a decade of legal wrangling, plus $50 million in court costs and other expenditures.
"It's hard because we felt that Merced River plans No. 1 and No. 2 both managed the issues well," said Scott Gediman, spokesman for Yosemite National Park. "The user capacity numbers are not the most practical way, or the way that parks around the country have been managed."
Under the court order, park officials must design a plan to enforce quotas for how many people can simultaneously use the Merced River and surrounding areas. "We'll do our best not to restrict people's movement — encouraging people to walk, use shuttle buses and ride bikes," he said. "We can handle the 4 million visitors. We just can't handle all of the cars."
The idea that using data to regulate use of the park will result in unnecessarily limiting visitors access is a "canard," said Greg Adair, co-founder of the conservation group Friends of Yosemite Valley and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "Human capacity is often bastardized into putting up a gate," he said. "What it really boils down to is how lands are managed. We don't let in 10 times the quantity of people a place can sustain. They need to answer the scientific questions about how much the resource can tolerate."
In its 2009 decision, the 9th Circuit Court agreed with environmental groups that "swimming pools, tennis courts, mountain sports shops, restaurants, cafeterias, bars, snack stands and other food and beverage services, gift shops, general merchandise stores" and other built-up structures weren't in keeping with the river's "unique values."
However, because the "wild and scenic" protections apply to all land a quarter-mile from the river, the Merced River Plan could significantly restrict use in Yosemite Valley, the location of more than 90 percent of the park's traffic. "This particular plan — I don't know what the answer is," said Rick Deutsch, author of a book and blog about Yosemite. "That's why we need people to participate and get involved. And the turnouts at public workshops have been terrible."
The public comment period is set to end on Dec. 14. Comments can be submitted on the National Parks' website at www.nps.gov/yose/parkmgmt/mrp.htm.
A draft environmental impact study will be ready for public comment in the fall of next year. The plan is due to be completed by summer of 2013.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.