Tuolumne River is focus of protection plan

Out of the limelight, Yosemite National Park officials are drafting a plan to keep development and future crowds from making a mess of the pristine Tuolumne River, the park's "other" major stream.

The Tuolumne has none of the legal problems or public controversy of the better-known Merced River in Yosemite Valley, where millions each year view the iconic panorama of Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.

Since the 1990s, the Merced has been at the center of activist lawsuits. Such legal action has changed National Park Service policy nationally and forced a complete rewrite of the Merced River protection plan.

In this tale of two rivers, the Tuolumne is all but invisible.

The Tuolumne River gets thousands, not millions, of people passing through Tuolumne Meadows, with its lodge, gas station, store, campground, stables, sewage treatment plant and parking problems.

Crowding problems are on a much smaller scale, and the challenge is to keep it that way. That's the expected thrust of a draft Tuolumne protection plan, scheduled to be released this fall for public comment.

"Services are spread out at Tuolumne Meadows," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. "Is there a better way to combine facilities? How should we address the parking around the trailheads?"

Aside from the crowds, the big difference between Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley is elevation. The valley is at 4,000 feet, low enough to keep roads open year-round.

Tuolumne Meadows, at 8,600 feet, is covered with snow and closed from November to May.

The Park Service does not plow the snow during the winter on Tioga Road, the route to Tuolumne Meadows.

In Yosemite Valley, visitors range from international tourists staying in motels to hard-core rock climbers who camp out and climb the sheer face of El Capitan.

Plenty of tourists just drive through Tuolumne Meadows to look at the sights, but it is considered the premier launching point for backpackers and hikers to get into the northern half of Yosemite's alpine backcountry.

Some of the park's largest glaciers at one time filled the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. The alpine landscape features glacially scarred granite domes and spires. Small glaciers remain near the crest at 13,000 feet, slowly melting into sparkling streams that run to the Lyell and Dana forks of the Tuolumne River.

"A lot of this area is above the tree line," said longtime ranger Dick Ewart. "It's known for the wide-open views and expansiveness. Every step, you have a different view."

Park planning officials have been studying the Tuolumne region for the past few years to prepare the draft.

The process could have started more than 20 years ago, when the Tuolumne and the Merced were designated federally protected rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The federal law requires that such rivers have a protection plan written. But Park Service policy at the time required that river protections be included as part of general park planning, not a separate plan.

An activist lawsuit in the late 1990s over the Merced River changed the Park Service policy nationwide. A federal judge ordered a separate Merced plan under Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Now any national park with a river designated for protection under the act must provide a separate plan.

In a different lawsuit, a federal judge rejected the Park Service's first attempt at making a Merced River plan. The judge decided Yosemite needed a specific limit for the number of people who could visit the river.

As a result, Yosemite must produce a new Merced plan by September 2012. But the Tuolumne was not part of the lawsuit, so there is no deadline for its plan.

Sierra Club official George Whitmore said the Park Serv-ice should take advantage of the opportunity to delay the Tuolumne plan until the Merced plan is settled. "My advice always has been to do the Merced first. If they can do that, then the Tuolumne would be pretty straightforward,"he said.