Yosemite river management plans draw fire


Mono Supe Fesko: ‘This is just asinine’


While much of Yosemite National Park lay under its cold winter snow, discussion over its future heated up last week.

Following strident commentary from the Mono County Board of Supervisors dealing with the Tuolumne and Merced Wild and Scenic River Plans, park officials came to Mammoth Saturday morning, Feb. 23, to explain the controversial plans and answer questions.

For Supervisor Larry Johnston, “there should never have been a Wild and Scenic River through Yosemite Valley.”

Yet facts are facts, and the rivers are part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation.

According to Yosemite National Park’s website, decades of damming, development and diversion have taken a toll on rivers within Yosemite and elsewhere.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) requires that designated rivers be managed to protect and enhance the values for which the river was designated, while providing for public recreation and resource uses which do not adversely impact or degrade those values.

The park addressed these issues and is closing in on preferred plans, open to comment until March 18 for the Tuolumne Plan and April 18 for the Merced Plan.

The concern for much of the Eastern Sierra, is how the changes will impact local economies and recreation.

Mike Yochim, project manager for the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River Plan (TRP) said overnight visitor capacities in the park would remain largely unchanged.

“Day users will be limited by the number of parking spots and bus rides,” Yochim said. “When you enter Tuolumne Meadows, every last parking spot will be designated.”

All the informal roadside parking will be eliminated. But the number of parking spots will increase by formalizing and expanding existing parking lots and adding a new one at the proposed new visitor contact station.

Regional transit would also be increased

If day use demand exceeds the parking supply, Yochim said, the park would put advisories up on its website about how to time a visit.

In a separate interview, Dan Lyster, the Mono County director of economic development, said the concern is that any reduced visitation to Yosemite may impact tourism in the Eastern Sierra.

A major sticking point for Mono County is the elimination of horseback day rides. Yochim said the park wants to reduce the conflicts between hikers and pack stock. “We have a lot of complaints about that.”

The plan also dramatically reduces stock grazing in Lyell Canyon.

“They’re not going to let us into Yosemite National Park anymore,” said Dave Dohnel, owner/operator of Frontier Pack Trains in June Lake, in a separate interview.

Dohnel said that reduced grazing limits force them to carry feed, and would make their trips into Lyell Canyon uneconomical.

McGee Creek Pack Station owner Jennifer Roeser wrote “horseback riding and backcountry pack trips are a vital link for families of all ages and ethnicities to connect to their public lands.”

Though the Park says the WSRA was born of “decades of damming, development and diversion,” there is no discussion about removing O’Shaughnessy Dam and restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Kathleen Morse, Yosemite’s division chief for planning, said this is because Congress excluded reservoirs from the WSRA.

“The river corridor that we’re managing,” Morse said of the Merced River,  “is the center of attraction for many visitors,” and the most highly visited area of the park.

Between the river corridor and the rockfall zones, Morse said, there is very little space left for them to work in.

Morse said she has never seen a Wild and Scenic River in such a narrow area.

In Yosemite Valley, the Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan (MRP) would restore habitat, improve traffic congestion, and add 161 campground sites and eight hotel units—all aimed at maintaining the current use of 19,900 visitors per day, according to Lyster.

The plan, however, includes the removal of a laundry list of facilities currently in use in Yosemite Valley, from swimming pools and bike and raft rental stands, to climbing shops and the ice rink.

Several questioned the justification to remove these facilities.

For example, “the Happy Isles snack stand,” Johnston said. “How does that affect the river?”

The primary driver, Morse said, in removing so many facilities in Yosemite Valley is a 2008 court decision which said, “To illustrate the level of degradation already experienced in the Merced … we need look no further than the dozens of facilities and services operating within the river corridor.”

Allen Berrey, an attorney from Bishop who grew up in Yosemite Valley, said the public planning process is compromised “by litigation that elbows its way into the public forum and takes it over.”

Berrey said he is pleased that the plan intends to reduce the automobile traffic in the Valley, but he said he does not understand why the WSRA requires removing the ice rink.

“It was a pretty cool spot on winter nights,” he said.

When asked if the park has considered leaving some facilities and activities for other kids to enjoy, much as Berrey did, Morse said, “it’s hard to tie a child’s life-changing experience to any one activity.”

Morse said the youth program NatureBridge spends weeks in the Park with kids.

“The life-changing thing is really the setting,” she said.

Meanwhile, members of the Mono County Board of Supervisors offered skeptical commentary at its meeting Feb. 19.

 “I understand the desire to restore rivers,” Supervisor Fred Stump said. “But the purpose of a national park is for visitation.

“If we’re going to get to a point where every national park is an Edward Abbey model,” Stump said, “and people can only travel on foot, that will prevent some people from visiting. Yet they’re still paying for the parks through taxes.”

 “A lot of these things are reasons I go there,” said Supervisor Tim Fesko, referencing the removal of the bike and raft rental stands.

“If I can’t use them, then maybe I won’t go there. That’s just asinine.” Fesko said.

“The contradiction in all of this is they want to do all of this yet maintain visitorship,” Stump said.

He said eliminating horseback rides might mean more people will bring horse trailers. “If you want to encourage more traffic congestion, just add trailers to all those vehicles!

“I look at this,” Stump said, “and I’m just awestruck at the giant leap backward.”

Send comments to yose_planning@nps.govor visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov/yose_trpfor the Tuolumne River Plan or http://parkplanning.nps.gov/mrp_deisfor the Merced River Plan.