Upper Merced River Watershed Council

 

 The Merced River Plan

The National Park Service (NPS) has been tasked with achieving the proper balance between providing maximum public access to Yosemite National Park and assuring that those visitors can fully appreciate the scenic wonders of the Park, while at the same time protecting the Park from the damage that tourism can bring to a fragile natural environment. Achieving this balance is especially critical in Yosemite Valley that currently has four to five million visitors every year.

The NPS has therefore put forward several proposed management plans to address this need for balance. In 1980 the NPS approved and published the Yosemite General Management Plan that contained the following sentences:

“The ultimate goal of the National Park Service is to remove all private vehicles from Yosemite Valley. The Valley must be freed from the noise, the smell, the glare, and the environmental degradation caused by thousands of vehicles.”

 

The idea, of course, was that buses and/or trams would carry visitors into and around Yosemite Valley.

A similar concept was considered in the 1990 Yosemite Valley Plan, that also considered the requirements imposed when the 81 miles of Merced River in the Park was designated as Wild and Scenic by then President Reagan. As with the General Management Plan, the public reaction to banning private vehicles in the Park was swift and negative. People wanted the freedom to travel in the Park at their own pace and/or camp near their private vehicle, and there was also local, and very vocal, resistance to public transportation systems in general. The Yosemite Valley Plan was Dead on Arrival.

Lawsuit by Local Environmental Groups

The NPS continued their planning process for Yosemite Valley, but in 1999 two local environmental groups, Friends of Yosemite Valley (FoYV in Oakhurst) and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government (MERG), both now defunct, filed a lawsuit as they saw that NPS had initiated a series of development projects without appropriate National Environmental Policy Act and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act procedures in place. The lawsuit was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002 by MERG and FoYV. In 2003, and again in 2006, the 9th Circuit Court found in favor of MERG/FoYV.

In 2009 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of MERG and FoYV after ten years of litigation, and the two groups agreed as part of the Settlement Agreement to participate in settlement negotiations with the National Park Service to create what would become the Merced River Plan (MRP).

 

The crux of the Settlement Agreement was that the NPS was required to examine all of the activities that were occurring in the river corridor and make a conscious choice of which should continue, with some rational or analysis of how these activities affected the Merced Wild and Scenic River.

Another key point of the agreement was that the NPS would determine the appropriate user capacity or number of visitors that could be allowed in a given area without degradation of the river's Wild and Scenic Values. These considerations were documented in the very comprehensive Merced River Plan pictured above.

However, as will be seen below, just asking these questions led many to assume that examining user capacity would mean reducing Park visitation, when it turned out, in fact, that the opposite was true.

Trying to make Yosemite the Road Less Traveled?

One of the things that made the Merced River planning process and settlement negotiations difficult was the negative publicity the Plan received because of the perception that the Plan would restrict or reduce public access to the Park and therefore negatively affect local economies and people's right to visit their National Park.

 

Besides articles and letters in the local and California papers, the Merced River Plan made the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams with a segment titled: Yosemite National Park Looks to Reduce Visitor Traffic in which Congressman Tom McClintock was interviewed. Brian Williams started the segment with: "We’re back as promised with a controversial idea for one of this nation’s great treasures and top destination every time of year at around this time of year (sic), the National Parks (sic) Service wants to make Yosemite a road less traveled, reducing congestion and closing some popular concessions and high traffic areas."

Again, as we will see below, all the negative publicity about reducing visitation and restricting access to Yosemite was simply not correct, nor necessarily the intent of the Plan.

Public Involvement in the Settlement Agreement

As part of this process the NPS conducted more than 60 public meetings in the Park and across the state seeking public input and took public comments in writing on the then-draft Merced River Plan. "We spent thousands of hours reading and responding to comments to make sure we understood everyone's concerns. The preferred alternative was modified to accommodate many of the changes requested during the public review," Kathleen Morse, Yosemite Chief of Planning, said in an official statement. "This final plan integrates the ideas of a passionate public with proven stewardship practices and the best available science to create a powerful vision for the future of the Merced River and Yosemite Valley."

The Record of Decision

In 2014 the final Record of Decision was published by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, codifying the Merced River Plan (MRP) as the management plan for Yosemite Valley and the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. As George Whitmore (one of the first three people to climb El Capitan and a frequent participant in the MRP Settlement meetings) said in a public meeting when the final plan was described, “Well it seems that no one is happy, so it must be a good plan”. It turns out that it was a good plan despite much of the negative press at the time.

Visitation to Yosemite National Park has increased as a result of the changes made in the Merced River Plan, and the Wild and Scenic Values that make the Merced River unique have largely been protected.

 

 

Highlights of the Merced River Plan 

• 40% increase in campground space

• 8% increase in day-use parking

• 5% more lodging

• More efficient parking and traffic flow

• Restoration of roughly 200 acres of meadow and riparian areas

• Ice skating, biking and rafting will still be allowed on the River, although the Curry Ice Rink and the rafting concessions will move back from the river corridor

For a more detailed list of MRP goals in the language of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, click here.

User Capacity and Traffic Flow in the Park – Yosemite, the Road More Traveled

Since 1985, on the busiest weekends, the Park would often have so many visitors that gridlock ensued. When gridlock happened, the NPS had no choice but to turn people back from entering Yosemite Valley by directing them out of the Valley via the El Cap crossover. This was not because of Wild and Scenic river status, or the Merced River Plan, neither of which hadn't happened yet, but simply that the roads and parking areas in the Park could not hold more cars. Cars, parking and the transportation system were the problem, not necessarily the number of people, hence early attempts to limit or eliminate private vehicles. It is also true that relative to 20 years earlier, parking spaces had been reduced due to safety concerns over prior parking areas that were in rock fall zones, a necessary reduction from a public safety point of view.

In the last few years, however, the Park has added 450 new spaces for a total now of 6,500 parking spaces in Yosemite Valley.

The other major problem with the Valley prior to implementation of the MRP was vehicle pedestrian conflicts and poor traffic-flow patterns in general. There was a misaligned 4-way stop intersection near the visitors’ center that really slowed traffic down as only one car at a time could get through. And the parking lot for that area (the former Camp 6) was on the other side of the road from the Village Store, and people walking across the road to get to the village made for additional congestion due to pedestrian/vehicle conflicts.

Part of the MRP was a redesign of the whole visitor experience on the approached to Yosemite Village. The misaligned 4-way stop intersection was replaced with a roundabout, and the parking area is now on the same side of the entrance road as the Village.

As a result of this and other improvements in traffic patterns and parking areas, the user capacity of the Park has actually increased. Before the MRP, a big year in Yosemite would be 4 million visitors. Since the MRP, Yosemite has had 5 million visitors in a year.

At a recent YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transport Systems) meeting, Yosemite Director of Planning Kathleen Morse, remarked, “Back when we were working on the MRP, 6,000 cars a day would cause total gridlock. Now that we have implemented some of the changes we included in the MRP, we are now able to handle 8,000 cars a day”. So much for the MRP restricting visitor access to our National Park.

Another significant pedestrian vehicle conflict area is at Yosemite Falls where again visitors have to cross the road to get from the parking area to the trails to the lower falls. While the need to relieve that conflict is part of the MRP, the details on how to implement that fix while respecting the cultural and natural assets of the area are still in the planning stages. When they are done, another significant cause of pedestrian vehicle conflict and traffic congestion will be eliminated and even more visitors should be able to enjoy the Park.