Yosemite National Park drops plans to ban bike and raft rentals
San Jose, Calif. • In a major reversal, Yosemite National Park officials have dropped controversial plans to ban a wide variety of recreational activities in Yosemite Valley, including ending bike and raft rentals and tearing out swimming pools at the Yosemite Lodge and famed Ahwahnee Hotel.
The decision came after a yearlong battle in which more than 30,000 people commented on the park's plans to curtail recreation as part of a broader effort to restore natural conditions along the valley's Merced River. Many said the proposal went too far and penalized families who enjoy visiting the park an opinion echoed by several members of Congress.
"We really listened to what people had to say," said Kathleen Morse, Yosemite's chief of planning. "We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get it right."
The saga Â which featured 14 years of legal battles highlighted the near-impossible mission of the National Park Service: providing public recreation while preserving spectacular landscapes.
Under the revised Merced River Plan, a 3,000-page document unveiled Friday, the public can continue to rent bicycles and river rafts in Yosemite Valley, although the rental operations will be moved back from the river.
In addition to the swimming pools at the Yosemite Lodge and Ahwahnee being saved, the historic Sugar Pine stone bridge, built in 1928 and located behind the Ahwahnee Hotel, will also not be removed as had been proposed to control erosion. Instead, parks officials will launch an engineering study to determine how to keep the bridge and reduce erosion.
At Curry Village, the ice rink will be removed as planned, but a temporary one will be put up in the parking area during winter months.
In general, environmental groups praised the revised plan, even though many supported some of the earlier actions, including removing the swimming pools.
"This is a great plan for the next 150 years," said Neal Desai, field director for the National Parks Conservation Association in San Francisco. "We supported reducing the clutter and streamlining operations. We're not getting everything that we want. But the Park Service is protecting iconic values and making sure that visitors have access and have a good experience."
The plan's biggest critic last year was Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, whose district includes Yosemite.
"The Park Service is hanging out a 'Tourists Go Home' sign," he said after the earlier plan was released.
On Friday, he said: "Although I remain concerned about some aspects of the plan, my first reaction is one of relief."
The new plan, which will cost $210 million over the next 15 years, also calls for other significant changes at one of America's most beloved national parks.
• Restoring 189 acres of meadows in Yosemite Valley.
• Increasing the number of Yosemite parking spaces by 8 percent, mostly by adding 300 spaces behind Yosemite Lodge and 300 spaces at El Portal, an area 3 miles west of the park entrance on Highway 140.
• Increasing the number of campsites in Yosemite Valley from 466 to 640. Many will be at Upper River and Lower River campgrounds, areas that were closed after a massive 1997 flood. Even with the new sites, however, there will still be significantly fewer campsites than the 872 that existed in the valley before the flood.
• Limiting the number of visitors to no more than 20,100 people a day, a number that in recent years has only been reached only once or twice a year.
The plan keeps earlier proposals to discontinue horse rentals for the public in Yosemite Valley, although horse rentals will continue at Wawona, on the southern edge of the park.
"Most of it sounds great. But it's too bad they are ending the horse rentals in the valley stables," said Peggy DeBuyser, a horse rider who owns a hair salon in nearby Mariposa. "It's a shame they don't just leave things be."
The long-running fight began in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law that designated the Merced River as a "national wild and scenic river," killing a developer's plan to build several hydroelectric dams just west of the park.
After the flood in 1997, the Park Service set out to replace campgrounds, hotel rooms and other amenities that had been destroyed. But two small environmental groups, Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government, sued in 1999. They said the government was violating the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act because the law required it to draw up a plan for how to "protect and enhance" the river running through the valley. The Park Service lost several rounds and then settled, drawing up the plan that many visitors said went too far.
On Friday, the head of one of the groups that sued said he is satisfied, in large part because park officials dropped plans to build a new parking lot on the west side of Yosemite Valley.
"We stopped a lot of things that we feel would have been very detrimental to the valley," said John Brady, the chairman of MERGE and a former Army officer. "We are reasonably satisfied with that. We're sorry they didn't go further to make it more of a natural area, but you have to know when to declare victory."