Last month, the National Park Service was granted a five-month extension of the Merced River Plan by a federal court. This is the third attempt to finalize the Merced River Plan for Yosemite National Park since the flood of 1997, which heavily damaged facilities and structures in Yosemite Valley.
The two previous versions of the plan, released in 2000 and 2005, were rejected in federal court under provisions of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The designation of "wild and scenic" requires that the park service prepare a comprehensive management plan for the 81 mile river corridor that flows through Yosemite National Park.
The settlement agreement of 2009 was reached between the park service and the co-plaintiffs, Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government. The court ruled that the user-capacity issue, the chief concern of the plaintiffs, was inadequate.
The $235 million river management plan calls for the restoration of 203 acres of meadow and riparian habitat in Yosemite Valley. It would also add 174 campsites, increase parking by 5 percent and improve traffic circulation patterns. In addition, it would set a cap of about 19,900 peak visitors per day, which is an infrequent occurrence, for the seven square miles of eastern Yosemite Valley.
However, in light of opposition by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, over the closure or relocation of some amenities within the river corridor in Yosemite Valley, the Merced River Plan was diverted to Washington, D.C., last month to go before a House subcommittee.
In addition to McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite, two other California congressmen testified at the hearing. They were Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis testified that the park service held more than "60 public meetings and received 30,000 written comments" on the Merced River Plan. He also reported that about two-thirds of the written comments support the plan.
Jarvis summarized the plan by saying, "The alternatives included in this new draft of the Merced River Plan bring forward the best science and stewardship to set management direction for the river corridor for the next 20 to 30 years."
Costa praised the park service director and the park superintendent: "The Yosemite team should be commended for trying to navigate this path and thread the needle because that's what we're doing."
Garamendi testified in strong support of the plan. "This effort, nearly completed, should be pushed forward. There are some issues that remain and I believe they can be worked out."
McClintock assessed the plan by saying, "The park service said this is necessary to comply with a settlement agreement reached with the most radical and nihilistic fringe of the environmental left."
Bob Asquith, a frequent park visitor and resident of the Yosemite gateway community of Groveland, testified in support of the plan saying, "There's a lot being made of relatively small issues. I believe the park service has done a remarkable job navigating through these competing laws and issues."
I asked Greg Adair from Friends of Yosemite Valley if he's optimistic that the final draft, now scheduled for a December release, will be supported by his group. He responded, "Optimism requires that we see movement in the right direction and we haven't seen that yet."
I asked John Brady, from Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Government, how he felt about the quote cited from McClintock's testimony. He responded, "I'm a conservative registered Republican who supports most tea party causes, and I don't appreciate the name-calling." Brady added, "There has to be some constraints on the commercial activities that adversely impact the natural resources in the park."
Finally, I asked Yosemite Planning Chief Kathleen Morse about the no-action alternative discussed by McClintock with members of the panel who were critical of the plan. She said, "The no-action alternative would not be a viable action because it would not be in compliance with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act."
It's unfortunate, but not surprising, that instead of showing a desire to work with the park service to resolve the few remaining issues, McClintock has chosen to be a vocal critic of the plan.
I believe that after 16 years since the disastrous flood of 1997, this plan is our best chance to restore, protect and preserve one of our nation's greatest natural treasures for future generations. It represents a golden opportunity to set the standard for balancing the preservation of a "wild and scenic" river with the public's desire to enjoy its awe-inspiring surroundings.
Marc Boyd is a freelance writer, educator, property manager and former 2012 Democratic candidate for Assembly in District 5. He lives in Arnold.