Merced River plan for Yosemite draws fire from several quarters (Photos)

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A National Park Service plan to better protect the Merced River calls for closing some commercial ventures in Yosemite National Park – a proposal that has drawn criticism from a variety of quarters. 

The $235 million proposal would close the pool at the Ahwahnee Hotel, several snack stands, and some tourist-related businesses, including horseback riding and bike rentals. The plan also calls for closing the ice rink, even though no one is claiming that it harms the river. 

The plan would move some tent cabins away from the river, which runs through the Yosemite valley floor. But the number of hotel rooms and campsites wouldn’t change much. The proposal envisions up to 19,900 daily visitors, which is close to what the park sees on a peak summer day.

Yosemite’s director of planning, Kathleen Morse, says the plan focused on what is worth protecting around the river.

"The meadows and the riparian systems that weave in and out, just the whole alluvial river system," she says. "It’s a very broad floodplain. And river related recreation – boating, hiking along the river, camping along the river, things like that."

The Merced River plan is the result of a lengthy legal dispute that sent the National Park Service back to the drawing board three years ago. A federal court finally ruled that what’s along the Merced river must protect and enhance it.

The court said "take a look at this stuff," says Morse. "You’ve got swimming pools, tennis courts, sports shops, restaurants, cafeterias, bars, ice skating rink, its all going on out there– make a conscious choice about what should continue."

In preparing the plan, the park service asked visitors about transit. Morse says they like having clean-fuel buses, but they don’t like using them.

"They said, 'we want to bring our cars in but can you do something about all that traffic and congestion? It’s really unsettling and it’s difficult to enjoy the valley when you’re in a traffic jam. So can you fix that?'"

The plan includes recommendations from traffic experts to re-route cars as they move around the valley. But environmental groups feel the plan does not go far enough. Greg Adair of Friends of the Yosemite Valley likes that the Park Service is suggesting getting rid of some commercial activities, but he feels that it still places too much emphasis on lodging and concessions.

"There are other activities like picnicking, bathing in the river, bird watching, simply walking around and hiking, taking photos which should be given more space and those sort of distracting commercial activities given less space," says Adair.

Other environmental critics say the proposed plan is flawed because the Park Service didn’t take previous degradation into account when it started preparing its study. 

"The willows that were historically here covering the banks for miles through the valley here are completely gone in most places," says John Buckley of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.  

Environmentalists are weighing legal action to halt the park’s plan. They’re not the only ones unhappy with compromise.   Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite, has threatened to introduce a bill that would force the park to keep its commercial services.

Meanwhile, gateway communities around Yosemite that depend on tourism don’t want the park to do anything that might reduce the number of visitors.

At the ice rink, Mark Collishaw of Scotts Valley is chaperoning a group of kids. He's not happy when he hears that the rink might close. 

"Boo! Bah humbug!" he says. "This...this is awesome right here."

The public has until the middle of April to weigh in on the Merced River plan. Yosemite officials say they’re already taking comments like Collishaw’s – in written form – into account. They say nothing’s set in stone. 

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