The number of visitors to Yosemite National park has grown at a steady pace the last couple of years. In 2011, 4,098,648 campers, hikers, and climbers descended upon the landscape, coming close its record visitation year in 1996 with 4,190,557 visitors.
In short, that’s a lot of people tramping through one of the country’s most beloved parks.
For years, the park has been looking for ways to balance the interests of its 4-million annual visitors with preserving the environment, and last week the park unveiled how it plans to do so.
“What we've done is we've taken a hard look at the land base that we have to work with here in the valley," explained Yosemite's Chief of planning Kathleen Morse. "We have to look at what's the highest and best use of the land, and some of these services and some these operations take up a bit of the landscape."
The services and operations Morse is referring to are: bike rentals, raft rentals, an ice skating rink, the swimming pool at Yosemite lodge and day use horseback rides and others that will fall to the wayside.
Reasons for removal of these services started with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which asks park rangers to evaluate whether services in the Merced river corridor were necessary for public use. Litigation on past Merced River plans called out specific park services in the river valley, and gave strong hints for rangers to make a "conscious choice" about how much of these activities should be going on in the valley.
The new plans also call for reducing the park's human congestion, which eventually will mean limiting the number of visitors to Yosemite Valley.
"The capacity applies to the river corridor. The rest of the park is open and available, so the park is not being affected ... its the East Valley, primarily," said Morse. "Most of the year [the capacity limit] won't be a limiting factor, it will however prevent things from getting so congested, that the people who do get there on those busy days will not have a bad experience."
The park's plan has been under construction for the last 15 years and the process has not been without its challenges. An initial plan to protect and preserve the Merced river was published in 2000, but underwent litigations for a majority of the decade. A settlement was reached in 2009, but this plan however required, "extensive public engagement."
Once the public comment period that runs through the beginning of April ends, officials will take into consideration the comments and concerns from the public and adjust the plans.
"Every time we've had an engagement with the public, we've made adjustments," Morse said. "We've had over 40 public workshops, meetings, webinars, science presentations, even before the draft came on the street."
The final plans will debut in the summer of 2013. Immediately following this will be a 30-day "no action" period before the final plan is put into effect.