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June 17, 2013
Guest Opinion: Draft Yosemite plan balances recreation, resource protection

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(June 17 -- By Dave Steindorf and Jason Keith, Special to The Bee)

The start of the summer travel season also coincides with a proposed plan that will preserve important outdoor recreation opportunities in Yosemite Valley.

The Outdoor Alliance - a coalition of national human-powered outdoor recreation groups whose members climb on Yosemite's world-class walls, boat its rivers and ski its backcountry areas - has a strong interest in this important and long-overdue plan.

From our perspective, the draft plan overall provides a realistic vision for protecting river values, improving transportation within the valley, using adaptive planning for commercial services, and providing for restoration of critical river and meadow areas.

Park planners must find a balance between resource protection and providing quality visitor experiences. Critics on both sides of this debate seem to think they have this balance figured out - some want to dramatically downsize visitors, while others voice strong objections to any reduction of visitor opportunities within the park. Some even suggest that the "Wild and Scenic" designation should be removed altogether from the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, which we believe is a step in the wrong direction.

While the draft plan is by no means perfect, the park actually has the balance pretty well figured out, and officials are willing to work to address concerns and make improvements in the final plan.

Congress designated most of Yosemite as "wilderness" in 1984, and in 1992 established the Merced as a Wild and Scenic River. These designations require increased protections for the river corridor in Yosemite Valley. In 1997 a flood destroyed many of the facilities in the valley, and before the park could rebuild, the Friends of Yosemite Valley successfully filed suit to ensure that any new developments comply with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Park Service is required to examine which commercial services should be allowed within the valley. During the Yosemite lawsuits, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hinted strongly that ignoring "the level of degradation already (caused by) the dozens of facilities and services operating within the river corridor" would likely lead to another court defeat for the park.

Thus, while some alternatives in the plan would remove long-standing tourist facilities in the valley, including bicycle and raft rentals, and the ice rink at Curry Village, Yosemite officials have shown a willingness to relocate those facilities elsewhere in the valley outside the planning area - a quarter-mile on either side of the river. In this way the park stays true to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, while also preserving long-standing recreation opportunities in the valley.

The current proposal represents Yosemite's third try at a Merced Wild and Scenic River plan. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects numerous river values, including quality recreational opportunities. With a few exceptions, we think that overall the draft plan appropriately preserves recreation opportunities while protecting the river. Included are many important actions to restore the river and adjacent meadows, improve transportation problems, and increase opportunities for recreation in Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite is a place that evokes powerful emotions for many people. It is difficult to appease all of those strong emotions within a single vision for this iconic park. It is easy to pick on the Park Service as it navigates the complex challenge of balancing preservation, access and individual perspectives. The draft plan has important progressive elements that will dramatically improve the conditions in this spectacular park. Compromise is what is required in order to honor the first 100 years of the National Park System and create a legacy for the next century.

Dave Steindorf is the California stewardship director for American Whitewater. He lives in Chico. Jason Keith is a senior policy adviser for the Access Fund. He lives in Moab, Utah.

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