Putting a thumb on the scale in favor of preservation

Posted: Aug 18, 2019

How to best balance preservation and use of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park has been the subject of much debate over the past few years. As I have become better acquainted with this complicated and hotly contested issue, I find that I am skeptical of the position that striking a balance between these two often-dichotomous goals is the best solution.

The Merced River was designated “wild and scenic” in 1987.Under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA), the federal government must protect land bordering the river up to a quarter-mile, as well as the water quality and flow of the river. This presents a number of issues since the protections reach areas of the park that see a lot of visitor traffic.

These competing interests culminated in a lawsuit in 2009, where river conservationists sued because they felt that the park was not committed to these mandated protections. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the park must limit how many people can use the land bordering the Merced River at one time.

In response, the National Park Service (NPS) has come up with a comprehensive management plan that will enhance the protection of the Merced River without reducing the number of daily visitors to the park. This plan is the third proposed plan after over a decade of legal scuffles.

Although the NPS has put forth a number of alternatives, ranging from a no action approach to a strict approach that would reduce visitation by almost a third, the preferred alternative tries to strike a balance between conservation and public access. This alternative is also known as Alternative Five, or the Enhanced Visitor Experiences and Essential Riverbank Restoration alternative. The National Park Service Conservation Association has also come out in favor of this alternative.

The preferred alternative would remove commercial raft and bicycle rental services (although rafting, etc. would still be allowed in the area), horseback riding, as well as a swimming pool and ice rink (considered “non-essential” activities) in the area. It would also restructure the traffic pattern in Yosemite and move a major campsite away from the river. However, the number of campsites would increase (by 37%), as would day-use parking. All in all, the proposed plan will cost the NPS approximately $235 million to implement.

Balancing preservation and use is often at the heart of proposed management plans, and can be a tricky if not impossible balance. This tension stems from the Organic Act of 1916, which states that the duty of the NPS is to “conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

I think the goals of the NPS stated in the Organic Act would be better served if the NPS implemented Alternative 2, which is the more cautious and preservation-oriented alternative outlined in the plan. Alternative 2 would restore and preserve the greatest number of acres by removing even more roads, buildings, and parking lots. It would also reduce the number of visitors allowed in this area of the park to 13,900 people, and does not come with the considerable camping increase that the preferred alternative does. The preferred alternative will allow 19,900 per day, which only reduces the number of visitors by about 1,000 compared to the no-action alternative.

Conservation groups, including the Friends of Yosemite Valley, which was lead plaintiff in the most recent lawsuit, aren’t optimistic about the new plan. "I can't say that our group is optimistic at this point," said Greg Adair, co-founder of Friends of Yosemite Valley. "We've had 10 years of seeing the park get close to making the right decision and then not doing it. Yes, we reserve the right to litigate this plan."

Concerns remain among some conservation groups that the plan has not adequately addressed the issue of overcrowding. John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center has expressed concern that “due to all the pressures on the park from political and commercial interests, the park is putting forward preferred alternatives that will likely result in undesirable crowding and congestion far into the future.”

Some environmentalists have also argued against the preferred alternative as not being consistent with the park’s General Management Plan. The Management Plan called for the “eventual phasing out of private vehicles in the valley,” which is not being addressed by the preferred alternative.

It seems to me that the NPS has attempted to strike a balance between preservation and use with its preferred alternative, but a big takeaway from the language of the Organic Act is the emphasis on future generations. Without knowing what will come from these proposed changes, the NPS often plays it safe and aims to achieve certain foreseeable benefits from proposed rules, while not peeving recreationalists too much.

Perhaps the strategy employed by the NPS in times of uncertainty ought to be the exact opposite—that is, if the effects of a decision aren’t entirely predictable, the NPS should manage the park with a shift towards precaution and overprotection so that the resources will be available in the future.

The proposed plan is better than the status quo, represented by the no action alternative. Moving commercial activity away from the river itself will help with preservation. Although rafting and river access is still allowed, it is likely that less visitors will use the park for that purpose after the removal of rental services on park grounds. However, I think the NPS can and should do better, and should reevaluate how to best serve its founding principles with regard to Merced River management as well as other land and natural resource disputes that undoubtedly will arise in the coming decades.

Read more about the plan.

Comment on the plan.

~Emi Estelle

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