The Energy Overseer
Yosemite Park Tries to Balance Wild & Scenic Heritage with Tourism
By Arthur O'Donnell, special to Greenwire, July 15, 2005
Yosemite National Park, California - Traffic through the Yosemite Valley slows to a crawl in the late afternoon. On a mid-summer day, as many as 15,000 daily visitors crowd the two-lane road that rings the valley, frequently stopping to catch a last glimpse of such world-famous landmarks as Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.
Meanwhile, hundreds of families with reservations for campground spaces, tent cabins or other lodging within the park make their way to the Visitors Center or to camp stores to shop for food, supplies, fuel or firewood for their overnight adventure in one of America's most heavily used national parks.
At peak times, this means a traffic jam, because both sets of users must rely on the same narrow, one-way roads whether they are exiting or staying overnight. Even those who leave their vehicles in the 550-space, temporary daytime-parking area to take the frequent shuttle busses from site to site often find themselves stuck in a slow-moving line.
Although several major construction projects have been put on hiatus during the summer months, visitors - whether on foot, bicycle, or in automobiles and campers - still encounter closed roads, fenced-off areas and orange-colored barriers throughout the Valley. Yellow-vested park workers direct traffic in and around a confusing maze of intersections and construction sites.
"The flow of this place is not designed for so many people," observed Park Ranger Adrienne Freeman. "Most places, you can drive right up to the Visitors' Center. Right now, you have to park and take a shuttle for a half-mile. That's not conducive to a great National Park experience."
At about 4,500 acres, the Yosemite Valley makes up less than one percent of the total 760,000 acres of the overall national park. Yet the vast majority of Yosemite's nearly 3.4 million annual visitors make the Valley their main stop because of its concentration of unique attractions.
In part to alleviate such congestion and to help create a more amenable "visitor experience," the National Park Service in November 2000 adopted the $441.7 million Yosemite Valley Plan, a comprehensive land-use and reconstruction program involving hundreds of individual projects and upgrades. In all, the plan amounts to the most extensive and expensive physical transition in Yosemite's 125-year history as a national park, though it may take decades to complete.
According to NPS, the Yosemite Valley Plan as adopted will restore 176 acres of previously developed land to natural conditions, and redevelop about 250 acres to accommodate visitor and employee services with revamp camps, a new visitors' center, permanent day-time parking, and employee housing. The former Upper River and Lower River campgrounds will be restored to meadow, riparian and black oak woodlands.
There will be more campgrounds, but fewer camping spaces or lodging units available, and - eventually - one major road will be converted to two-way traffic, while the other, Northside Drive, will be closed to motor vehicles and converted to a pedestrian/bicycle trail. The net impact will be to reduce Yosemite Valley's developed area by 71 acres.
In addition, the plan addresses residual damage from the massive floods of winter 1996-97 that damaged roadways and destroyed concession-employee housing. In fact, funding for most of the early Yosemite Valley Plan projects came from a $200 million emergency allocation approved by Congress after those floods.
This year has already seen completion of one milestone project at Yosemite Falls to enhance access to the park's signature attraction. Dirt paths were paved and broadened into scenic, wheelchair-accessible avenues that converge at the newly expanded viewing platform and a refurbished pedestrian bridge beneath the mists of Lower Yosemite Falls. The $12.5 million project was funded largely by the non-profit Yosemite Fund, with federal money and park fees contributing about 15 percent of the total cost.
Where there used to be an asphalt-covered parking lot about a quarter of a mile from the Falls, now stand picnic tables and an all-new, relatively huge toilet facility made of wood and stone, replacing unsightly portable units.
When the asphalt was removed from the old lot, Ranger Freeman noted, workers found traces of the Native American tribes who formerly inhabited the valley. This area is now protected by fencing and marked by interpretive signs to describe some of the area's natural and human history.
"We had a choice," explained Freeman. "We knew we had to take out the parking lot to manage the impact of all these people. Before, in order to take a picture of the Falls, you had to stand in the middle of the parking lot." The changes, she added, "will prevent people from going into the creek bed to get the views they want."
The project could not have been finished at a better time. With abundant winter rainfall and snowpack, Yosemite Falls is providing visitors with a spectacular show, as some 50 million gallons of water per minute cascade down some 2,450 feet in its three layers. Freeman expects that the Falls, as well as other intermittent falls may keep up their heavy flows throughout the summer, in contrast to dry years when they nearly dry up completely.
Another major development is the $9 million purchase of a fleet of 18 diesel/electric hybrid shuttle busses that stop at various sites and landmarks in the valley - from the historic Ahwahnee Hotel to Happy Isles and beyond. Instead of driving to the Falls with the hope of finding an open parking space, for instance, visitors may now simply hop aboard one of the hybrids at any one of 22 stops and get off within walking distance of the site. Busses run as frequently at 5 minutes apart during peak hours, and about every half hour after 6 pm.
In addition, the hybrids feature 60 percent less emissions and are 90 percent quieter than the previous generation of diesel shuttles used in the park. While the park had experimented with all-electric vehicles, it found the batteries could not perform well in the temperature extremes experienced at Yosemite. Other alternatives, including compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), propane, or fuel cells were "seriously considered," but NPS determined that the diesel/electric hybrids were the best choice. They are expected to last up to 15 years, and may be easily converted to more environmentally friendly bio-diesel fuels if and when such alternatives become viable.
Also underway are two major improvements to the park's infrastructure, the $16 million integrated utilities project and a reconfiguration of the park's sewage line that runs about 13 miles to El Portal, near the park's westernmost boundary.
Jennifer Nersesian, Yosemite's director of public outreach, said the previous sewer line crossed the Merced River 15 times, but the new route will cross twice, thus reducing ground disturbances and the risk of contamination should there ever be a leak or break in the pipe.
Where Yosemite Valley visitors encounter construction zones this summer, they are largely associated with one or the other of these infrastructure projects, even though work on the sewer project has been suspended for the summer.
Plans in Conflict
Despite the advances realized so far this year, the biggest projects envisioned in the Yosemite Valley Plan are currently on hold due to a court ruling related to a separate, but equally important plan for Yosemite National Park, the Merced River Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan.
According to Nersesian, the Merced Plan is "a high-level, visionary plan" looking out over the next 20 years, while the Yosemite Valley Plan offers a project-level menu of specifics. However, the status of the Merced as a federally protected wild and scenic river has great implications for any redevelopment plans considered in the park. "Virtually all of the Yosemite Valley is included in the river corridor," she said.
After NPS first drafted the Merced plan in 2002, local activists headed by the Friends of Yosemite Valley filed a federal law suit, challenging NPS's compliance with the procedural and substantive requirements of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 [Friends of Yosemite Valley v. Norton 194 F. Supp. 2d 1068].
The Friends of Yosemite Valley group was formed in 1997 for the purpose of promoting Yosemite's natural and wild values. The group actively contested the Yosemite Plan along with Sierra Club co-founder David Brower, who accused NPS of "shoddy planning." Just before he died in November 2000, Brower wrote that NPS "seems intent on converting this temple into a profit center, with pricy hotels, scant camping, few modest accommodations, wider roads to field bigger diesel busses, ecological roadside mayhem, atmospheric damage and requiring people who want to celebrate Yosemite Valley to park . . .in still unspoiled places that are soon to be paved."
According to court documents, the Friends group said it supported public access to Yosemite for low-income people, the disabled, and wilderness users, but not to the degree envisioned by NPS. The group favored expansion of the park's shuttle bus system, even to remote areas, in order to promote car-less travel within the park. However, the documents stated, "We believe that hotels, food service, and commercialism should be removed in favor of camping and a self-managed natural experience of the park."
While the activists made some changes to the original Yosemite Valley plan, they found a more effective legal tool in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
When the case reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2003, the court held that the Merced plan was invalid and remanded the case to the Eastern District Court in Fresno for an order requiring the NPS to remedy its deficiencies, particularly in the areas of "User Capacity Management" and how to redefine the park's boundary at El Portal.
Although the district court denied the activists' request for an injunction against all pending construction, the issue was appealed. In April 2004, the Ninth Circuit granted an injunction prohibiting the NPS from implementing any projects developed in reliance upon the Merced plan, including several projects already under way.
Scott Gediman, chief of media relations at Yosemite, said that after a hearing before the District Court last June, a compromise was reached that allowed projects already underway to proceed (including the Lower Yosemite Falls project and removal of some damaged housing structures), and gave a green light to several other pending projects, such as shuttle stop improvements, removal of rotten tree stumps, and collection of ecological data.
Projects that were placed on hold until a revised Merced plan could be delivered include the proposed construction of new cabins at Curry Village, the realignment of Northside Drive, redevelopment of Yosemite Lodge, as well as parking and transit improvements at Yosemite Village.
However, the court enjoined NPS from pursuing the second and third phases of the integrated utilities project, and halted a plan to expand the East Valley campgrounds by 89 sites.
Gediman said that the lawsuit has delayed construction of 200 lodging rooms and 250 beds for concession employees at Curry Village that had been destroyed in the 1997 floods. In the meantime, NPS has been using the flood restoration money for its other Yosemite Valley programs and the utilities project. After those funds are depleted, "we'll have to compete for funds" to pursue the rest of the plan, he said.
In the Revised Merced Plan, VERP Moves to the Forefront
NPS in mid-June released its final revised Merced River plan. According to Linda Dahl, chief of planning at the park, the major changes from the prior version relate to those areas cited by the court: the User Capacity Management Program and the El Portal boundary dispute, along with some technical corrections.
Members of the public found NPS's explanation of User Capacity Management to be both confusing and the proposed limits on visitor use of the park much less stringent than they hoped. That's because NPS demurred from adopting permanent prohibitions or numerical limits on use, instead expanding its implementation of a land-use concept called the Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) framework.
"Our biggest complaint was that the process is complex and difficult to understand," Dahl said. "I expect some will be disappointed. People were looking for limits on the size of parking lots or the number of people in a meadow. Our underlying concept is very different."
Some alternatives considered in the Merced River plan had considered annual limits on park visitation between 3.27 million and 5.3 million people. NPS's preferred alternative would continue interim limits for five years, while testing VERP's effectiveness as a management tool.
She described VERP as a version of land-use techniques long in practice by the Department of Forestry and other agencies charged with protecting natural resources. But managing Yosemite Park presents very different challenges. "Some areas of the park are absolutely pristine and need to be much more protected than areas like here in front of the Valley store," she explained. The essence of VERP is to assess the impacts of visitor use and use that information to determine when remedial actions might be required to prevent damage or mitigate impacts.
One example is in how visitors use the meadows to view the daring climbers who try to scale the pinnacle of El Capitan. Many simply park their cars on the side of the road and walk into the meadows for a closer view, creating "social trails" through the sensitive grasslands. Jen Nersesian described social trails as "informal, unplanned trails that people use as short cuts. This changes how an area looks and causes hydrological impacts in the meadows."
Rather than just prohibiting such uses, which are often a highlight of the Yosemite visitor experience, VERP establishes the desired conditions for a particular resource area and sets a standard "beyond which we're not willing to go," said Dahl.
One VERP indicator might be the length and condition of social trails, which has impacts on the health of the meadows or wildlife, or on archeological sites and traditional gathering areas used by the Ahwahneechee Native American tribe that populated the Valley until about 1800.
If the impacts begin to hinder the desired conditions, NPS then formulates an action to counter the effects; perhaps by giving people a better place to park or constructing wooded walkways through the meadow. "It could be that twice as many people could use El Capitan Meadow, if we manage it right," Dahl said.
Any proposed measures would be vetted publicly as part of a National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) document.
According to Nersesian, the VERP concept will be used more extensively at Yosemite than in any other NPS property. "This has been used in other parks to a lesser extent, but it's never been used in such a big scale or for areas visited by so many people." She added that the Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan is also the first to deal so comprehensively with the issue of user capacity management. "We're in new territory on a lot of fronts. Other parks may be held to a different standard in the future" because of Yosemite's actions, she said.
In the meantime, the final Merced River plan will be presented to the judge later this summer to determine if NPS has met the burden of complying with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, thus freeing park managers to proceed with Yosemite Valley Plan projects that have been put on hold. The final plan is expected to be published in the Federal Register in mid-August.
Even as it awaits a final ruling on the Merced plan, NPS is gearing up for another possibly contentious fight over the forthcoming Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan, covering the other major protected river shed within the park's boundaries. Public outreach manager Nersesian outlined a summer-long series of community meetings, so that "We make sure that everybody gets a chance to say what they want to say."
Planner Dahl said NPS has budgeted $2 million for the Tuolumne plan process, and it "probably spent three times that much" on the Merced plan, including legal costs. "We learned a lot with the Merced plan, but we know there are unfulfilled expectations." If there are serious problems with the draft plan, she said, NPS will "get people to tell us how to fix them."
Yosemite Today: Is Park Attendance Declining or Poised for New Growth?
The debates over park usage and commercialization of Yosemite have been a part of the park's history as far back as 1913, when the first horseless carriages were allowed onto the Valley floor.
In his 1990 history of the park, "Yosemite, The Embattled Wilderness," author Alfred Runte wrote, "Tourists were familiar with Yosemite Valley well over a decade before the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone were even explored. The issues of park development were raised and debated first in Yosemite. Even today, no other national park more dramatically reflects America's alleged failures to reconcile nature protection with the wants and demands of the visiting public."
Ten years ago, the issue of crowding at Yosemite approached crisis levels, with a record number of visitors exceeding 4.19 million in 1996. Following that peak, however, has come a steady decline in park attendance, not quite reaching 3.4 million in 2004.
Statistics available through the end of June signal a continued 10 percent slippage compared to last year, apparently because of the near-record winter rains that caused Valley flooding this winter and the late-spring snows that delayed opening the popular Highway 120 route, through Tuolumne Meadows to Tioga Pass, by more than a month to late June. Several of the High Sierra campgrounds, at White Wolf and Yosemite Creek, will not be opened at all during 2005, NPS has announced.
Park officials attribute the decline to a number of factors, loss of campgrounds after the 1997 floods, higher gas prices, and possibly even a reaction to the feeling of overcrowding those visitors experienced during the mid 1990s.
In some regards, the attendance drop has relieved some of the pressure on accomplishing many of the projects envisioned in the Yosemite Valley Plan, but that could just be a temporary reprieve, said Scott Gediman. "It's eventually going back to 4 million, then it will be 5 million," he predicted, mindful of the expectation that California's population, now at 34.5 million, may grow to 54 million by 2025.
"Some of the fastest growing cities in California, Fresno and Merced, are just outside park boundaries," he said. "With the Yosemite Valley Plan and the Merced River plan, we're planning the facilities for our next 20 years."
The nature of park attendance is also evolving, said Ranger Adrienne Freeman. "The way people visit parks is changing. They visit less than four hours, coming up just for the day rather than staying overnight." Unlike the Grand Canyon, which draws most of its visitors from throughout the country and from across the globe, the majority of Yosemite's visitors come from within the state, Freeman said.
Shifts in demography, with greater numbers of Californians representing Mexican/Hispanic and Asian/East Indian cultures, also dictate new visitor patterns that are not necessarily a wilderness experience. "These are multi-generation families that favor shorter nature walks." They may picnic all day, she said, and want to do that within view of Yosemite Falls or other scenic attractions.
This summer, NPS and park employees will be conducting the most extensive visitor use surveys since 1998, which will test park officials' impressions of these changes. "We'll find it out empirically this year," Freeman said.
Arthur O'Donnell is an independent energy and environmental journalist based in San Francisco.
Article Copyright 2005 E&E Publishing, Inc.
Copyright 2012 The Energy Overseer, All Rights Reserved For information about speaking availabilities, call 415-648-9405