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Yosemite’s two-masters challenge: Preservation Vs. recreation

Mar 31, 2013 4:59 am

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National parks already handled a variety of difficult operating tasks, including park preservation, before the sequestration came along and made just staying open a goal.

— Samantha Shankman

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Gabriel Rodríguez  / Flickr

Visitors play at the beach on the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. Gabriel Rodríguez / Flickr


The brilliance of our national park system lies in its dual mission to preserve public lands and allow recreation in ways that leave those lands “unimpaired,” as Congress declared in 1916. Yet that language also raises a dilemma: how to balance two opposing goals.

A new proposal to chart Yosemite National Park‘s future is generally good, but it takes away a few too many opportunities to have fun. The park service should tweak the plan. If it doesn’t, Congress should get involved.

The 2,500-page Merced River Plan released in January is the result of a lawsuit charging the National Park Service with doing little to preserve the river, which is protected by federal law. Much of the plan will please conservationists and visitors. It will restore meadows, ease traffic, add campsites, improve parking and continue to limit tourism on busy days. But it goes too far in trying to comply with a 2008 federal appeals court ruling that the service hadn’t shown how some amenities “protect and enhance” the river.

On the advice of park service lawyers, it recommends eliminating services like raft, bike and horse rentals; tearing out the swimming pools at the Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Lodge; removing the Curry Village ice rink and an art center and demolishing the 1928 Sugar Pine Bridge behind the Ahwahnee, which is recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation but impedes the flow of the river.

Much of this is subjective; one person’s outdoor recreation is another’s environmental destruction. Most of these things wouldn’t be built today. But the park shouldn’t be taking away the fun. Many of these features are part of park history and have a negligible effect on the land. Generations of families have made memories skating and rafting in the shadow of Half Dome, forging a connection to Yosemite that lasts a lifetime and builds support for parks. The pools keep kids cool on spring days when the river is unsafe for swimming. And it’s ridiculous to get rid of bike rentals. Cycling is an ideal, nonpolluting way to see the park.

The park service is considering modifying the plan. Self-service bike-rental kiosks could reduce the footprint of the service. The rink could be replaced with a seasonal one in a parking lot. And the National Trust is asking for engineering improvements to the bridge before a decision is made on demolition.

But the park service’s options may be limited by the need to satisfy the court’s judgment. U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite, says he’ll try to block the changes through legislation. If that becomes necessary, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, rarely on the same side as McClintock, should join him.

Nearly 100 years after the creation of the national parks, Yosemite may need Congress’ help navigating its dual mission. Some common sense would do the trick.

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(c)2013 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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