A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization says several historic bridges in Yosemite National Park are in danger of demolition based on the National Park Service’s preliminary suggestions for a Merced River management plan.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation on Wednesday added three rustic, stone bridges in the Yosemite Valley to its annual list of the nation’s “most endangered historic places.”
At a public meeting last month, the Park Service unveiled five “alternative concepts” for its Merced River Plan, which aims to address issues related to park capacity, traffic, environment preservation, water quality and cultural resources.
A law passed in 1968 gave the U.S. Congress and Secretary of the Interior the power to designate rivers or river sections as “wild and scenic rivers” in order to preserve their ecological, recreational, historic and cultural values.
Federal land managers are directed to prepare a comprehensive management plan for each wild and scenic river in order to protect and enhance the values that merited the river’s designation.
The Merced River was designated by Congress in 1987 and a management plan for it has been in the works for 10 years, but has faced several legal battles along the way.
The Park Service lost a lawsuit over its original plan and a second version ended in a legal settlement in 2009.
Four out of the five “concepts” for the latest iteration of the plan call for the removal of the Stoneman, Sugar Pine and Ahwahnee bridges, which environmentalists say are hampering the free-flowing conditions of the Merced River and causing the destruction of natural resources downstream.
The bridges are three of eight in Yosemite Valley constructed between 1921 and 1933 that are faced with local stone and designed to conform with the look of the surrounding natural elements.
In November 1977, the bridges were listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places, a federal government list of sites deemed worthy of preservation.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation argues that the Merced River Plan should “protect the river while preserving its iconic and historic bridges.”
“The whole purpose of the management plan is to protect river values,” said Anthony Veerkamp, senior field officer at the nonprofit group’s San Francisco office. “Those can include free-flow and hydrology, but one of the values that should have also been identified is historic resources.”
Veerkamp said the bridges are important features to preserve because they are reminders of the early development at Yosemite.
“There are many places in this country where you have a magnificent natural resource and humans have failed to protect the thing that attracts us there,” he said. “The Park Service really got it right (in Yosemite) and developed infrastructure that doesn’t detract from the natural sights.”
Veerkamp suggested the Park Service find alternate ways to improve the river’s free-flowing conditions without sacrificing the bridges. Some of his suggestions included blocking areas along the river from visitors to reduce damage from human trampling and removing rip-rap, which is rock or other material used to armor shorelines.
Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said it’s too early to be labeling the bridges as “endangered” because the alternative concepts presented in the Merced River Plan workbook do not necessarily reflect what will be in the final version of the plan.
“At this point, we don’t even know if the removal of those will be in the draft,” she said. “It’s not something we’re seriously discussing at this time or something that’s permanently in place.”
Cobb said the park has dedicated $84 million over the past 10 years to historical preservation efforts, but it must also balance preserving those resources with protecting river values.
John Buckley, of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said his group has recommended removing two or three of the bridges over time in order to rehabilitate the river’s banks, riparian areas and animal species living downstream that have been affected by the impeded flow.
He said the park must find a middle ground between the two opposing legal directives that it must compete with while formulating the new management plan — maintaining the river values under the Wild and Scenic River Act and preserving registered historic sites under the National Historic Preservation Act.
“They are weighing many different pressures as well as creating a plan that won’t be thrown out by the courts again,” he said.
An Environmental Impact Statement for the Merced River Plan is expected to be completed in the fall followed by a final alternative plan, which isn’t expected until sometime in 2013.