A ten-year battle over the future of Yosemite National Park moved a step closer to a resolution Wednesday as park rangers laid out several options to prevent the picturesque valley from becoming a victim of its own popularity.
For years, visitors to the Central Sierra’s main attraction have bemoaned summer weekend traffic jams that clog the park’s main entrances and throngs of sightseers that congregate at popular vistas.
The National Park Service rolled out several versions of a Merced River Plan at a public meeting in Groveland following the culmination of a decade-long legal struggle. The five “alternative concepts” are aimed at addressing issues related to park capacity, traffic, environmental preservation, water quality and cultural resources, according to Yosemite’s official workbook.
The widely diverging proposals run the gamut from greatly expanding access to the valley floor to severely limiting the number of people and cars allowed in the park. The most expansive plan would see visitation to the park capped at 24,400 visitors per day, while the most restrictive plan would limit the number of visitors to the valley to 14,200 per day.
“Yosemite Valley is very congested and the park is trying to find ways of dealing with that,” said Bob Asquith, president of the Yosemite Gateway Partners, which promotes tourism in communities bordering the park.
The purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to give the public a chance to review and respond to the new versions of the Merced River Plan.
It’s not the first time the park has tried to devise a comprehensive plan to manage the Yosemite Valley floor, and earlier attempts have met with strong legal challenges.
The Park Service lost a lawsuit over the first version of the plan and a second version ended in a legal settlement in 2009.
Yosemite administrators have long sought a way to alleviate congestion, and at one time even toyed with the idea of an outright ban on cars in the valley floor. Last year, the park hit a 16-year high of roughly 4.1 million visitors, 85 percent of whom traveled in private vehicles, Asquith said.
He said the park is considering doing away with an ice rink, horse stables and roadside parking access at set locations. Other proposed changes include installing roundabouts at four-way stops near Yosemite Village and Camp 6, as well as building tunnels or overpasses that allow pedestrians access to Yosemite Falls without having to cross the busy street.
The park is looking at cutting summer congestion by requiring day use permits or extra fees to enter the park during the peak season from June to September.
The Park Service will take in public comment on the five proposals, take popular elements from each of the plans and come back with a final “preferred alternative” after completing an Environmental Impact Statement sometime in the fall, according to Bev Shane, director of the Tuolumne County Resources Agency, the county’s planning department.
The final version of the Merced River Plan isn’t expected until summer 2013.
“The park is really making a major outreach effort here,” Shane said.
She said the county would like to see a plan that enhances the local economy.
Asquith said whatever plan or combination of plans is chosen, the final result will greatly affect the tourism industry in gateway communities like Groveland for the next 25 years.
He touted the upcoming addition of a Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System line that will take passengers from downtown Sonora to the park’s visitors center. The buses will be able to carry 50 passengers and will run three times a day during the weekend and once a day on weekdays.
The price for tickets on the YARTS buses and a more detailed schedule won’t be announced until early May.
“There are no losers out of this, it’s a win-win for everybody,” Asquith said.
Yosemite is the third most visited national park in the country, behind Grand Canyon National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The next meeting on the Merced River Plan will be held at Wawona Community Center at 10 a.m. on May 4. The plan can be viewed by visiting www.nps.gov/yose.