Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

MERCED RIVER PLAN: To view the plan, related documents and a public meeting schedule visit

Local organizations and leaders have mixed views on the latest draft of the Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan, which would rework many Yosemite National Park operations in an effort to protect the Merced River.

Removal of several recreation facilities, including the winter ice rink at Curry Village, swimming pools at Yosemite Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel, and the Ahwahnee tennis court, are among the plan's proposals.

Craig Pedro, Tuolumne County's administrator, said earlier this week that county officials early on had concerns over possible reductions inparking in Yosemite Valley.Pedro said those concerns were incorporated in the plan, which he called a "middle of the road" proposal.

"It's not opening up more. Not more restrictive," he said, adding the county Board of Supervisors will be commenting on the plan during the 90-day public comment period currently under way.

John Gray, the county supervisor whose district includes the Groveland area, said the management options the park service chose for the plan's final draft were the ones he saw as the best. He said the plan gives the private visitors the best opportunity to visit the park in their own vehicles, which is good for Groveland located near the park's northern gate.

"They did listen to us, which is really good," Gray said.

Not all are thrilled with the Merced plan. John Buckley, director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said his organization is "very disappointed" in the proposal as it stands.

CSERC maintains that the National Park Service should be setting a lower long-term capacity limit to deal with crowds, congestion and their impacts on the Yosemite Valley environment.

Buckley said his main concerns include increases in parking, camping and lodging that he says will increase day use in the park from 8,272 to 8,954 visitors. He also said the plan is not consistent with the park's General Management Plan, which called for the eventual phasing out of private vehicles in the valley.

"The park staff have obviously adopted the perspective that more is better … which is only true for the commercial interests tied to the park," Buckley stated.

The Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and the Environment (TuCARE) also has issues with the plan, but for different reasons.

TuCARE Executive Director Melinda Fleming this week said the proposal currently favored by the park service is not the least restrictive option for visitors, and the local organization supports options that encourage more visitation.

"It is important for the public to remember that Yosemite belongs to the public and should not be inaccessible to any segment of the public," Fleming stated in an email. "Allowing more visitors to recreate in the park allows for more opportunities for the public to get outside and in nature."

The Park Service released the final draft of the lengthy plan and other related documents earlier this month, continuing a planning process that dates back to 1987. The plan proposes dozens of changes to traffic, parking, recreation, facilities, natural landscapes and available services.

The goal is to keep maximum Yosemite Valley visitation at 19,000 people a day, including single-day visitors and those spending multiple days in lodges and campsites.

About 4 million people visit the park a year, and most of them go to the eight-mile Yosemite Valley.

Park representatives have said the plan protects the river that runs through the iconic valley while improving visitor experience at one of the most popular national parks.

The Merced River Plan itself comes in three volumes, each several inches thick, and proposes six management options that each include dozens of changes.

The changes and measures considered include:

• Increasing the number of campsites in the valley by 37 percent, from 466 to 640. The plan calls for removing some sites near the river and building new ones on higher ground.

• Increasing day-use parking capacity from 3,021 to 3,482, while also increasing the number of shuttle bus runs to cut down on traffic. The parking changes include a redesign of the Yosemite Village day-use parking area and adding a new, 300-space lot west of Yosemite Lodge.

• Eliminating multiple recreational rentals, including bike rentals at Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village, raft rentals and commercial horseback rides at the park stables. Visitors will be allowed to bring their own bikes and rafts, though theywill only have certain access points for the river.

• Removing several recreation facilities, including the winter ice rink at Curry Village, swimming pools at Yosemite Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel, and the Ahwahnee tennis court.

• Moving some administrative and housing buildings out of the valley.

• Re-routing some regularly congested roads and building a pedestrian tunnel between Yosemite Lodge and the Yosemite Falls trail to keep hikers off the road and cut down on traffic jams.

• Removing the Sugar Pine Bridge, one of three historic bridges on the Merced River.

The changes total about $235 million, and also include multiple plans forriverbank and meadow restoration.

The plan has stirred controversy for years as park officials have tried to balance calls for stronger preservation of natural resources and traffic congestion in the summer with concerns over limiting access for visitors.

Other alternatives in the plan ranged from removing some lodging and limiting the number of daily visitors to 13,000 or so, to doing nothing.