Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Yosemite National Park officials have unveiled a longterm management plan for the Tuolumne River watershed that calls for fore parking, better defined trails and an increase in day visitors in Tuolumne Meadows.

The park earlier this month released a final draft of the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River Plan, which will eventually dictate policies for use, recreation and restoration along the 56 miles of the Tuolumne that run through the park.

Members of the public will have an opportunity to comment through March 18 on the plan, which focuses most of its policy proposals on the popular high country destination Tuolumne Meadows.

According to the proposal, the park service is looking to improve river habitat andpark facilities near the river, with some emphasis on parking, meadow restoration and trails.

The plan calls for increasing official parking in the meadow area from 533 to 914 spaces and eliminating roadside parking along Tioga Road. The plan proposes eliminating "informal trails" that visitors have forged over the years in the meadows and restricting access only to the formal trail network.

The Tuolumne plan also proposes removing the gas station and mountaineering shop currently located near the site's store and grill, moving the visitors center to a location west of Unicorn Creek and turning the current visitors center into administrative space.

The park would also cut capacity at the riverside Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp from 32 to 20 people, according to the proposal.

Under the plan, campsites near the river would be moved, and some campsites will be improved.

The park service is looking at increasing day-use capacity at Tuolumne Meadows from 1,774 to 1,839, according to plan documents.

The overall goal, according to the summary of the park's preferred version of the Tuolumne River Plan, is "to retain a traditional Tuolumne experience with desires to reduce development and make visitor use more sustainable," and "to protect river values while accommodating current levels of day and overnight use and providing improved opportunities for day visitors."

But not all see it that way. John Buckley, the executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, criticized some aspects of the plan the day the final draft was released.

The organization, which watches land-use and natural resource issues in the region, is largely concerned with the proposal to maintain current crowd levels at the often crowded meadows and keep the Tuolumne Lodge in the river corridor.

Buckley, in an e-mail to The Union Democrat, said CSERC does consider removing roadside parking as a "positive step" and applauded an updated visitors center. But he stated that the park service with the Tuolumne and similar Merced River plans is planning "as if a maximum amount of crowding and use" is most desirable.

Buckley suggested that the National Park Service should work with the U.S. Forest Service and gateway communities to steer visitors to other recreation destinations nearby the park to reduce crowding.

"But as long as the park encourages high levels of crowding at those two well-known destinations, most summer visitors won't look for less crowded beautiful areas elsewhere in the park or in the local national forest," Buckley said.

With its headwaters in Yosemite's high country, river in the park's northern half often plays second fiddle to the higher profile Merced River that runs through the heart of the popular Yosemite Valley.

Even so, the Tuolumne River cuts through the scenic Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and Tuolumne Meadows before filling Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, all of which are in the park.

The National Park Service released final drafts of its management plans for both rivers on the same day, and will hold a series of public meetings and seminars for both in the coming weeks.