The National Park Service plans to break ground next summer on a $24 million project that will remove some of the man-made amenities at Yosemite National Park's largest giant-sequoia grove.
Last week, the NPS released a final environmental impact statement for the plan to restore Mariposa Grove at the southern end of the park.
The plan calls for removing the current tram ride, gift shop and some parking lots at the popular grove to help return the area to a more natural state. A shuttle will be added to give visitors access from Yosemite's south entrance.
The hope is that the changes will improve the health of about 500 giants sequoias in the grove that are among the oldest, rarest and largest living organisms in the world.
Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said work is slated to begin in June 2014 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act, which began with the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley.
The whole plan will take up to three years to complete, Cobb said.
Funding for the project comes mostly from the Yosemite Conservancy, which has dedicated $20 million. The federal government is paying the other $4 million.
The Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center has publicly supported the plan and "applauded" the release of the final environmental impact statement last week.
"We recognize how precious this old forest habitat is for the Pacific fisher, pileated woodpecker, northern goshawk, and other vulnerable wildlife species that make use of habitat in Yosemite," said CSERC biologist Lindsey Myers in a written statement. "The park has a strong obligation to do all possible to protect these rare or declining species. The preferred alternative definitely would benefit these rare animals."
John Buckley, the center's executive director, echoed Myers' praise for the park's preferred alternative outlined in the plan.
"Having pavement on the roots of giant sequoias is clearly not desirable," Buckley said. "Moving most peak use parking to the South Entrance and using a shuttle system will make it convenient to visit the Mariposa Grove, but the gridlock of idling cars fighting for a parking space will disappear."
Buckley continued, "Equally important, removing the noise and disturbance of the commercial tram operation will allow Mariposa Grove visitors to experience both the Upper and Lower Grove areas in a far more natural condition."