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Record numbers of people are visiting Yosemite National Park and most of them go to designated wilderness areas that are supposed to have the highest level of conservation protection for federal lands.
Yosemite counted more than 4.15 million recreation visitors in 2015, eclipsing the previous high of 4.04 million in 1996. The park covers 1,169 square miles of glacier-carved ridges, canyons, valleys and domes, alpine meadows, forest and watersheds in Tuolumne, Mariposa and Madera counties, and 94.45 percent of that land is federally designated wilderness.
Impacts on wilderness from day-hikers, backpackers and horse-and-mule supported trekkers have been a concern for decades in Yosemite. Now park custodians are in the process of updating and adding to their 1989 Wilderness Management Plan with a Wilderness Stewardship Plan focusing on visitor use, visitor capacity and stock use, as well as commercial uses.
Park Service staff say they want and need public input on stewardship planning concepts and documents so far, and they are hosting a series of webinars and workshops beginning next week.
The first webinar is scheduled online from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, and the first workshop is planned from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday Groveland Community Hall.
The other workshops are scheduled later next week in Lee Vining, and the following week in San Francisco and Oakhurst, with a final webinar online from 6 to 7 p.m. Aug. 22.
Some people who go to Yosemite see crowds and developments in parts of the park and wonder where the wilderness is. It’s out there, bisected by 214 miles of paved roads, 20 miles of paved walking and bicycle paths and 800 miles of unpaved trails.
Earlier this year, Park Service staff received more than 750 comments on the first preliminary presentations of the Wilderness Stewardship Plan.
Some people criticized the crush of vehicle traffic when they try to get into the park, the limited number of wilderness permits available for escapes into the less-crowded backcountry, and limited campsites once they get into the wilderness.
Visitor impacts in Yosemite range from vehicle exhaust, trash, human waste, trail erosion, and damage to meadows to car crashes that result in bear fatalities. People can and do damage the park’s fragile ecosystems and sensitive cultural sites.
Park managers view their challenge as striking the right balance between protecting Yosemite’s resources and providing access to one of California’s most popular attractions.
Yosemite National Park managers are responsible for protecting a finite resource. From 2003 to 2015, overnight users in Yosemite wilderness began at 45,000, dipped to a low of 40,000 in 2006 and climbed to 65,000. That’s a 44 percent increase overall in a period with insignificant boundary changes.
Preliminary concepts and ideas for visitor use and visitor capacity for the Wilderness Stewardship Plan note that Yosemite wilderness is divided into 53 travel zones reflecting the park’s watershed drainage boundaries.
The capacity for each zone has been calculated “using a model that combines acceptable social density with measures of ecological fragility to determine how many nightly visitors each zone can sustainably support,” according to draft plans.
Park managers use trailhead quotas, pass and exit quotas, destination quotas, zone quotas and designated campsites to try to limit visitor use in designated travel zones. Each of these tools may be revised in the Wilderness Stewardship Plan, and this is where Park Service staff want to hear from the public.
Horses and mules
Other goals of the new plan are to increase natural resource protection from stock impacts and to consolidate stock management regulations into one document.
Park managers say they need guidance and policy for evolving private, commercial and administrative uses of horses and mules in Yosemite, addressing location, amount, and timing of stock use, desired conditions for trails and stock use camping areas, and strategies for stock use areas, with specific attention given to meadows.
Right now Park Service policies are unique in three categories: private, commercial and administrative. Private overnight users are required to obtain a permit for trips, while private day trip users are not.
Commercial use of horses and mules in wilderness is limited by law to what is “appropriate and necessary.” All guides and concessioners are therefore subject to permitting through a commercial-use authorization process, the basis of which will be included as part of the Wilderness Stewardship Plan.
Sizes of groups with horses and mules are supposed to be limited to protect natural resources from damage. The maximum group size is 15 people and 25 head of stock in most areas. On approved crosscountry routes, the limit is eight people and 12 head of stock.
Horses and mules, like people, can also cause lasting damage to many of Yosemite’s resources, including ecosystems and cultural sites. Historically, over-grazing by stock has caused damage to wet meadows that persists to this day, more than a century later.
Having learned from these past impacts, park staff claim to have a better understanding of stock carrying capacity. They try to manage stock use to balance access with resource protection.
Meadows make up less than 1 percent of the Sierra Nevada landscape and less than 3 percent of Yosemite National Park. They support rare and federally listed wildlife species as well as many rare and endemic plants. They also provide surface water quality protection and groundwater recharge.
Check it out
People can offer feedback in person at this month’s meetings and online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/yosewild. Ideas can also be submitted by emailing email@example.com and by sending regular mail to:
Superintendent, Yosemite National Park
Attn: Wilderness Stewardship Plan
P.O. Box 577
Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
All submissions are due by Sept. 30, 2016.