Yosemite National Park: Closed for Preservation
Yosemite National Park: Closed for Preservation
Column by Congressman McClintock published August 24, 2013 in the Wall Street Journal
Set aside by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 with the express purpose of "public use, resort and recreation," Yosemite Valley is a national treasure that Lincoln ensured would be preserved "for all time." Ever since Lincoln created the park, Americans have enjoyed a host of recreational opportunities and amenities that enhance their experience of the Valley. Those days might be over.
In January 2013, the National Park Service issued a proposal called the Merced River Plan that would cut everything from bicycle and raft rentals to iconic facilities, including the ice skating rink at Curry Village, the art center, and a historic stone bridge that dates back to the 1920s. For generations, these facilities have enhanced the experience of the park for millions of visitors. Now, the very nature and purpose of Yosemite is being fundamentally transformed into an exclusionary agenda that can best be described as "Look, but don't touch."
Why is the National Park Service seeking to slash swimming pools and horseback riding programs? It all goes back to a lawsuit. Environmentalist groups such as Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government challenged the National Park Service's 2000 and 2005 plans to manage the Merced River, which runs through the park, claiming that the Park Service was insufficiently preserving the river's "wild and scenic" character.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs and invalidated the Park Service's plans in 2008. A settlement, agreed to in September 2009, required the Park Service to draft a new plan for the Merced River—and also paid these professional environmental litigants more than $1 million, courtesy of American taxpayers.
Although the settlement requires a plan for the Yosemite Valley consistent with the Merced River's official designation as "wild and scenic," nothing in that designation requires the removal of visitor amenities, according to former Democratic Rep. Tony Coelho, who wrote the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1987. In an April 2013 letter to the director of the National Park Service, Mr. Coelho wrote: "The Merced River in Yosemite Valley has been recreational for almost 150 years. Yosemite Valley has never been wilderness. Any plan which proceeds under the WSRA should not change any infrastructure, or ban any activities traditionally carried on in Yosemite Valley . . . I oppose any such measures."
As public outrage against the plan has mounted—especially by the three counties most directly impacted by the plan—the litigants have found willing mouthpieces in the editorial boards of the San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee. In recent editorials and columns, these papers have assured the public that the plan will relieve chronic overcrowding at the park and protect the river from any future degradation.
In fact, this plan locks in and compounds overcrowding that has plagued the park since flooding wiped out almost half the campsites in 1997. At the time, Congress appropriated $17 million to "relocate" the campsites damaged in the flood. The money was spent, but the campsites were never replaced. Now, the Merced River Plan would permanently impose a 30% reduction in campsites and a 50% reduction in lodging compared with the pre-flood era. This would mean longer waiting lists and fewer overnight accommodations.
Three swimming pools in Yosemite give visitors a safe and supervised place for their children to cool off in the summer. But the Park Service wants to close two of them because they do not positively contribute to "resource protection," or aren't protective of the "outstandingly remarkable values" of the river. That guarantees overcrowding at the remaining pool, pushing families seeking water recreation into the river, which lacks lifeguards.
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis assures the public that "commercial services," like ice skating and raft rentals, "may be reasonably relocated outside the river corridor but remain in Yosemite Valley, or in other locations inside or outside of the park." That means tourists will have to walk or drive much greater distances to access these services and then endure long lines when they get there.
According to its advocates, the plan doesn't ban services like bike rentals, it only suggests moving them to better locations. But a read through the Merced River Plan puts the lie to this claim. It talks specifically about "eliminating" and "removing" these services and predicts that "over time, visitors would become accustomed to the absence of these facilities and would no longer expect them as a part of their experience in Yosemite." Their intent could not possibly be clearer.
In testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, National Park Service officials assure us that although bicycle rentals will be "eliminated" in the interest of environmental protection, visitors will still be free to bring their own bikes. That invites an obvious question: What exactly is the environmental difference between a rented bike and one that is privately owned?
Every lover of Yosemite needs to read this report. It proposes breaking the compact that has long existed between the American people and their government to preserve the Yosemite Valley for the many outdoor recreational activities that the public has enjoyed there for nearly 150 years.
My district includes the Yosemite National Park and I represent the gateway communities that depend on park tourism to support their economies. The locally elected governments in the region are unanimous in their opposition to this plan, reflecting the clear sentiments of the overwhelming number of local residents.
Many things need to be done to improve access and traffic flow through the park. But destroying the amenities that provide comfort and enjoyment for millions of Yosemite visitors each year isn't among them.
Mr. McClintock is a Republican congressman from California.