After years of legal wrangling, Yosemite National Park officials said Tuesday that they have identified a detailed plan to protect the Merced River that should satisfy longtime rivals.
In 2009, under a lawsuit brought by river conservationists, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the park to come up with a specific maximum number of people that, at one time, can safely use areas that border the river.
Because the Merced River is designated "wild and scenic," federal protections apply to land a quarter-mile from the river, which includes parts of the heavily trafficked Yosemite Valley.
"They have to make their capacity (number) meaningful and not just a receding target," said Greg Adair, co-founder of the conservation group Friends of Yosemite Valley and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The Merced River plan, which was submitted for early review in March, outlined five alternative plans to protect the park's section of the river that flows through the Yosemite Valley.
Park officials now have identified their preferred alternative, which limits daily visitors in the eastern part of Yosemite Valley to about 19,900 people -- a level similar to average usage, according to the plan.
"We've worked with the plaintiff through the process," said Kathleen Morse, chief of planning with the park. "They've been part of our public meetings and process. The spirit of the settlement agreement has been followed."
The Merced River plan now in its final stages will be the third proposed plan by park officials after more than a decade of court battles.
Emily Schrepf, program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, said she hasn't had time to fully review the specifics of the document, but she applauded the park's work on this most recent plan.
"They've gone above and beyond what is necessary as far has doing scientific research," she said "We're confident that they've done what they should have as far as public outreach."
Adair said he hasn't had a chance to review the voluminous document either, but said further legal action was not off the table.
"I can't say that our group is optimistic at this point," he said. "We've had 10 years of seeing the park get close to making the right decision and then not doing it. Yes, we reserve the right to litigate this plan."
The park's preferred alternative calls for major infrastructure adjustments in Yosemite Valley, including moving Camp 6 farther north, away from the river.
Commercial services also would be reduced, according to the plan. The park would eliminate the raft and bicycle rental company in Curry Village, as well as the ice rink and day-use horseback rides. The swimming pool at Yosemite Lodge would be removed.
"We have a very limited area to work with, so it's a tradeoff," Morse said. "We came to the conclusion that people can still bring in rafts and bikes."
Several campsites would be moved away from the river, but campsites would increase overall. Day-use parking also would increase.
Under the preferred alternative, officials said, there would be significant changes to the traffic pattern in Yosemite Valley to reduce congestion.
The public comment period for the document closes April 18. The final plan will be submitted in July.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Under Yosemite National Park's preferred alternative for the Merced River plan:
-- Visitors per day in the eastern part of Yosemite Valley would be capped at 19,900.
-- 203 acres of meadow and riparian habitat would be restored.
-- Campsites in all river segments would increase 28 percent, and in Yosemite Valley 37 percent.
-- Day-use parking spaces would increase 11 percent in Yosemite Valley. ___