Court Halts Yosemite National Park Construction Plans

PASEDENA, California, March 28, 2008 (ENS) – The National Park Service cannot proceed with more than $100 million in construction projects now on the drawing board for Yosemite National Park because the developments could illegally ruin the park’s sensitive ecosystem, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Yosemite National Park covers nearly 1,200 square miles of mountainous terrain in the Sierra Nevada of central California.

In its decision Thursday, a three judge panel concludes that the park service’s 2005 Revised Plan for Yosemite is illegal because it does not describe an actual level of visitor use that will not adversely impact the Merced River’s Outstanding Remarkable Values as required by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and also required by a 2003 decision of the same court.

Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote that the Plan violates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act because the Visitor Experience and Resource Protection framework is “reactionary and requires a response only after degradation has already occurred.”

A concrete truck at work in
Yosemite National Park.
(Photo courtesy Friends
of Yosemite Valley)

The appeals court has addressed the same issues twice before, all three decisions relating to lawsuits brought by the Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government, MERG.

In this case, a lower court decision in favor of the environmental groups was appealed by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne; National Park Service Regional Director of the Pacific West Region Jonathan Jarvis; and Michael Tollefson, Superintendent of Yosemite National Park. Their appeal was rejected.

The conflict stems from the Yosemite flood of 1997, which caused widespread damage to park infrastructure, including segments of Highway 140. Under the guise of emergency repairs, the park service decided to widen the canyon road to accommodate larger RVs and commercial buses.

Friends of Yosemite Valley’s Bridget Kerr says, “The public was horrified by the blasting of 18,000 year old naturally formed rock walls, the cutting of oaks, and the filling in of the riparian river bank with rocks and concrete.”

As a result, in 1999, the Sierra Club and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government brought suit against the park service to stop the destruction in the canyon. “A portion of the canyon road remains untouched by this road-widening project only because it was stopped by the court,” Kerr says.

In 2000, Friends of Yosemite Valley and MERG legally challenged the validity of the park service’s Merced River Plan and the courts ruled in their favor twice. Today, a valid Merced River Plan is 18 years overdue and is now supposed to be completed next year.

Kerr says the current plan, struck down by both district and appellate courts, would destroy the park’s environment. “The plan states plainly that when completed, air quality in Yosemite would be worse, noise levels would increase, and the amount of asphalted surface in Yosemite Valley would be greater,” she says.

The plan calls for developed areas to expand beyond their existing footprint with new restaurant, hotel, and employee housing construction. Outside the Valley, large new parking areas would be built.

More than 500 roundtrip diesel shuttle buses would arrive and depart from a new 22 bay transit depot in Yosemite Valley, one bus every 1.4 minutes. Nearly half of the Valley’s roads would be realigned, widened and upgraded; and while the plan removes a road from one meadow, it constructs another road along yet another meadow and wetland, Kerr explains.

“Most troubling,” she says, “is the plan’s blatantly commercial priorities. Affordable family-friendly tent-cabins and camping are being displaced by upscale resort-style lodging and RV sites. Picnics alongside the Merced River will be ‘off limits’ in favor of expanded restaurant seating.”

Park officials have painted the environmental groups’ resistance to these plans as denial of public access to the park. Kerr calls that stance “fear-mongering.”

“This is really more about preserving everyone’s access to the park than it is about denying access,” said Kerr. “This is not a matter of keeping people out; it is about preserving the crown jewel of our National Park system.”

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