YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Far humbler corners of America have faced a similar dilemma: How much human activity should be allowed in a natural setting that is also promoted as a tourist destination?
The National Park Service is proposing a significant makeover of Yosemite National Park that would change the way future generations of visitors experience the park, especially the 7-mile-long Yosemite Valley at its heart. The Park Service's plan would restore more than 200 acres of meadows, reorganize transportation and reduce traffic congestion. To shrink the human presence along the Merced River, park officials are also proposing closing nearby rental facilities for bicycling, horseback riding and rafting, as well as removing swimming pools, an ice rink and a stone bridge.
As with most things related to one of the nation's most beloved national parks, the plan has ignited fierce debate among environmentalists, campers and officials in California and Washington.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican whose district includes Yosemite, said at a recent House hearing that the idea of removing commercial facilities was meant to satisfy "the most radical and nihilistic fringe of the environmental left." But some environmentalists said the plan did not go far enough in protecting Yosemite Valley and the Merced River, which flows through 81 miles of the park.
Even among tourists on a recent weekday, there was little consensus regarding a park that is many things to its 4 million annual visitors.
The National Park Service early this year released the 2,500-page plan, called the Merced River Plan, in response to a long-running lawsuit charging that it was failing to preserve the river. The stretch of the Merced inside Yosemite was designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1987 and is protected under federal law.
After the Merced flooded in 1997 and destroyed many facilities, the Park Service drew up a rebuilding plan in 2000 that would also protect the river. Two environmental groups sued the Park Service, and a succession of courts rejected the first plan as well as a revised plan in 2005. After a federal appeals court ruling in 2008, the Park Service began working on its current, third plan.
The Park Service was required to produce a final plan by the end of July but was granted a five-month extension Thursday.
Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite, said the current plan incorporates more scientific analysis and public input than the two previous ones.
Greg Adair, the leader of Friends of Yosemite Valley, one of the two groups that sued the Park Service, said there was insufficient scientific analysis underlying the current plan. He said the plan was about the "status quo" and should have done more to decrease commercial services, which also require office and housing for support staff.