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Plans for Merced River in Yosemite Upheld

Ruling: Judge's decision clears the way for some key projects, such as upgrading lodging, reducing parking and camping. Park will get more visitors, critics say.

April 02, 2002|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge has upheld a park service plan for managing the Merced River corridor in Yosemite National Park, removing a potential roadblock to a number of upcoming restoration projects.

Ruling in a two-year-old lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii rejected claims that the plan did not adequately protect the river corridor and allowed harmful development.

The case had split environmental groups, which lined up on both sides of the lawsuit.

It was filed against the U.S. Department of the Interior by Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Growth.

"The overall thrust of the suit was that the plan the park service prepared for the Merced River was not based on protecting the river's values," said Julia Olson, an Oakland attorney who represented the two groups. They contended that the plan is "a template for future development in Yosemite Valley and along the corridor."

It also "allows unlimited numbers of people to use the river corridor," contrary to congressional guidelines for wild and scenic rivers, Olson said.

Park service management of Yosemite is a contentious issue, environmentally and politically. Some complain that not enough is being done to protect the valley from hordes of adoring visitors. Others say plans to upgrade lodging and reduce parking and camping on the valley floor will chase away visitors, particularly families of modest means.

A decision against the river plan could have affected some key valley projects in the river corridor.

"If it had gone the other way, we would have had to re-look at a lot of things," said Scott Gediman, Yosemite ranger and park spokesman. He mentioned, for example, Yosemite Lodge reconstruction and renovation of the Yosemite Falls parking area.

"Overall," Gediman said, "I think the decision is a validation of the Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan. We felt and still feel it is a very good plan and will protect the Merced ... within Yosemite Park."

Suit Splits Several Environmental Groups

The Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Assn. and Wilderness Society filed briefs in support of the river plan.

"The strength of the court ruling in the river lawsuit is really most welcome in clearing the way for long-needed changes in the park," said Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society.

The Sierra Club and Western Environmental Law Center were among dozens of groups that signed briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs, against the plan.

Olson said her clients had not decided whether they would appeal the decision, handed down March 22 by the Eastern District of California.

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