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Court's Merced River Ruling Creates Uncertainty Over Yosemite's Future

October 28, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Adding another twist in the fight over Yosemite's future, a U.S. appeals court delivered a victory Monday to a pair of environmental groups pressing for tighter preservation of the Merced River.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said park planners failed to establish proper visitor limits to ensure the meandering river was not harmed by overuse.

That tussle over "user capacity" could create ripples for the Yosemite Valley Plan, a dramatic revitalization effort underway in the narrow and popular gorge cut by the Merced River. Several development projects in the valley -- including removal of a moribund dam and replacement of an old bridge -- just began along the river.

Yosemite National Park officials said it remained uncertain how the court's decision would affect the valley plan and its broad assortment of projects to reshape visitors' experiences in one of the most popular tourist stops in the U.S. park system.

"We're going to be taking a careful approach," said Deb Schweizer, a park spokeswoman. "We really want to understand what this means."

Attorneys for Friends of Yosemite and Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Growth, the two groups that sued over the Merced River plan, predicted the ruling would put a halt to much of the development now underway. Sharon E. Duggan, a Berkeley attorney for the two groups, said the court's ruling meant that Yosemite planners needed to devise use limits for sensitive areas along the Merced River, which cascades for 81 miles through the park.

In the meantime, she said, park officials should "proceed very cautiously" before starting any work in the valley that might run counter to the spirit of the court ruling.

What remains unclear is whether park planners might be forced to establish daily entry limits at the national park as a way to ensure the Merced River does not suffer irreparable harm. The park has not capped entry since the mid-1990s, when a storm of bad publicity erupted after rangers turned away visitors on a busy holiday weekend.

The 9th Circuit opinion, written by Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, said the National Park Service didn't need to adopt a head count of all entrants, but urged Yosemite officials to adopt temporary limits of some kind to ensure the river was not harmed while a full study goes forward. Park officials have estimated that they will need five years to establish user-capacity limits.

Aside from demanding a study of user capacity, the judges determined that the park had failed to set proper boundaries for the river course through El Portal, home to most of the park's employees and headquarters for much of its operational staff.

The 9th Circuit sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii, who originally decided in the park's favor, and ordered him to produce a court order spelling out how the park service should proceed.

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