Future of the Merced River Corridor in Question

Posted on: July 19, 2008


Merced River Gorge, Yosemite National Park, California. With various organizations offering differing strategies on how to best manage resources of the Merced River Corridor, a nuanced conflict has emerged. It is hoped that a revised and fair plan will be in place beginning in 2012; yet in the meantime, an injunction by the Friends of the Yosemite Valley has halted all current projects underway by the National Park Service, likely to the degradation of the Merced Corridor. [Photo] National Park Service collection

As one of America's most heralded climbing Meccas, Yosemite Valley is home to countless classic climbs and areas, including the Merced River Corridor. Over the past few years this unique natural area has seen heavy human traffic, and many parties have interest in restoring and maintaining the resources of the Merced. However, an extremely nuanced conflict has emerged, as each faction has different ideas about how to best protect the area.

The Merced River Corridor is recognized and protected in two different ways at a federal level; the area falls within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, and was designated a Wild and Scenic River by the US Congress in 1987. Both of these levels of federal protection aim to guard the natural value of its resources while also allowing people to experience its unique nature. In the case of the Merced, a great deal of its unique value is born from the extraordinary rock climbing it offers. As more visitors flock to Yosemite Valley each year, the strain placed on areas like the Merced becomes heavier, and over the past few years, the issue has come to a head.

After a series of complicated lawsuits and injunctions, the officials of Yosemite National Park have found themselves in a demanding situation. The park, as ruled by the 9th Circuit Court of California, is required to develop a plan for the Merced area that will strike the ideal balance between protection and use. It seems inevitable that changes and restrictions will be imposed on area visitors, but the real challenge lies in developing restrictions that are not merely reactionary quotas. As Jason Keith, Policy Director for the Access Fund, explains: "The crux of the issue is how they [Yosemite National Park] are going to go about this planning process and follow the direction of the court while not making things completely arbitrary." Instead, he says, the Park should try for a policy "of more resource-based management that takes into account resource indicators, not just setting black and white numeric quotas."

Should Yosemite National Park fail to develop a plan of resource-based management and an accurate system through which to evaluate the impact of various users, climbers may be facing stricter regulations and quotas in the Valley. However, a series of planning meetings and collaborative efforts with other interested organizations has led to some concepts that could help strike the fragile and required balance. The Access Fund has cited camping rules in the area as an outstanding example of how the park can successfully manage the resource and visitors to the area. Instead of removing campsites or campgrounds, the Access Fund (among other organizations) believes that Yosemite should increase the number of campsites in the Valley. They feel that an increase in the more primitive-type camping opportunities in the park, and the removal of some of the more luxury lodging in the area, would not only help people connect to the protected nature of the valley, but also in turn reinforce responsible stewardship. It is constructive changes like this that the Access Fund and many others hope to see instead of blanket quotas and restrictions.

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Ironically, as the Park makes efforts in collaboration with the Access Fund and other organizations, the issue has been somewhat exacerbated by the injunctions filed by the coalition known as Friends of the Yosemite Valley. In an effort to reverse damage, encourage restoration and promote responsible management of the Merced, Friends of the Yosemite Valley brought all current projects underway by the National Park Service to a complete halt. The irony, says Keith, halting processes such as sewage treatment has actually been to the further detriment of the Wild and Scenic corridor of the Merced.

While the injunctions no doubt caused frustration among various parties, the fact remains that all involved groups have the same goal: they want to preserve and promote responsible use of an extremely unique area. Meetings and discussions about the management of the Merced continue to occur in Yosemite. On June 5th, 2008, the National Park's deadline for a revised draft of their plan for the Merced River Corridor was extended until 2011. It is hoped that a revised and fair plan will be in place beginning in 2012.

The dilemma that climbers and other park users are facing in the Yosemite Valley is not an isolated phenomenon. As more and more climbers, mountaineers and other visitors flock to unique and remarkable natural areas like the Merced, the question of responsible and fair management will become familiar to local organizations. Perhaps the lesson to be taken from the Yosemite Valley dilemma, Keith suggests, is one of involvement, communication and collaboration. Open lines of dialogue with all interested parties, from climbers and guides to Park Service officials to concerned community members, the varying perspectives and needs brought to the discussion are crucial to achieving dynamic, resource-based management programs that protect unique areas as well as encourage environmentally minded interaction and use.

Sources: Jason Keith, www.accessfund.org, www.nps.gov

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