Why Public Participation and Activism Matters: A Look at the Merced River Plan by Kelly Bessem

A pullout in the popular east Yosemite Valley with vegetation loss-- one human impact that the Merced River Plan is supposed to address.
A pullout next to the river in the popular east Yosemite Valley with vegetation loss– one human impact that the Merced River Plan is supposed to address.













Releasing the final plan in 2014, it took 27 years, 3 lawsuits, and over 3 years of planning for the Merced River Plan (MRP), aimed at complying with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, to come about.

The Merced River Plan manages one of two Wild and Scenic Rivers in iconic Yosemite National Park. As the 4th most visited national park in the US and 10th most visited in the world, there are a lot of people invested in Yosemite– especially Yosemite Valley, which hosts 90% of visitors. The famed Merced river flows through this valley and received Wild and Scenic River (WSR) designation in 1987. This designation prevents further development in the river corridor, and protects the river’s (1) free-flowing condition, (2) water quality, and (3) outstandingly remarkable values (biological, recreational, geologic, hydrologic, scenic, and cultural) (WSRA, 16 U.S.C. 1271 et seq.).

So what is this big Merced River Plan, and how can one find out current information about it?

As for online resources, you can go to the National Park Service (NPS) planning page for the MRP or you can consult their Facebook page for updates. If you are not familiar with environmental planning processes, the MRP planning page may be dizzying. The key decisions listed on the main page do not explain any portion of the reason why or how they were reached. There is no search button on the Yosemite National Park Facebook page, so you have to spend the time to scroll through months worth of posts before coming to MRP updates.

There’s no dedicated web page to current MRP implementation updates.

Yosemite park visitors seeking more real time updates on road construction and park closures are given the option to call the general information office to speak with a ranger. NPS does say, however, that “If you’re returned to the main menu, it means the ranger is already on the line (try again).” So the phone lines are minimally staffed, and one may not be able to get through right away.

In response to one recent call, the Yosemite park ranger seemed less than fully informed about whether construction was on schedule and had moved into its second phase. The second phase road circulation map online states an effective date of Nov. 21, 2016. This map had to be referenced before the ranger understood what was being talked about.

There seems to be a possible disconnect between park management and the public when it comes to the MRP.

A look at the three lawsuits leading to the final MRP reveals a lot about Yosemite’s NPS. Though the Merced River was designated in 1987, it was an eastern California district court ordering the NPS to prepare a Merced River Plan in 1999 that initiated the planning process. When NPS released the first draft of the plan in 2000, it was deemed lax on conservation goals by the Ninth Circuit appeals court because it didn’t properly address what public use the River could tolerate amid such high visitation rates. Two local NGOs, Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Growth (collectively “Friends”), brought this and the 2 proceeding lawsuits (2002, 2006, and 2008) against the NPS. It took a decade of litigation for Yosemite’s NPS to craft a plan that would do the minimum required by law. These lawsuits set the standard that Wild and Scenic River plans are to use preventative rather than reactionary management.

Those lawsuits and the public comments received during the 112 day comment period led to NPS revising the final plan. Some of the changes made due to public comments can be viewed here: MRP Response to Public Comment Examples. In the case of the Merced River Plan, public comment played a part.

During the public comment session in 2013, one person commented on the ease of access to MRP information.

“This is undeniabl[y] one of the biggest changes in park history and yet there is no information readily available or posted everywhere throughout the park,” said one Yosemite Valley visitor. “This should be handed out upon arrival as are other informative paperwork guests receive upon entry. Great job on the [Hantavirus] posters, pamphlets and information posted throughout the valley, now if you can only do the same with this. Staff at the Lodge had no idea about any of it nor did anyone at the visitors center. It was only after pressing and my insistence did Emily, a park ranger finally offer me a pamphlet which as I previously mentioned, successfully buried many significant and pertinent issues.” –Merced River Plan Public Comment #152

HSU politics professor Mark Baker gave some insight as to what engaged citizens can look for in a US park management plan if they seek out information themselves. He outlined what fundamental issues good policy in those regions should address.

“Recognition of the tension between environmental integrity and enjoyment,” Baker said. “A balance of those two competing mandates.”

He explained how the Organic Act of 1916 (which created the NPS) has created this tension, since it puts an emphasis on the NPS’s duty to promote tourism and increased visitation but also requires them to conserve the park.

According to HSU Environmental Management and Protection professor Steve Martin, the next step in finding the balance between environmental protection and recreation for Yosemite Valley is a an active and informed public. 

“Educating visitors about how they impact the park is more important than educating visitors about the plan itself, which is more behind the scenes,” said Martin. “Explaining to the visitors how to behave in the park in such a way that these actions [degradation] don’t keep recurring.”

Conservation and recreation go hand in hand, and both are needed to maintain the Merced River watershed. Watchdog nonprofits and citizens do have an impact, which can be utilized to create movement in the right direction.

HSU Forestry professor Sungnome Madrone has had over 45 years of experience related to watershed restoration, and his long list of accomplishments in successfully improving management of the redwood forests and watersheds of Humboldt County is inspiring in itself. He gave some insight into Wild and Scenic River Act (WSRA) implementation. Madrone recognized the shortcomings of government when it comes to compliance, but emphasized that it’s important to not get discouraged because really big things do happen with persistence. As long as there’s a movement in the right direction that’s reasonable, meaningful positive change is occurring.



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