YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - The plunging waterfalls and soaring crags chiseled by the Merced River draw millions of visitors each year, but the crowds are precisely what threatens the waterway and the park.
Efforts to safeguard the Merced have spawned a court battle over the future of development in Yosemite National Park's most popular stretch. The case may come down to the challenge facing all of America's parks: Should they remain open to everyone, or should access be limited in the interest of protecting them?
In November, a federal judge barred crews from finishing $60 million in construction projects in Yosemite Valley, siding with a small group of environmentalists who sued the federal government, saying further commercial development would bring greater numbers of visitors, thus threatening the Merced's fragile ecosystem.
"The park's plans for commercialization could damage Yosemite for future generations," said Bridget Kerr, a member of Friends of Yosemite Valley, one of two local environmental groups that filed the suit.
The government is appealing, fearing the ruling could force the National Park Service to limit the number of people allowed into Yosemite each day, a precedent it doesn't want to see echoed in other parks.
"I don't think we've ever had a ruling with these kind of implications," said Kerri Cahill, a Denver-based planner for the park service. "It's going to have a direct influence on the public who care about these places."
I had the fortune of visiting Yosemite National Park back in May 2004, if I remember correctly. I remember that the day after I arrived, the waterfalls were at their peak. It made for some great photographs. Here are some you can find at Webshots Yosemite gallery.
The Yosemite Valley is a pretty limited space; and the National Park Service has several buses that run throughout the Valley. If there really is a concern, why not create a parking area outside the park entrance -- or at least outside the Valley -- to reduce any potential harm from auto emissions? However, even I thought they could use more accommodations in Yosemite Valley itself -- or at least near it. As far as the limited parking space, I was usually able to find a spot while I was there, but then I didn't visit the park during its summer peak, either.
Many people have complained about the fact that the available lodging is a little too rustic. The walls are so thin that you can hear people in the next room pretty easily and the shower setup is such that you have to walk outside (even for the hotel rooms) and should probably be updated with a modern design. A lot of the lodges were built over a hundred years ago, and, honestly, the shortcomings they present can distract from the enjoyment of the park. I realize that most people will come back again and again despite having to "rough it." But I also think that continual upkeep and upgrades is a fact of life. I would rather that the National Park Service increase the cost of the accomodations that are available so that they can improve the services, and accommodations they provide, even at the risk that some will fear that it will become "a playground of the rich."