The Time to Speak Out for Yosemite’s History is Now

a veerkamp half domeWritten by Anthony Veerkamp, Project Manager

Many of us have a big red circle on our calendars around Tax Day, April 15th, but you might add another one around April 18th: that’s the last date to comment on the draft Merced River Plan. While it’s true that sending a letter off to the National Park Service won’t result in a refund check, you do get the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve done your part to assure the protection of over one hundred historic structures in Yosemite National Park. (What’s more, as you’ll see below, it’s a pretty light lift.)

Sugar Pine Yosemite HABS/HAERSince the draft Merced River Plan (MRP) was released in January, my colleague Amy Cole and I have been poring over its thousands of pages and dozens of appendices and supporting scientific reports. While nobody cracks open an environmental review document expecting a rollicking good read, the MRP disappoints even the modest expectations of anyone who cares about historic places.

At first blush the plan seems hunky dory, and why shouldn’t it? We're talking about a plan by the National Park Service here. You don't go looking for proposals to tear down the Ahwahnee Hotel to make room for a granite quarry from the agency whose fundamental purpose is to protect our heritage. (Just to be clear, the NPS does NOT propose these actions.)

While there's nothing quite so gruesome here, by the time Amy and I reached the end of the plan we were feeling a bit bruised and battered. So what’s wrong with the plan? Plenty. We have focused our Yosemite advocacy efforts on the threats to the iconic Rustic style bridges spanning the Merced River. Despite our hard work, Sugar Pine Bridge is still proposed for "removal" (translation: demolition.) Fortunately, Stoneman Bridge and Ahwahnee Bridge would not be demolished in the proposed plan, but they are still at risk in other alternatives under consideration.

Please understand that these historic bridges are not structurally unsafe or too narrow to accommodate traffic (Sugar Pine  and Ahwahnee Bridges have in fact been pedestrian only for some time), nor do they leak toxic gunk into the pristine waters of the Merced. The only reason these bridges are at risk is because they are said to interfere with the natural processes of the Merced River. Keep in mind that the bridges have been "interfering" for over eighty years now, and were already listed on the National Register at the time Congress designated the Merced River as a “Wild and Scenic” river.

Sugar Pine Bridge may be the most iconic historic structure at risk, but the MRP affects historic resources from the High Sierra to Wawona and El Portal. For example, the plan proposes the wholesale removal of “Boystown” (sorry girls—that’s the historic name) located at Curry Village. 15 cabins and 72 tent cabins built in 1930 would be removed in that single action. This comes on top of many other cabins that have already been demolished rather than moved due to the risk of rockfall.

Over at Yosemite Village, the late 1930’s Concessioner Headquarters Building and the 1920 Curry Garage would be removed to make way for parking. Outside of the valley, the Lake Merced High Sierra Camp would lose half of its 22 tent cabins, with future plans to replace the white fabric with something deemed less visually offensive. (What? Beige?) And it’s not just buildings and structures. Also on the hit list is Curry Orchard, the historic apple orchard at Curry Village that is the only remaining evidence of early agricultural activity in the valley.

Yosemite Boystown Tent CabinsThis is a partial list—in all, over 100 historic structures would be lost, a count that does not include structures that have not yet been evaluated for historic significance, such as eight nearly century-old cottages at Yosemite Lodge.

Fortunately, the plan is still in draft, and the NPS has invited the public to weigh in before the Merced River Plan is finalized, but the time to act is now. Please take a moment to write to Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher and tell him that you oppose proposals to demolish historic structures, and instead support a balanced plan that ensures that Americans have the opportunity to experience Yosemite’s unique natural beauty and rich historical legacy. We have crafted a sample message to NPS that we encourage you to customize.

Please check back for additional updates on the bridges of Yosemite Valley and our efforts to preserve Yosemite’s unique heritage. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.