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Yosemite plan to protect Merced River would allow recreational activities to continue

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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - Yosemite National Park will cap visitors at current levels in its most popular areas, but it will add campsites and maintain bike and raft rentals under a plan announced Friday to protect the river that runs through its heart.

Tourists complained last year when the National Park Service considered getting rid of bicycle and river-raft rentals as part of a court-ordered effort to protect the Merced River, which received congressional "wild and scenic" designation in 1987.

Park officials have long wrestled with preserving the river while maintaining public access to Yosemite Valley, which receives the bulk of the park's 4 million visitors each year.

The third-most visited national park, Yosemite boasts 1,200 square miles of wilderness. Most visitors end up in the 8-square-mile Yosemite Valley, home to the towering Half Dome and El Capitan granite monoliths, stands of pines and stair-step waterfalls.

The number of visitors to Yosemite Valley will be limited to 18,710 a day and 21,000 visitors a day during peak times — similar to traffic seen in the last several years. The park planned to ease congestion by adding shuttle buses and improving traffic flow.

Once capacity is reached, cars will be turned away and directed to other sections of the park. There will also be advance warning signs posted once traffic gets too heavy.

Environmentalists said the plan does little to ease overcrowding.

The National Park Service "has chosen to nibble around the edges instead of taking a big bite out of the congestion and crowding that degrades Yosemite Valley," said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.

He added: "The heart of the Yosemite Valley will continue to be diminished by too many people and too many cars. "

Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, said he supports the expanded use of public transportation and bike rentals.

"Those measures, however, fall short of what is needed to fix the congestion that detracts from the beautiful natural setting," he said.

After receiving thousands of public comments, park officials decided that people can still bike and raft, but the rental facilities will be moved farther away from the flood-prone river.

Under the revised plan, the park will also add 174 more campsites for a total of 640 sites, and increase parking for visitors who don't stay overnight. Officials also tabled a proposal to develop the west end of Yosemite Valley. A 1920s-era ice-skating rink will be moved back to its original location outside the river corridor.

"It strikes a balance between protecting the river and improving access," said Kathleen Morse, the park's chief of planning.

The National Parks Conservation Association agreed.

The proposal "ensures that Yosemite will maintain its 'crown jewel' status over the long-term," said Neal Desai, a field director.

Once the plan is finalized within a month, park officials will begin work to restore nearly 200 acres of meadows by removing stones and cement in riverbeds. Native vegetation will be planted to stabilize riverbanks, and some roads and trails will be removed.

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