February 03, 2012

Half Empty or Half Full?

Although the summit of Half Dome remains a symbol of the American Wilderness ideal, seeing photos of the 1,200 some people who hike the 8 mile trail to the summit daily during peak season is oddly reminiscent of a frenzied herd of cattle during feeding time. There seem to be two main issues rearing their heads in Yosemite National Park’s recently published Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan. One is regulating the sheer volume of visitors per day during high season, and the other is whether the metal cable “handrails” (that run the last 400 feet of 45 degree slick rock up the east face) are in compliance with the Wilderness Act of 1964.

  Half dome
Let us preface by saying….rest easy. No one has suggested a permit should be required to climb Half Dome via a technical route or to use the cables as a descent from a technical climb. The main issue is regulating the hordes of hikers who are flocking to Half Dome. To this end, the Park will likely impose new permitting guidelines that would limit the number of users allowed on the towering granite monolith to 400 people per day (300 per day after 2013 ). Before the trial permitting system was implemented in 2010, approximately 400 people used this trail on weekdays, while about an average of 800 people used this trail on weekends and holidays. Virtually no climbers will be affected by this new policy, other than fewer hikers to negotiate as you descend the cables.

The metal cables have assisted recreational users to access the breathtaking summit of Half Dome for almost 100 years—they were installed by the Sierra Club way back in 1919. There is, however, some controversy surrounding their existence, as Half Dome lies within a federally designated Wilderness area. The Wilderness Act mandates that lands designated as Federal Wilderness be areas “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and that provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined” recreation. The Act also prohibits structures and installations “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area.” Even though the cables predate the Wilderness Act by 45 years, at least one advocacy group has suggested they are inconsistent with the Act and should be removed.

Half dome cables

So, while this issue should not affect the technical ascent of Half Dome by climbers, most climbing parties use the cables to walk off the summit. Without them, it would be a much sketchier descent, and would probably require bolted rappel stations. The Access Fund supports the continued existence and unrestricted use of the cables route for descending Half Dome but does acknowledge the need for the NPS to address concerns related to public safety and wilderness values.

The Access Fund urges you to weigh in on this issue. Yosemite National Park is accepting public comment on the Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan until March 15, 2012. If this issue is important to you, then make yourself heard!

Visit Yosemite’s website for more information on the plan and the comment page to add your input.


November 18, 2011

Yosemite Planning, Part 2: Jason Keith in San Fran

San FranOn Tuesday November 8, longtime Access Fund regional coordinator Paul Minault joined me in a meeting with several San Francisco climbers hosted by Renee DeAngelis from Planet Granite climbing gym. We discussed the many management issues being developed in Yosemite including, explored specific preferences that climbers might have on particular issues such as new camping locations and how to restore El Cap Meadow, and filled out the MRP workbooks.

On Wednesday I met with the “Yosemite Roundtable” working group that has representatives from the National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Student Conservation Association, and American Alpine Club, among others. The Access Fund has been a member of this group for a number of years and this particular meeting was held at the Presidio and hosted by Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher and his staff who provided us an update on the MRP, the TRP, and various other current issues of interest to the working group. Immediately after this meeting the NPS held another well-attended MRP workshop where Park planners walked the public through the workbook and took comments from a number of San Fran meetingpassionate longstanding Yosemite stakeholders. Later that evening I got a ride from Nora De Cuir over to a climber meeting in Berkeley that was attended by AF Board member Beth Rodden and organized by Lyn Barazza and the folks from Touchstone Gyms. Here again we discussed our preferences for climbing and bouldering in the Valley using the MRP workbook as guide to highlight the various issues that matter to climbers.

This was a great trip that significantly informed the Access Fund’s advocacy position on several Yosemite issues of importance to climbers. Thanks to Gator, Don Neubacher, Renee, and Lyn for making it so productive.

Climbers interested in Yosemite issues should take of look at the MRP workbook and get your comments in by November 30. The Access Fund’s positions on appropriate MRP planning alternatives are as follows:

  • Yosemite planners should work to reverse lodging/camping ratio (currently 60/40) to provide more camping and less emphasis on lodging (move lodging to the park boundaries). Providing more camping in the Park, and limiting lodging in the park to rustic/primitive accommodations, is consistent with the NPS's own management policies that promote visitors having a direct relationship to Park resources. Adjusting this ratio would also be more consistent with a national park instead of the luxury resort or amusement park that Yosemite often resembles. AF’s Valley Plan comments are found here.
  • Park planners should include in the MRP the several "improvements" for Camp 4 that were contemplated in Lodge Redevelopment Plan (which was stalled by the MRP litigation). These
    improvements include showers, fencing to encourage vegetation, limited loud bus noise, foul weather cooking pavilion and communal fire, and a nearby location for Ken Yager's Yosemite climbing museum. In addition to focusing on more camping in the Park, planners should also improve the quality of the camping experience, especially at locations such as Camp 4 where climbers are forced into highly dense and low-quality campsites. Planners should recognize the historic importance of this campground and improve some of the basic amenities such as the bathrooms. See AF’s previous comments on Camp 4 planning here.
  • Yosemite planners should restore as much camping as possible to sites that have already been disturbed such as the Pine and Oak lodging units and the Rivers Campground that were destroyed in the 1997 flood. These areas in particular could be engineered with the recognition that they will again be flooded. Plan maps should indicate flood plain areas where shallow flood depths and low water velocities make the development of campsites feasible. Planners should establish diversity of camping opportunities (including walk-in, walk-to, and a "drop-off" your gear but walk-in model) and not just limit opportunities to drive-in campgrounds (where RV generators, for example, impact the experience) or the ghetto at Camp 4. The Park should bring campsite numbers at least back to pre-flood totals as contemplated in Yosemite's General Management Plan (there's currently a shortfall of 300 campsites), but any new sites should be focused on placement in the East Valley so that the largely undisturbed areas west of Camp 4 don't also suffer from campfire smoke and new infrastructure. The Access Fund has also long advocated for the addition of camping in the Park outside of Yosemite Valley.
  • The Park should ensure climbing needs are addressed in the MRP, particularly parking locations throughout Valley and the Merced Gorge segment (Cookie Cliff, Arch Rock, etc.).
  • Park planners should ensure that measures to restore or harden El Cap Meadow are not unsightly from above. The MRP should consider hybrid approach for boardwalk further west of typical climber use areas, and use fencing and other ways to focus people onto a few discrete paths into Meadow. The MRP should ensure that climbers can continue their traditional use of the Meadow.
  • Park planners should ensure that there is adequate day use parking while pursuing a range of transit strategies to reduce auto use in the Valley.
  • Non-resource based attractions and high-impact commercial amusements such as the swimming pool, skating rink, and horseback rides to Mirror Lake should be phased out.
  • The Plan should include a noise control element that addresses noise sources such as idling tour buses, motorcycles, trash collection, RV generators, the Green Dragon touring flatbeds and others.

Yosemite Planning, Part 1: Jason Keith Visits the Valley

On Saturday November 5, I flew into Fresno and drove up to the Valley where I crashed at Mike Gauthier’s cabin in Yosemite Village. Better known as “Gator” to his friends and colleagues, Mike formerly worked for the National Park Service on Denali and Rainier,Yosemite served a two-year stint with the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and Department and Interior in Washington, DC, and is the newly anointed Chief of Staff to Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher. Besides being fun to hang out with, Gator is a life-long climber who has a unique insight into how his professional work and passion for climbing interact, including the implications in the recently released Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan (MRP).

Over the past few years The Access Fund has become increasingly involved in various management planning issues in Yosemite that either directly affect climbing access or the various ways, such as camping, that climbers visit the Valley. The latest of these has been the Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan, which concerns essentially everything climbers do in the park before they actually put their climbing shoes on: transportation, parking, camping, amenities, and site specific issues such as potential changes to El Cap Meadow and Camp 4. See AF’s MRP scoping comments here. The MRP is the subject of extensive litigation that resulted in a court ordering the park to determine and enforce a specific carrying capacity number for visitors in the Merced River planning area (the Valley) which in turn will govern any new developments in Yosemite.

Meeting with SuperWhile waiting out a snowstorm, Mike suggested that we call Superintendent Neubacher to see if he wanted to join us (on his day off no less) on a tour of the various potential new camping locations in the Valley that were contemplated in the MRP. He graciously agreed and spent half of his Sunday with us checking out some spots near Camp 4, Eagle Creek, El Cap Meadow, and Taft Toe.

Spending the day with Superintendent Neubacher and Gator also gave me an opportunity to discuss various climbing-specific issues in the Park including fixed ropes and anchors, Camp 4 stay limits, and how carrying capacity limits might affect climbing activity. That evening Gator and I drove down to El Portal to have dinner with Yosemite Climbing Association’s Ken Yager and Yosemite climbing ranger Jesse McGahey to discuss their involvement in the upcoming Outdoor Alliance Partnership Summit in Golden, Colorado this December. Ken and Jesse will provide a presentation of how their private-public partnership facilitated the development of the Yosemite Facelift which is the mother of all Adopt-A-Crags and considered a huge success.

On Monday November 7, I attended the MRP workshop in the Valley where Yosemite staff presented various planning scenarios for Yosemite Valley which could eventually turn into planning alternatives. This was one of a series of workshops designed to give the public a window into the status of the Park’s thinking MRP Planning Meetingon the MRP thus far to avoid any surprises, provide an opportunity for public comment, and foster relationships among various Yosemite interest groups including the litigants of the MRP. This workshop was greatly facilitated by the MRP workbook (get your copy here, your comments due November 30 – see below for Access Fund position). Yosemite staff handed off 30 copies of this workbook which I took to a few climber meetings I had scheduled in the Bay Area.

Later that day I also met with longtime Yosemite wilderness manager Mark Fincher who is on the planning team for the Tuolumne River Plan (camping, parking, amenities at stake – see AF comments here) and an upcoming park-wide wilderness plan which matters to climbers because
specific climbing management provisions governing fixed anchors and ropes on El Cap, for example, will likely be developed. That evening I drove to San Francisco to prepare for another round of meetings with climbers, NPS staff, and other stakeholders interested in Yosemite issues.