Yosemite projects' delay upheld

In a blow to the National Park Service, a federal appellate court Thursday upheld a Fresno judge's order that stopped 14 construction projects in Yosemite Valley.

U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii ordered the park service in November 2006 to halt more than $100 million in projects -- including the $35 million effort to rebuild Yosemite Lodge -- until the agency rewrote its controversial plan to protect the Merced River.

The park service appealed the judge's ruling, but a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Ishii on Thursday, saying the agency must hold off on those projects until September 2009 -- the deadline for a new river plan that must address environmentalists' fears that development would hurt Yosemite's fragile ecosystems.

The appellate court said the park service failed to sufficiently address a key issue -- what number of visitors would harm the federally protected river.

Without that number, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote, the framework of the park service's plan "is reactionary and requires a response only after degradation has already occurred."

Yosemite park spokesman Scott Gediman said the level of visitors that could cause degradation is an elusive number because the park is so vast. He said the park has no plans to limit visitors.

"It's frustrating because the public clearly wants these projects to be completed," he said.

He also said the ruling could jeopardize about $200 million that Congress set aside for Yosemite after the floods of 1997. The 14 projects are part of a $441 million planned overhaul.

Now, the park service must devise a new plan because of "a few people with narrow views," Gediman said, referring to the Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Government. The two groups have led the legal battle against the park service.

"Part of the park service's propaganda is that we're fringe groups," but the court decisions have proved that's not true, said Bart Brown, chairman of Mariposans. He also doesn't believe the federal funding will be lost.

Brown said the Merced River should be free of waste or air pollution caused by traffic and shouldn't be endangered by construction too near its banks.

The lawsuit dates back to 2000, three years after a large Merced River flood caused extensive damage in Yosemite Valley. The river swamped Yosemite Valley campgrounds and sewage facilities, and damaged many buildings.

As the park service planned the lodge reconstruction and other projects, environmentalists argued that a legally acceptable plan needed to be in place before work could begin along the river.

The park service wrote its initial plan in 2000, but it was rejected by environmentalists.

When the agency came out with a revised plan in 2005, Gediman said, several environmental groups, including The Wilderness Society and the National Resource Defense Council, supported it.

In addition to remodeling Yosemite Lodge, the projects include improvements on the sewage system, replacement of the Happy Isles footbridge and removal of an old sewage treatment plant in El Portal. In all, the 14 projects were estimated to cost nearly $105 million, park records show.

The utility project would fix the valley's sewage system, which is under a state cleanup order for sewage spills into the river, Gediman said.

"Some of those pipes are 60 to 70 years old," he said.

Another project, repaving the Valley Loop road, would make the park safer for motorists. There are also plans to rebuild campgrounds destroyed by the 1997 flood, he said.

The Friends of Yosemite and Mariposans, however, have used the courts to halt those plans.

Ishii rejected the park service's 2005 plan -- a document that guides management of the Merced under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act -- saying it did not specify limits on the number of visitors around the river, which has sensitive areas that might be trampled by crowds.

Gediman said the park service will continue working on its new river plan, work that began after Ishii made his 2006 ruling.

By the end of this year, or early next year, the public will have ample time to comment on it, he said.

"It's sad that a few people can stop the public from seeing improvements that will make Yosemite Valley a better place for everyone," Gediman said.