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Photo by Lauren E. Marques

Ecological restoration plans of Yosemite National Park's Merced River propose the updates to several bridges such as this one that interfere with the free-flow of the Merced River. According to the park's scientists, river restoration may also enhance water quality.

Yosemite advocates consider how to handle historic bridges

by Denisse J. González
Apr 30, 2013


Photo by Lauren E. Marques


Yosemite National Park

Millions of people cross the scenic Sugar Pine Bridge at Yosemite National Park each year. Now the rustic stone bridge is the scene of controversy as part of a National Park Service 20-year plan that proposes to remove it from the Merced River.

Today marks the last day for the public to submit comments to the National Park Service on five, 20-year proposed plans that may change the 122 mile-long Merced River. Plans include removing the Sugar Pine and restoring other aging bridges, most built in the 1920s.

Yosemite's Merced River is central to the natural, historical and cultural landscape of Yosemite Valley. Today marks the last day for the public to submit comments to the National Park Service on five, 20-year proposed plans.

The park, with its waterfalls, nature trails and dramatic peaks, attract four million visitors a year. The proposed plan would demolish Sugar Pine Bridge to restore water quality in the river. 

Yosemite is home to American Indian cultures with traditions associated with the river, and also to rich and diverse plant and wildlife communities. 

Park staff has already received more than 40,000 comments on the plans that have sharply divided historic preservationists and environmentalists. 

One of the five proposed plans, the removal of Sugar Pine Bridge would allow for the ecological restoration of Merced River and open up free-flowing water conditions to restore fish spawning and the many habitats that would benefit from restoration.

But the National Trust for Historic Preservation said what may be put in danger is “the demolition of some of the most beloved and significant historic structures,” according to the  trust's website. 

“The bridges are uniquely significant,” said the non-profit’s field director, Anthony Veerkamp. “The collection of bridges were already on the national register since the 1970s, before they were 50 years old.” 

The Merced Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan includes five proposed options for restoration, a recovery process for an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged and/or destroyed.

The option identified by the park service as the "preferred plan" includes the proposal to demolish the Sugar Pine Bridge. 

“We understand that some drastic decisions need to be made. But I don’t think that this requires herculean efforts to change the plan and address our concerns,” said Veerkamp.

Yosemite National Park Spokesman Scott Gediman said researchers from several academic fields studied the implications of the plans from an ecological to a cultural perspective.

“When we look at the actions that we may take within the Merced River, our primary goal is to protect it,” Gediman said. “What we are looking at is protecting both natural and cultural resources, we don’t just favor one over the other.”

Erosion is a problem for the river and favors more free-flowing water.   

“We have to look at everything cumulatively; it’s a process of analyzing all the comments. It is very rarely cut and dry.” 

Park staff plan to issue a final environmental impact statement by the end of July after a long in-depth “comment analysis period” that may alter and join the proposed plans.

"What we do as the planning team is that we take the research and the conclusion of the research and consolidate that into the draft plan,” Gediman said. “The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve and protect the national park, the Merced River and its resources.”

The historic preservation groups demand the park must also protect and enhance historical resources and revise the bridge demolition proposal, according to Veerkamp.

“If there’s something up for grabs it’s that historic resources take it on the chin,” said Veerkamp. “The entirety of Yosemite Valley constitutes a very large historic significance. We are dealing with a national historical resource.” 

The environmental cost of human history on the river has been heavily impacted by human actions that have “lingering effects”, according to the historic preservation director. 

“There’s a strain of environmental community that looks at the poor track record of managing significant sites such as Yosemite," Veerkamp said. "In its historic development, the National Park Service took extraordinary care in developing a style [of construction] that was an appropriate foil to the natural environment around it. It compliments the natural environment - it does not distract from it. We should celebrate that legacy.”

As warmer weather approaches the west coast Yosemite Park will see the year’s largest migration of visitors, many of who may see historical changes. 

“Yosemite National Park, like all national parks, belongs to the American people. We are fortunate to get almost 4 million visitors a year,” Gediman said.