Late last week, the Merced River in Yosemite
National Park was officially reopened to paddlers! Even though the new Wild and Scenic River Plan
was finalized a year ago, the actual rules and regulations for the Park (the
Superintendent’s Compendium) still needed to be updated. This finally happened on Friday,
April 24, 2015, and is the culmination of seven years of sustained engagement by American
Whitewater with the National Park Service and other stakeholders in this process. Allowing
paddling was a tiny, yet important component of the grander plan to preserve the outstandingly
remarkable values of the Wild and Scenic Merced River.
The Merced River Management Plan is the most extensive plan of its type ever produced. The narrow
geography of Yosemite Valley, combined with the quarter mile Wild and Scenic boundary that
extends on either side of the Merced River, meant that this plan would address virtually all
activities in the Valley. In fact, that is exactly what the Judge said in ruling against two
previous plans submitted by the Park Service.
American Whitewater was a vocal supporter of this final plan when it was released. Yes, we were
pleased that this plan would open up previously closed sections of the Merced, but more
importantly, this plan provided balance between a wide array of user groups and resource
protection needs. To be clear, not all sections of the river have been opened and those sections
that are open have user capacity limitations. The key success for paddlers, and one that American
Whitewater fought hard to achieve, is that paddlers are treated on equal footing with other
comparable uses. Early on we coined the phrase, “A river is a trail and a boat is a
backpack.” Viewing boating through this lens made it easier to describe river use in a way
that was consistent with how the Park manages other trails.
On April 13, we joined with Park Service staff to float the entire length of Yosemite Valley.
Because the river had not officially opened yet, we got a special use permit from Superintendent
Don Neubacher in order to float the river. Our group included a range of paddling history from
Richard Montgomery (first to paddle the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne), to long standing ARTA
nonprofit manager Steve Welch, lifetime river advocate Bob Center and American Whitewater’s
California Stewardship Director, Dave Steindorf. Yosemite National Park Chief of Staff Mike
Gauthier also joined us, along with thirty river enthusiast/advocates.
“We want to embrace paddling, we want it to work, and we want it to be really successful
and that’s what this whole day is really about,” Gauthier said on the morning of the
inaugural paddle. Gauthier has been a strong advocate for paddling in the Park.
The welcoming committee at the river’s edge consisted of Yosemite Superintendent Neubacher
and Chief Ranger Kevin Killian. “To open up the river was an effort, but a worthwhile
effort as long as we can protect the values that the Park and Merced River Plan were established
for. I think we are furthering the advocacy of protecting the Park with you all being
here,” Killian said. “There’s a lot to learn today and it represents that the
Park is committed to figuring out a way to keep the river open to providing boater access and
making it as hassle free as possible.”
The established put-in for the Valley float starts from Clark’s Bridge near the stables.
Take out locations are at El Cap Meadow and just downstream of Pohono Bridge. A
self-registration may be installed at the put-in, but for now, the park will be monitoring use to
determine the need for a permit system in the future.
Specific information about this run, access points, river levels, etc. can be found on the
American Whitewater river pages for these reaches. We are still awaiting the final compendium
amendment for the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River Plan. We believe that the process and changes we
have made here will make paddlers feel invested both in Yosemite and the National Park System as