Published December 12, 2010
FRESNO, Calif. – Those who live among or visit the craggy mountains surrounding Yosemite National Park share a love of the ever-changing landscape, shaped by rushing water, ice and avalanches.
But residents and tourism officials — not to mention ecologists and transportation engineers — are feeling much less neighborly about the spectacular region these days. They've split into feuding factions over how to cope with a massive slide of Volkwagen-sized boulders that closed the only all-weather highway into the park.
The problem arose nearly five years ago when almost 800 million tons of rocks and debris tumbled onto Highway 140, creating a blockade that forced tourists from the San Francisco Bay area to take hours-long detours to reach the valley.
As a temporary fix, crews slapped two one-lane bridges across the Merced River canyon.
Some environmentalists now favor digging a tunnel through the still-shifting rubble, although biologists warn that proposal could kill off a rare, native salamander.
Other groups are pushing for a broad viaduct to span the river, a solution rafting companies have claimed could cripple their business.
And as the state highway repair costs soar up to $180 million dollars in turbulent economic times, many residents are hoping to call the whole thing off.
"My personal attitude is save the money," said Gordon Siverson, a clerk at the El Portal Market, where travelers often pick up camping supplies before entering the park. "Strangely, I kind of like the road the way it is."
Since summer 2006, all vehicles heading through the park's West entrance have had to wait at a stoplight to access the narrow temporary bridges across the canyon before continuing on to the valley floor.
Kevin Cann, the park's former deputy superintendent, was among the many who made the torturous, six-hour commute on mountain roads to reach his office inside the park before the emergency bridges were put in place.
"As soon as summer hit, it got even worse because you would be backed up against all the mobile homes and the trailers," said Cann, now a county supervisor who lives in nearby Mariposa. "It was a total nightmare. The rockslide had a huge impact on running the park because so many National Park Service employees live outside Yosemite."
The cash-strapped counties along Yosemite's perimeter suffered for a time as well, since they pave their roads and pay local police in part using tax money levied on hotels inside the park.
While visitor numbers are on the rise again, local officials worry that a flood could wash out the one-lane bridges, preventing tour buses from reaching the park and drying up revenue in a flash.
Travelers of all stripes expect unfettered access to Yosemite's spectacular monoliths and dramatic waterfalls, said park spokesman Scott Gediman.
So even if rocks are likely to tumble again, California Department of Transportation officials say they are obligated to do something to fix the passage — or at the very least, go through this process to decide against it. Thus far, the agency has spent $20 million on temporary roadways and on designing seven separate alternatives for a new road.
"We're kind of walking on a tightrope because we have to look at all these laws that impact what we're doing and juggle them," said Jennifer Taylor, the Fresno-based acting chief of the environmental division responsible for the project. "That's frustrating to people. They say, 'Why are you doing all this? This is crazy.' We're trying to make sure we end up with a process that is legally defensible."
Any permanent fix must be approved by the three federal and four state agencies that regulate the canyon's roads, waterways, flora and fauna. Once they sign off on a plan, construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2013 and is expected to last three years.
This week, dozens of residents turned out to learn about and debate the proposals in community meetings in towns outside the park.
One option calls for building two-lane cement bridges that an environmental planner said look "more appropriate for a Los Angeles freeway."
Other plans would put up twin viaducts crisscrossing the river, separated by a retaining wall cut into the canyon's north slope, now a prime spot for wildflowers.
Several of the bridges won't be structurally sound without sinking cement piers on the river's edge, planners say. Because the river is federally protected, one environmental group hasn't ruled out filing suit should those plans go forth.
The most expensive option by far would tunnel underneath the slide to realign the road with the old, paved highway on the other side of the river. But the slide itself fell squarely on top of the habitat of the tiny limestone salamander, listed as a threatened species in California.
"This is one of the most important salamanders on earth," said David Wake, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and reknowned expert on the creature. "They have survived everything the world has been able to throw at them for the last 65 million years, but now their survival is uncertain."
El Portal resident Laurel Anderson, who has been active in local politics for decades, said the rockslide has created a conundrum the community can't solve on its own.
"The rockslide is natural. It's an act of Mother Nature or God," Anderson said. "Anything that we do is man's intervention, and visually, it's all pretty ugly."