January 1, 2013

Outside the Box: Grand Spans

Bridging the Gap Between Nature and Historic Structures in Yosemite National Park

Follow the Merced River as it meanders through Yosemite Valley and you’ll see, towering above, a panorama of imposing granite cliffs and domes; steep, rushing waterfalls; and monumental rock spires. As your gaze returns to eye-level, you’ll see a number of manmade marvels, including eight historic bridges that span the river. With elegant stone arches designed to blend into the natural setting, these bridges, which in 1977 were added to the National Register of Historic Places, exemplify the National Park Service (NPS) Rustic Style of architecture.

But the future of three of these beloved structures—the Stoneman, Ahwahnee, and Sugar Pine bridges, completed between 1929 and 1932—is endangered if NPS proposals to remove them go forward.

In 1987, Congress designated the Merced a “Wild and Scenic River,” which required the Park Service to develop a plan to protect the 81 miles of river that run through Yosemite National Park. A decade later, a devastating flood caused widespread damage in Yosemite Valley. Proposals for quick reconstruction spurred debate over the proper balance between development and preservation in “the incomparable valley.”

A decade of litigation and aborted planning efforts ensued, but in 2009, NPS settled with environmental groups and agreed to finalize a new Comprehensive Management Plan for the Merced Wild and Scenic River, due to be completed by July 31, 2013.

As part of its planning process, in spring 2012, NPS presented five draft proposals, four of which would remove one or more of the historic bridges. In response, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Bridges of Yosemite Valley on its 2012 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and named them as a National Treasure.

Because the Wild and Scenic River Act is designed to protect a wide range of cultural and natural characteristics, it is not inherently biased against historic places. It requires federal land managers to identify what the Act calls “outstandingly remarkable values,” those things that make a river significant, and to develop a plan to protect them. History and culture are values identified as eligible for consideration.

Although NPS Spokesman Scott Gediman notes that “there is historical value to all three bridges,” the Park Service did not include any of the historic structures in Yosemite Valley on its initial list of remarkable values. In response to concerns raised by the National Trust and other stakeholders, the NPS recently corrected the omission, recognizing “river-related or river-dependent, rare, unique, or exemplary buildings and structures.”

“We commend the National Park Service for acknowledging that Yosemite Valley’s historic structures and buildings contribute to the significance of the Merced River,” says Anthony Veerkamp, field director of the San Francisco Field Office of the National Trust, “but historic resources are by no means out of the woods.” The current Merced River Plan draft still recommends removing at least Sugar Pine Bridge because of its impact on river flow.

Ultimately, Gediman says the key question for the NPS is: “Are the bridges consistent with the balance of visitor access and river preservation we’re trying to achieve?”

Diane Cole writes for The Wall Street Journal among other national publications and is the author of the memoir <em>After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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