EDITORIAL: Water under a bridge

Removal of historic Yosemite span would be a mistake

Blog Entry August 14, 2012

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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If you pick the right candidate, water will play along.

I remember learning how to skip rocks on the shores of Lake Michigan. To be solid in the sport demands a keen eye to separate the flying disks from the ones that are clumsy in flight. With the correct fling of the wrist, the water quickly becomes a gratifying form of entertainment. It’s as if the element works with you to pop the stone up repeatedly until it grows tired of the act and swallows it whole.

The Merced River in the Yosemite National Park does not really have a playful side. Called the Voice of Yosemite by famed naturalist John Muir, the twisting body of water’s only focus is flowing naturally for 81 miles through the park without interruption. The Stoneman Bridge, and two others like it, are becoming too rough with the Merced, and environmentalists are swarming in like over-protective parents whose only desire is to pull the threat away.

The Stoneman Bridge is an 80-year-old, 205-ft arching span decorated in rough-hewn granite. Back in the early 20th century, the park needed a way to transport tourists from one side of the river to another, and those involved pushed their talents to the limits in order to make the Stoneman Bridge blend into the surrounding environment. Their efforts were paid in accolades—handsomely. Today it is one of the most photographed pieces of Yosemite National Park.

However, the Merced River has been knighted by the federal government. A couple of decades ago it was designated a “Wild and Scenic River,” and many say it needs to meander effortlessly in order to thrive. The abutments of the Stoneman Bridge, and the two others like it, became problematic.

The courts and environmentalist groups are not skipping over this problem. For the last 15 years, the Yosemite National Park has been pressured to follow the restrictions behind the “Wild and Scenic River” designation.

Four of the five plans being considered involve removing bridges to restore the free-flowing conditions of the Merced. Two of the plans leave the Stoneman Bridge standing, but still call for the destruction of the 160-ft-long Ahwahnee Bridge and its 170-ft-long counterpart, the Sugar Pine Bridge. At one time, both helped form a road leading from the Ahwahnee Hotel to Mirror Lake.

The reason the Stoneman Bridge has a chance of surviving is because its abutments rest on the shores of the Merced, while the other two cut right into the river.
In the meantime, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed all three spans on its 2012 most endangered historic places list.

So the park finds itself in anything but a free-flowing situation. If it tears down one, two or all three bridges, preservationists will do anything but try to restore the park’s image. If it keeps one, two or all three bridges up, environmentalists will continue with the noise pollution generated over the last 1½ decades.

My first solution was to cut and remove the bridges and place them in an area where tourists could still cross them and point cameras. However, how are these tourists going to reach certain points of interest with any one of these bridges out of service? There must be a way, but it must be a difficult one. As a national park, officials must provide visitors with appropriate access and modes of transportation. All three of these bridges should remain at their current location.

It did not take long for me to become a pro rock skipper, when I could pick up any stone—even the ones clumsy in flight—and send it off for a little fun. They all became good candidates, and maybe in time the green proponents will see the same in the Yosemite bridges. However, first things first—they need to play along. R&B

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