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The Planet
January/February 1999 Volume 6, Number 1

Legal Program

Law Program's Yosemite Win Crowns Strong Year

by Alex Levinson Director, Environmental law program

The Sierra Club capped off a year of landmark courtroom successes with an especially satisfying legal victory, one that protects John Muir's Sierra Nevada and his favorite place to ramble: Yosemite Valley. A federal judge's preliminary ruling in the Club's favor convinced the National Park Service to drop its hastily conceived plan for rebuilding the Yosemite Lodge area in the valley after the devastating floods of 1996.

The flawed Lodge Plan threatened to further degrade the natural environment of Yosemite Valley: It would have relocated and added roads, parking lots and employee housing and expanded lodging facilities in currently undeveloped and environmentally sensitive areas, including the Merced River floodplain. The new facilities and roads would have damaged the wild-and-scenic values of the Merced River and interfered with normal runoff patterns. It would have aggravated traffic snarls in the valley.

According to lead Yosemite activist Sam Cogswell, "Because the Lodge Plan was not integrated into overall planning, it was impossible for the public, or even the Park Service, to evaluate whether it made any sense for the long-term needs of Yosemite Valley." In mid-November, the Park Service dropped its rebuilding plan, no doubt "persuaded" by the court's ruling granting a preliminary injunction request filed by the Club's Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund lawyers. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced that his department will develop a comprehensive plan - "one coherent blueprint" - for Yosemite. The Sierra Club lawsuit got credit in a Los Angeles Times editorial as being the catalyst for Babbitt's decision.

The Yosemite victory crowned a year in which Club lawsuits successfully challenged a habitat conservation plan that would actually have imperiled the Alabama beach mouse; obtained Endangered Species Act protection, after years of litigation, for the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep in California's San Gorgonio Mountains and the coho salmon of the Oregon coast; protected the wild-and-scenic St. Croix River along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border from a sprawl- and traffic-inducing bridge; and successfully challenged a federal wetlands law that would have increased unregulated wetlands destruction. These victories have created a lot of momentum for our ambitious expansion plans for 1999 and 2000. We are confident we'll be able to obtain some additional staff and financial resources, and will use those to protect wildlands and waters threatened by sprawl projects. We'll also protect the nation's wild heritage, water quality and wetlands.

By using powerful tools that work at a federal level - such as the Endangered Species Act - we can avoid inefficiencies like using widely varying local zoning laws to combat sprawl, for example. In this way we hope to play a decisive role in some of the Club's highest-priority conservation campaigns.

Go on to the next article, "Masks, Songs, Paper Dresses - They're All Part of the Sierra Club Training Academy."
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