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If the planning process for, say, a shopping center in Petaluma seems contentious, or when the debate over a local public power agency, for example, seems convoluted, head for Yosemite National Park.

I'm not talking about a summer vacation. I refer to the place where public planning and policy go to die.

Yosemite, once again, is in the news. After a congressional hearing on Tuesday at which environmental restoration plans for the park were decried as "radical" and "elitist" by the congressman who represents the area, a plan that has been in the works for decades was delayed once again.

The Merced River Plan, a document prompted by the designation of the park's main waterway as a Wild and Scenic River in 1987, was supposed to be complete by the end of this month. The park's planning chief said Tuesday the completion target is now the end of the year.

But don't hold your breath.

Yosemite might just be God's chosen spot on Earth, despite what Luther Burbank said about Sonoma County. But the place is hell on planners and policy makers. Any proposed change brings howls from those who have enjoyed the place for generations and those who profit from its popularity. But allowing the status quo brings howls from environmentalists who see nature getting stamped out by 4 million visitors each year.

The Merced River Plan, one of a series of management plans for the Yosemite Valley that have gone through the wringer since 1980, is meant to help restore the river to a more natural state as it winds through the park. The Merced, along with its South Fork, runs for 81 miles within Yosemite's boundaries, but it is the seven miles through the busy, congested and heavily developed Yosemite Valley that cause consternation on all sides.

Environmental groups sued twice to block previous versions of the plan, which they argued did too little to protect the river. Now, it's the business community that's up in arms about the latest plan.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granada Hills, called those who back the plan the "most radical and nihilistic fringe of the environmental left."

What those nihilists are supporting is a plan that would restore a 100-foot-wide corridor along the banks of the river, maintain visitor levels at or near current numbers, increase camping spots, improve traffic circulation in the valley, increase transit options and parking facilities and maintain access to the valley for private vehicles. But it also would remove certain concessions, including some bike rentals, horseback riding, a skating rink, a swimming pool, tennis courts, an art store and the historic Sugar Pine Bridge.

McClintock said the concession removals represent "a new elitist maxim: 'Look, but don't touch. Visit, but don't enjoy.' "

It's hard to imagine a visit to Yosemite being spoiled by the lack of a swimming pool, or even a skating rink. And you can still bring your own bike or horse, if you're so inclined.

But Democratic Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno also decried the proposed changes. "Ice skating during the winter in the outdoors is also one of the unique experiences at Yosemite National Park," he said.

Sure, but so was the Firefall. That was the nightly summertime ritual in which red-hot embers from a big fire were dumped off the side of Glacier Point at dusk each summer evening, creating a glowing red "waterfall" as they plummeted 3,000 feet into the valley below. It was a tradition that lasted almost 100 years, from 1872 to 1968, before somebody in the National Park Service decided it wasn't such a great idea.

Now, the park service has decided that packing 20,000 visitors a day onto the banks of the Merced isn't such a great idea, and they've spent years and years trying to come up with a fair way to mitigate the damage.

Change is hard. But when Yosemite became one of our nation's first national parks, it wasn't to preserve the concession stands.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.</i>