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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, 31 March 2015 (Los Angeles Times) – Yosemite National Park is bracing for its driest year on record, with visitor bureaus downplaying the allure of the park's most famous waterfall and instead touting the park as a destination for hiking, bicycling and photography.

Yosemite Falls will probably go dry in June — two months earlier than usual, parks officials say. The Merced River, which powers the spectacular Nevada and Vernal falls before meandering across the Yosemite Valley floor, will probably slow to a shallow stream about the same time.

And with the drought enabling western pine bark beetles to kill large areas of forest, the park is preparing for a bad fire season.

"Visitors bureaus are saying they're not going to promote Yosemite Falls as much this year," said Scott Gediman, assistant superintendent for public and legislative affairs at the park. "My response: No problem. We have to be realistic."

March this year felt more like June to visitors. The snowpack that supplies the Merced River is less than 12 percent of normal, an unprecedented low that has prompted officials to close Badger Pass Ski Resort months ahead of schedule and advise prospective summer backpackers to plan trips near large lakes instead of dwindling streams.

On a recent warm weekday morning, park geologist Greg Stock strode along a Yosemite Valley trail edged with redbuds and poppies blooming a month earlier than usual. He scanned the surrounding granite peaks for signs of snow.

No luck, except for a tiny patch on top of Half Dome.

Climate change coupled with drought is one of the park's biggest challenges, he said. It is undermining the concept of Yosemite as a refuge where nature prevails unmolested by man-made forces.

The outcome is largely unknown.

"Our rangers will be including drought and its impacts in their interpretive talks," he said. "But no one in the park has experience with snowpack levels this low." […]

The last time it was this dry was more than 1,000 years ago, say scientists at the 747,000-acre park, which draws about 4 million visitors a year.

Now, the nervous chatter in Yosemite and nearby communities is: Have you noticed all the trees that are dead or dying?

Throughout the Sierra Nevada, projections are for more frequent, larger and more intense wildfires fed in part by disease and infestations of bark beetles, which flourish during times of drought. Federal authorities say that forest mortality rose 300 percent from 2013 to 2014 largely because of the two scourges, leaving dead timber ripe for fire. […]

"All these trees are competing for water," park scientist Joe Meyer said recently as he looked at a stand of ponderosa pines. "But away from the rivers, and up on the slopes, the water is just not there. So, only the strongest will survive." [more]

Drought alters familiar landscape in Yosemite National Park

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