The National Park Service this week took the first of two planned steps toward restoring beleaguered Yosemite National Park to its lush natural splendor, unveiling a plan to manage the Merced River.

The plan for the Merced River, 81 miles of which winds through the park, does not specifically call for the rebuilding of swamped campgrounds or the removal of existing parking lots and other structures, but park officials said yesterday it paves the way for doing exactly those things, with details to be filled in with a comprehensive Yosemite Valley Plan, the second step, to be released this spring.

The Merced plan essentially describes how areas close to the river can be used--whether they must remain free of development or can be built upon.

Yosemite has been buffeted in recent years by natural disasters, including a torrential 1997 flood. The park also has faced increasingly brutal summer traffic jams and administrators have had serious problems finding adequate housing for employees. Restoring the park has been a priority of the Clinton administration, but action has been slow in coming.

The genesis of the new Merced plan stems from a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club against an earlier National Park Service plan to rebuild Highway 140, which leads into Yosemite. The highway was damaged in the 1997 flood.

The Sierra Club charged that widening the highway as proposed would adversely impact the Merced, which flows nearby. The group also pointed out that the Park Service had never prepared a plan for dealing with the river--declared "wild and scenic" in 1987 and thus federally protected--as required by law.

In July 1999, a federal judge in Fresno, Calif., ordered the Park Service to come up with a plan for the river by July 2000. The Sierra Club complained, saying a year was not enough time to do a comprehensive scientific study of how changes to the park would affect the river, but the Park Service moved forward and released its plan Wednesday.

"It [the Merced plan] doesn't dictate specific actions," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. "But it's incredibly important in that it lays the groundwork, the parameters, of what is going to happen with the Valley Plan in the future. Not only will it guide the rebuilding of facilities, but it will also guide the way people visit Yosemite for some time to come."

Many environmentalists reacted positively to the Merced plan, but Sierra Club officials have said it may allow for too much development near the river.

The 1,300-page plan, a summary of which was sent to 11,000 park enthusiasts, will be open for public comment through March 14. At least 12 public meetings will be held in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other communities close to Yosemite.

In other public lands news, President Clinton is expected to announce next week the creation of three new U.S. national monuments to protect scenic lands, according to a Reuters report citing environmentalists and U.S. officials.

Clinton is to make the announcement during a visit to the Grand Canyon next Tuesday.

Reuters reported that Clinton is expected to designate nearly 1 million acres as the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument to protect the watershed on the north rim of the Grand Canyon; designate a 71,000-acre monument protecting prehistoric rock inscriptions north of Phoenix; and designate a monument in California covering thousands of small coastal islands, rocks and reefs that serve as habitat for sea otters, birds and other wildlife.