Trouble in Paradise

Los Angeles Times
Feb. 5, 1990

Yosemite National Park

Under a fresh blanket of snow, Yosemite Valley on a January morning is so peaceful that a weary coyote limps unmolested in the middle of a road. Most of the 3.4 million visitors a year who motor up mountain highways into Yosemite wait until the dogwood trees bloom and the waterfalls fill with spring runoff. In midwinter the valley is quiet and the haze hanging above the meadows is fog, not the brown campfire smoke and bus exhaust of warmer months.

By this year, when Yosemite will mark its 100th birthday as a national park, the slow charm of winter was supposed to be easier to find even on busy summer weekends. The National Park Service boldly promised as much in a 1980 master plan that declared -- after hearing from more than 20,000 Americans -- it was time to save Yosemite's grandeur from being buried in "a march of man-made development . . . and fragments of suburbia." Auto traffic was to be banned from the valley. Scores of man-made intrusions would also go, including a beauty shop, cabins, offices and the homes of Yosemite Park & Curry Co. executives, who live on a scenic meadow with afternoon views of the alpenglow on Half Dome.

"Once this development is gone from the park's most magnificent settings, the scenery that inspired the philosophy of John Muir and the art of Ansel Adams will begin to be restored," the 1980 document waxed. But a decade later, the bold plan has been left mostly on paper -- and the future of Yosemite Valley left not much clearer today than it was 100 years ago.

Traffic is up. Overnight lodgings have been added instead of torn down. And to the chagrin of purists, new businesses continue to open -- most recently a video rental store for park employees. At the Ahwahnee Hotel, a grand shrine to some visitors and a symbol of misplaced luxury to others, the rooms were refurbished last year with TVs, mini-bars and videos. Later this year they are slated to get air conditioning to go with the tennis courts and swimming pool.

Even so, park officials say, Yosemite is in better condition now than it was in 1980. High country forests and meadows -- 94% of the park -- have been designated permanent wilderness. Bighorn sheep were reintroduced. A golf course at the Ahwahnee was torn out. And a recycling center and shuttle bus system now operate in the valley.

But the Reagan Administration and Congress never put up money to carry out the most ambitious visions laid out in the 1980 plan, devised during the White House term of Jimmy Carter. The park's keepers now say many of the goals have proven impractical. And they add, maybe -- just maybe -- the 1980 plan waxed too poetic. "I think that plan was developed with the greatest sincerity," said Michael V. Finley, Yosemite's new superintendent. "But some of the things that seemed simple 10 years ago were not really so simple."

The result has been a storm of protest from conservation groups, lifelong hikers and cliff-scaling daredevils who keep a close eye on anything that happens here -- and who had spent the 1980s confident that Yosemite would become more wild, not more commercial. "Yosemite is a very emotional subject with a lot of people," said Steve Medley, president of the 5,000-member Yosemite Assn., which has joined the protest.

More than 3,000 letters and cards have flooded the park service since last summer, most demanding unequivocally that Yosemite go more natural. "It is simply too easy to visit Yosemite and be negligent," wrote Virginia Hanna of Novato. "Those of us who really want to see and experience the park would . . . happily ride a bus into the valley." "When I take children on hikes through the valley floor the levels of noise and pollution amaze me," wrote Julie Stoughton, an instructor with the Yosemite Institute. "Do we have to cater to the sedentary nature of the American public?"

In a joint letter, the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and the National Parks and Conservation Assn. charged the park service with failing in its duty to protect Yosemite. Those organizations and a new activist group, Yosemite Action, say they represent 1.5 million members.

A target of the anger is the most visible symbol of development here -- Yosemite Park & Curry Co., the concessionaire that operates the Ahwahnee and most other businesses allowed in the park. Company executives vow that they support reducing congestion and restoring Yosemite to a more natural state. But leading conservation groups and other critics say the company, a subsidiary of entertainment giant MCA Inc. -- operator of Universal Studios Tour -- treats Yosemite more as a mountain resort than a national park.

Some frustrated environmental leaders have launched an effort to form a nonprofit group to bid for a new concession contract in 1993. They say the company has used its influence with the park service to stall the 1980 plan -- a charge company officials deny. "Yosemite Park & Curry Co. has been working to water down the 1980 plan," said Patricia Schifferle, regional director of the Wilderness Society. "But the national parks were not created to provide hot dogs on demand."

The Yosemite debate has been alive since before the high country was set aside as the third U.S. national park in 1890. (The valley and its soaring granite cliffs were added to the park in 1906). "The Yosemite is being rapidly converted into an ugly hay ranch," the San Francisco Examiner complained in the 1880s, when the valley's meadows were fenced and plowed.

The hay fields are gone, but now more than a million vehicles a year enter Yosemite. On some summer and holiday weekends the valley roads are snarled and every parking spot filled. Visitors have inflicted such a toll on the valley that rangers last year banned firewood gathering. And scattered through the valley are the dorms, cabins and houses where about 2,000 employees live.

In its 1980 master vision, the park service waxed almost rhapsodic in promising that Yosemite would soon be restored to a more pristine form. "Yosemite Valley is but a mile wide and seven miles long, yet this tiny place on the face of the planet is a premier masterwork of the natural world," the 1980 plan began. "Yosemite is too valuable to use for administration, maintenance, parking or any commercial services that do not contribute directly to a quality park experience."

The plan called private automobiles "the single greatest threat" to Yosemite's environment and also warned that visitors could eventually be rationed -- as traffic is already on busy weekends. But in an update last summer that admitted little had been accomplished, the park service said it now believes practical obstacles make some of the more publicized goals unreachable and perhaps undesirable.

Plans to move offices and employee housing outside the park to El Portal are threatened by water shortages and other troubles not known in 1980, the report said. Money may never be available to build distant parking lots and shuttle visitors into the park, it added. While visitation has jumped from 2.5 million in 1980 to 3.4 million, the park's budget last year was cut 10%. Moreover, the park service seemed to back off from the assumption that visitors may have to be inconvenienced. As the nation's population ages, the report said, Yosemite visitors want to stay close to their cars and sleep in warm rooms with their own bathrooms.

The report was heavily criticized in the Yosemite community as inaccurate. The troubles at El Portal, for instance, were grossly overstated and no different than obstacles known in 1980, several critics said. An unusually harsh critique citing "grave concerns" was leveled by the Yosemite Assn., a nonpolitical fund-raising group that operates bookstores in the park. "Yosemite should not be just another comfortable resort," the group wrote in a long letter accusing park officials of backsliding. The Yosemite Assn. also complained that the entire report "has been handled in an unfair and unreasonable manner."

Unlike the 1980 plan, which was devised after years of public meetings and hearings around the country, the update was prepared in private. Even many top staffers at Yosemite were not consulted -- in part to avoid news leaks, park service officials said. Critics say that led to the mistakes. The park service admits the report contains some errors but insists the update does not abandon the 1980 vision. "It is simply an information document, a status report," said Ray Murray, a regional park service official in San Francisco. "We still are committed to the 1980 goals. We will implement them as we get the money."

But some key park service officials also have begun to publicly complain that the 1980 vision for Yosemite was not carefully researched and leaned too far in favor of nature purists. "Somehow tent campers are considered good and people who stay in trailers are bad," Finley said recently. "I may have felt that way at one time too, but I don't hold that view anymore. Everybody loves Yosemite equally, whether they come by foot or come in Winnebagos."

Though outnumbered by the call for more nature, some letters supporting the status quo have reached the park service. "I have been visiting this park annually since 1977 and feel that every aspect of this park is perfect," wrote Marilyn Fuller of Santa Ana. "I do not find it too commercial or offensive even when it is crowded." More support for that view is expected when another 14,600 pieces of mail are delivered by Yosemite Park & Curry Co. The company last fall mailed 95,000 brochures and letters to recent customers of its hotels and motels asking them to write in opposition to cuts in overnight accommodations. "Please help protect your right to visit Yosemite in the future by writing today," company President Edward C. Hardy urged.

The letter campaign came under fire from critics, including retired park service regional director Howard Chapman, who said lobbying by a concessionaire was inappropriate. But the company was justified in helping its customers make their opinions heard, Executive Vice President Dan Jensen said.

The critics charge that the company's influence over the park service and Yosemite's future is already too great. They say the fate of the 1980 plan will be decided in upcoming talks on a new concession contract for the firm. "The decision will be whether a lucrative private business monopoly will be allowed to continue to dominate Yosemite Valley or whether the natural and scenic qualities . . . finally will take precedence," former Yosemite Supt. Robert O. Binnewies wrote in a letter to his old park service superiors.

The role of MCA at Yosemite has been an issue since the entertainment giant bought the Curry Co. in 1973. Almost immediately MCA proposed erecting an aerial tram ride from the valley floor to Glacier Point and adding new motel rooms and convention facilities. Though the plans were dropped after vocal protests, environmental groups remained skeptical when the company fought wilderness designation for the high country.

According to a recent park service memo, the company's commercial presence in Yosemite Valley has deepened since 1980. A new pizza and ice cream stand were added at Camp Curry, vending machines were placed around the park and a new photo lab and fudge shop were added in the Yosemite Village area. A raft rental shop opened and restaurants in the valley were expanded.

Although the 1980 plan called for reducing overnight accommodations by 17% in the valley, six new luxury rooms were added at the Ahwahnee and 14 new motel-style rooms were added at the Yosemite Lodge, the memo said. Despite the 1980 vision of a less congested Yosemite, the firm spent $669,000 marketing the park in 1988, the memo said.

Saying times have changed, Yosemite Park & Curry Co. officials last month asked for an official re-examination of the 1980 plan. They said the goals of reducing overnight accommodations and tearing out parking lots are out of date. They also argued for keeping their employees and executives in the valley. But the company denies interfering with the 1980 policy. "They're picking us out to be the bad guy, but we're following all the rules," Jensen said. "We don't have undue influence."

By most accounts MCA has raised the quality of service and lodgings in Yosemite and is rated highly by the park service, which has suffered from poor service at other national parks. At Yosemite the jewel operation is the Ahwahnee Hotel, a wood edifice opened in 1927 with huge public rooms and views of the granite cliffs. Its premier event is the Christmas Bracebridge dinner, which requires reservations a year ahead. The hotel also is used for meetings and, in winter, popular weeklong gourmet cooking and wine seminars.

But some visitors, including some park service officials, consider the Ahwahnee's luxury out of place in Yosemite Valley and refuse to set foot in the place. The Ahwahnee style is most apparent in the mammoth dining room. The dress code at dinner is coats, ties and dresses. The menu offers rack of lamb, Belgian endive salad, and fresh swordfish and salmon. A $265 Chateau Lafite Rothschild graces the wine list, and diners can sip Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac at $50 a glass.

Rates at the Ahwahnee bear little relation to costs or other rules of business. They are pegged by law to the rates at two California hotels the park service judges comparable: the Biltmore in Santa Barbara and La Valenica in La Jolla. Thus the Ahwahnee gets $170 a night for a standard room this winter and $370 for suites with a view of Glacier Point.

Curry Co. executives are secretive about finances and refuse to discuss the profitability of their business in Yosemite. But it was disclosed recently through the park service that the firm's gross sales were at least $78 million in 1988, up from about $69 million two years before. Under the contract that ensures a virtual monopoly, the company pays less than 1% of its gross sales to the government -- a fee of about $590,000 in 1988. The fee rate was set in a 1963 contract that expires in 1993. In December, new Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. called for a sharp increase in the fees paid by national park concessionaires. Saying that some concessionaires were benefiting too greatly from their monopolies, he also ordered an investigation of the contracts and an audit of selected parks. Yosemite was not cited, but last week Lujan's spokesman, Steve Goldstein, said "Yosemite is a glaring example of the problem."

Still, a higher fee might not help Yosemite, which last year cut half its wilderness rangers and ended a popular horse patrol because of budget troubles. Park Supt. Finley noted that franchise fees from concessionaires are paid into the federal Treasury, not given to the national parks. But he said the new contract could require Yosemite Park & Curry Co. -- or a rival bidder -- to spend more money in the park. Environmental leaders, however, say they fear the park service lacks the sophistication to make serious demands in negotiations. "The park service," said Schifferle of the Wilderness Society, "is no match for MCA's attorneys and accountants."

©Los Angeles Times 1990