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Turning Yosemite National Park Into a Cash Cow

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Delaware North – the management company that runs the lodging, food and retail concessions at Yosemite National Park – has been in the news lately, claiming that it owns the rights to place names in the park such as Camp Curry, Yosemite Lodge, the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Wawona Hotel, Badger Pass and more. Check out the December 24, 2014 article in the East Bay Express.

On a trip to Yosemite last January I learned that 80 affordable cabins in the heart of Camp Curry – cabins that had served visitors well for decades – have been removed, along with over 100 tent-cabins. This follows years of rumored behind-the-scenes agitation by the private management companies that run Yosemite to remove less expensive lodging in favor of building more higher-priced hotel-style projects. There is an under-the-radar plan in place to build upscale “cabin/hotel” rooms in Camp Curry, and likely more to come in Yosemite Valley.

CHECKING IN

We arrived at Camp Curry in Yosemite Valley on a Thursday evening in mid-January for a short stay in a heated tent-cabin. We had gotten a tent-cabin, because they are much cheaper than the regular cabins-with-bathroom at Camp Curry.

Out of curiosity, I asked the young lady at the desk in the registration office if the cabins, which had been closed after a rockslide in 2008, were still off limits. She looked at me blankly, without a clue what I was talking about. Clearly somebody new, I thought.

So we took a walk around Camp Curry, only to discover that the dozens of rustic cabins located in the center of the camp, cabins that had many times housed my young family starting in the 1980s, were gone. A lot of tent-cabins seemed to be gone as well. In their place were several odd trailside signs lauding the legacy of times past.

My first thought was that the bean counters at Delaware North were up to no good.

These cabins, you see, were just about the most affordable place to stay in Yosemite Valley. Camp Curry itself is located in the more-rustic eastern side of the valley, away from the more-developed, hotel-style accommodations at Yosemite Lodge on the west side. The tent-cabins in Camp Curry are cheaper than the now-defunct wooden cabins – but the challenges of both cold and hot weather, combined with their close quarters, ruled out the tent-cabins as an option for many, especially those with families and small children.

Like the tent-cabins, most of the wooden cabins that were gone had no bathrooms, and consequently were rented at relatively inexpensive rates. One had to ramble to use the restroom, but where affordability was an issue, they were the best option.

Now gone.

The missing cabins and tent-cabins were located in the heart of Camp Curry, right behind the dining pavilion, the lounge building, the amphitheater and the pool. They were ideally placed for a family visit, or for anyone with a hankering to sleep under Glacier Point, but on a tight budget. These cabins had been there for decades.

Now gone.

Back in 2002, an organization called the Friends of Yosemite Valley complained that plans were afoot to remove the “modest rustic cabins and tent-cabins in favor of constructing and/or renovating hundreds of new, more upscale Valley hotel rooms.” It isn’t hard to imagine that the concessionaires who manage the lodging in Yosemite might be licking their chops over such an eventuality. More on the Friends of Yosemite Valley later.

In 2008, there was a rockslide that damaged a few of the Camp Curry cabins. Three visitors received minor injuries, but were quickly treated and released. Camp Curry was evacuated briefly as a precaution.

This was hardly the first rockslide in Yosemite Valley. In 1996, for example, a huge slab of granite fell onto the Happy Isles area near the trail to Vernal Falls. That rockslide killed a Southern California man, injured several others, destroyed an ice cream concession stand, damaged a visitor’s center and toppled over 500 trees. It was one of the most damaging Yosemite Valley rockslides in recent history. Still, the ice cream stand was rebuilt, the visitor’s center remains open, and things went on much like before.

But after the 2008 rockslide in Camp Curry, 80 rustic cabins at the heart of the camp were closed and roped off, declared a “hazard zone.” Over 100 tent-cabins were shut down also, along with another 52 cabins with bathrooms. A well-appointed shower house, opened in 1993 to great fanfare to serve the surrounding cabins, was also closed. The last time I stayed at Camp Curry, in the summer of 2011, the area was off limits, but the cabins and the shower house were still standing.

THE FRONT OFFICE MANAGER

I was not a happy camper when I saw that the cabins were gone.

I put on my friendly game face, and went back to the registration office to ask more questions. This time I spied a front desk worker whom I had seen many times before. I approached her and asked who had made the decision to remove all the cabins. She very deftly and professionally deferred to the Front Office Manager who was standing right behind her. I had the distinct impression that I was not the first to ask such questions, given that many thousands of visitors had stayed in these cabins over the years.

The Front Office Manager politely told me that the decision to remove the cabins was dictated to Delaware North by the National Park Service, and that it was entirely for reasons of safety. This had the appearance of a well-rehearsed answer to a not-unusual question.

Somewhat incredulous, I asked why, if the area where the cabins had been located was so dangerous, the area was not fenced off. “I agree with you,” the Front Office Manager answered.

I had noticed that the shower house was still there, but marked as only for “authorized personnel.” So I asked why the shower house building, clearly located in the hazard zone, was still in use. I was told that it had been converted into a storage facility. I asked why it would be safe for Delaware North employees to use the building, but not Camp Curry guests. That seemed to stump him.

The Front Office Manager then offered the observation that he lived in employee housing in Camp Curry, that his window was right on the danger zone line, and that this made him a bit uncomfortable. I do not know if he meant that he felt unsafe, or if he felt that it was hard to explain how the danger line just happened to be between the guest accommodations and employee housing.

Finally, I offered the opinion that perhaps the real reason for removing the cabins was to force Yosemite visitors into more expensive digs at Yosemite Lodge, and to stoke demand to build more hotel-like rooms in the valley.

No, no, said the Front Office Manager. We ended up with fewer rentable units at Camp Curry, he explained. He clearly missed, or ignored, my point – which is that Delaware North may want to reduce the availability of affordable options. So I thanked the Front Office Manger for his time and moved on.

THE TEAM LEADER

I returned to my tent-cabin, observing and occasionally stumbling over the rocks in and among the tents, rocks that I fondly remember playing on when I was a kid and my mother first brought me and my brother to Camp Curry, back in the 1950s when I was still knee-high to a grasshopper. Those rocks are clear evidence that the whole area is subject to rockslides, not just where the now-gone cabins and tent-cabins used to be.

A little while later, I found myself in the little market in Camp Curry, looking for some milk for my cereal the next morning. My partner was looking for one of those little thermometers that you clip to your jacket zipper. She found a worker in the store, and told him what she was looking for. She also told him that she had bought one a couple of years before at this same store, but that it had never worked right.

“I cannot tell a lie,” the worker responded. “Those things are so cheap that they often don’t work.”

Okay, I thought, an honest man. I decided to ask him about the cabins. So I did, ending with the comment that I figured I would get a real answer from him, since he could not “tell a lie.”

“I didn’t say I could never tell a lie,” he responded.

About that time I noticed that his nametag read “Team Leader.”

The Team Leader then proceeded to tell me, in practically the same words as the Front Office Manager, that the decision to close the cabins had been made by the park service and was all about safety.

I asked him, just as I had asked the front office manager, why the danger area was not fenced off. He slipped back into his “I cannot tell a lie” mode for a moment and admitted that this made no sense.

So I asked the Team Leader if it might be true that Delaware North was eager to shut down the more affordable accommodations.

“Well, people say a lot of things,” he said.

“What do they say?” I asked.

“You know, employees talk among themselves.”

“What do employees say when they talk among themselves?”

“They say it is all about safety.”

“What do they say about safety?”

“That’s all I can really say.”

And that was the end of that conversation.

FRIENDS OF YOSEMITE VALLEY

The conversation with the Team Leader might have been the end of my investigation, except that I happen to do some journalistic-style writing, and smelled a story.

After I got back to San Francisco, I dug around in my Yosemite files and found an old 2002 leaflet from the Friends of Yosemite Valley titled “The Truth About the Yosemite Valley Plan.” This was about an earlier plan that has since been superseded, but right there in the middle of the flyer was a bit asserting that there was a “focus on removal of modest rustic cabins and tent-cabins in favor of constructing and/or renovating hundreds of new, more upscale Valley hotel rooms…”

I gave the Friends of Yosemite Valley a call, and talked to Greg Adair. I told him I might write a story about the removal of the cabins, and asked if he had any comment. To my surprise, Adair said that he thought the removal of the cabins was indeed the right thing to do because they really were in a hazard zone. “It is not too much to say that they had no choice” after the rockslide.

But when I read to Adair from the 2002 Friends of Yosemite Valley flyer, he said, “That’s right.” Delaware North is “interested in making money, that’s why they are there.” They are really interested in “wealthier visitors,” In making “more per unit,” and really want to “get rid of older, smaller accommodations.”

Adair kept going with this. He said that there is “room in the current plan” to do more construction, that it is “virtually inevitable” that more expensive lodging will be built, and that the trend of “closing out working people” from Yosemite Valley will continue.

He also wanted to point out that some of the employee housing that was built right next to Camp Curry a few years back is in the rockslide zone. That is “incredibly irresponsible,” Adair said.

And, I might add, seems to contradict the premise that the cabins and tent-cabins were removed solely because they were in a rockslide zone.

THE MERCED RIVER PLAN

After talking to Adair at the Friends of Yosemite Valley, I called the Delaware North Public Relations Manager in Yosemite. She told me essentially the same story that I had heard from the Front Office Manager and the Team Leader, that the park service had made the decision to remove the cabins and tent-cabins, and that it was all about safety. She suggested that I talk to the National Park Service.

I asked the Public Relations Manager if there are any plans to replace the cabins that had been removed after the rockslide. She again deferred to the National Park Service, and said that there were no plans to add more units “at this time.” It turns out that is not entirely true.

I did call the National Park Service media relations office. I asked the same set of questions I had asked the Front Office Manager, the Team Leader and the Public Relations Manager. I also asked if there are any plans to replace the Camp Curry cabins with other lodging. The woman on the other end of the phone, suggested that I look at something called the “Merced River Plan,” and promised that someone would get back to me soon. I did not hear anything that day, so I called and left a message the next day. I haven’t heard from the park service since.

But I did go online and find what is officially called the “Merced Wild and Scenic River Final Comprehensive Management Plan,” published in February 2014. The Merced is the river that flows through the heart of Yosemite Valley.

The plan itself is over 3,450 pages long, plus a 200-page “Record of Decision.” And these are dense pages. Few mortal men could be expected to really grasp it in all its essential detail. It is one those plans that seems designed to prevent any sane person from even attempting to understand what it is all about.

But I plunged in nevertheless, although I certainly did not read it all.

It appears that the Park Service developed six different alternative scenarios aimed at creating “a robust vision for the protection of the Merced…” They held a series of public hearings, and settled on Alternative 5. I presume that Delaware North was involved in this process. I imagine there were a few behind-closed-doors discussions as well, although no one is admitting to any such thing.

Alternative 5, the one the park service has chosen, proposes to increase lodging in Yosemite Valley by 5%. There are to be no changes at Yosemite Lodge, where the hotel-style accommodations are located.

But at Camp Curry, the original plan under Alternative 5 was to remove a number of tent-cabins and replace them with “98 new hard-sided cabin-with-bath units.” The “Final Preferred Alternative” pares this down to 52 units. The explanation given for this is “to increase the availability of year-round accommodations,” but it is easy to see that this would also increase Delaware North’s cash flow – given that new cabins with bathrooms would certainly go for more than the existing tent-cabins or the now-gone cabins sans bathrooms.

One could look at the 52 new cabins as a replacement for the cabins with bathrooms that were removed from the rockslide zone. But why is it that it is only the most-expensive units that they want to rebuild? Why tear down existing tent-cabins? Or, if for some reason those tent-cabins must be replaced, why not build more affordable hard-sided cabins without bathrooms?

That old refrain, “money, honey,” comes to mind.

Then there is Alternative 6. This alternative has been set aside, at least for the time being. But somebody took the time to develop a much more ambitious development plan.

Alternative 6 would increase “in-park lodging availability” by 18%. Specifically, Yosemite Lodge would get torn down and “be redeveloped… with new three-story lodging structures to provide a total of 440 units,” up from the current 245 rooms. There would be four new buildings in this complex. The new Yosemite Lodge, just a few steps away from Yosemite Falls, would have more rooms than San Francisco’s venerable Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

There would also be a new “parking area for 395 cars to augment existing parking areas and satisfy [the] added lodging requirement” at Yosemite Lodge.

Alternative 6 also calls for all of the tent-cabins in Curry Village to be replaced with “permanent” lodging.

This comes under the heading of “Alternative 6: Diversified Visitor Experiences…” It is, I must say, a little hard to grasp how replacing less-expensive lodging with more upscale lodging diversifies the visitor experience.

Now, remember the Park Service has selected Alternative 5, not Alternative 6. But Alternative 6 hasn’t been buried. The plans are still there. Who is to say that parts of Alternative 6, or parts of it, might not be resurrected after the next rockslide, the next flood, or the next change of administration?

A CHAT WITH THE CAMP CURRY GENERAL MANAGER:

NEW “CABIN/HOTEL ROOMS” PLANNED

Finally, I talked with Dan Cornforth, the General Manager for Camp Curry.

Cornforth was good about getting back to me. He told me that he has lived in Yosemite for 26 years. He is no newbie to this stuff. He predictably repeated the story that safety was the reason that the cabins and tent-cabins had been removed, and that this was a decision by the park service.

He did tell me that some of the 52 new hard-sided units that are to be constructed will be in two-story structures, and will be more like “cabin/hotel rooms.” He told me that there are only rough descriptions of these units at this point, but that he thinks this will be a “positive improvement.”

There never have been any two-story “cabin/hotel rooms” in Camp Curry before.

Cornforth and I talked a bit about the Merced River plan. He offered the viewpoint that Alternative 5, the one that the park service has selected, was what they were focused on from the beginning. I asked him what role Delaware North had in the formulation of the Merced River plan. At first he said the company had “no role.” Then he said that they had “offered feedback,” but did not think that their feedback carried any more weight than anybody else’s.

I wonder, is it Delaware North or the park service that wants “cabin/hotel rooms” at Camp Curry?

And then I popped the big question. What about Alternative 6, the one in which Yosemite Lodge is torn down, and replaced with four new three-story “lodging structures,” increasing the number of hotel-style units from 245 to 440. He answered that he could “understand both sides.” When I pressed him by asking what his opinion was of such a project, he said very directly “I would rather not offer my opinion.”

Cornforth seems like a reasonable man. He knows he is trodding a fine line here. Some of us want to maintain affordable lodgings in the valley, and he may even be one of them.

But remember the words of Greg Adair from the Friends of Yosemite Valley. There is “room in the current plan” to do more construction, that it is “virtually inevitable” that more expensive lodging will be built, and the trend of “closing out working people” from Yosemite Valley will continue.

A VERY SHORT HISTORY OF YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

It was in 1864, just over 150 years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill, authored by California Senator John Conness, which granted Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the state of California to be “held for public use, resort, and recreation… inalienable for all time.”

But the fledgling state of California was hardly a model of democracy at that time. The Yosemite Grant was administered by a group of State Commissioners “whose management policies,” according to Sierra Club historian Holway R. Jones, “seemed designed for self-aggrandizement,” came to be “dominated by men favorable to the Southern Pacific Railroad… and enjoyed rather good relations with the railroad-dominated State Legislature.” John Muir charged the commissioners with overseeing a “vulgar, mercenary improvement” of the valley.

Conness, meanwhile, lost his seat in the Senate, his political career ruined by his support for civil rights for former slaves in the south and for immigrant Chinese workers in the west, as well as persistent accusations of corruption. Before Conness lost his Senate seat, he had the honor of being a pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral. Mt. Conness, on the eastern edge of Yosemite, is named after him.

Congress stepped in again in 1890, passing a bill creating Yosemite National Park, a hybrid arrangement whereby the federal government controlled the mountains, forests, meadows and watershed surrounding the valley, while the valley itself remained under state control.

While the establishment of the federal park surrounding Yosemite Valley helped preserve the area, the management of the valley itself under state jurisdiction was inadequate, to say the least, resulting in a variety of depredations involving hayfields, timber-cutting, cattle and barbed wire, not to mention a lack of facilities for visitors. In 1895 the San Francisco Call editorialized that the “woeful conditions of affairs in Yosemite Valley” required that the federal government should take over management of the valley.

Yet it was not until 1906 that Yosemite Valley was put under federal supervision, in a complicated battle involving a number of players including President Teddy Roosevelt, the California state legislature, Congress, the Sierra Club and, once again, Southern Pacific.

The bill passed in 1906 and signed by Roosevelt finally put the entire Yosemite National Park under federal control, and was counted a major victory by the Sierra Club and other conservationists. Notably, however, the bill that also removed over 10,000 acres on the southwest corner of the park between the South Fork of the Merced River and the Wawona Road, in order to accommodate the desire of Southern Pacific to build a rail line there. Logging began in the area not long afterward.

Finally, in 1916, the federal government created the National Park Service. This put Yosemite and other national parks under the control of a single agency, with a dual mission to preserve and protect the parks, and to make them accessible to the public.

Prophetically, one of the Sierra Club’s arguments in favor of the federal takeover was that it would increase tourism and that:

“Each of these tourists would… spend money in it [Yosemite]. Few of us even begin to dream of the wealth that will some day be poured into California by the multitude of travelers who will annually come to enjoy our unparalleled scenic attractions.”

Truer words were never spoken.

CASH COW OR PEOPLES’ PARK?

Today, Yosemite is, among other things, a cash cow for the private concessionaires like Delaware North. Delaware North grosses over $130 million per year from its Yosemite operation. Of course, in the words of Adair from the Friends of Yosemite Valley, these concessionaires are “interested in making money, that’s why they are there.”

Delaware North’s latest ploy, trying to extort $51 million dollars – by claiming that the company owns the names of Camp Curry, Yosemite Lodge, the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Wawona Hotel, Badger Pass and more – is an act of unmitigated gall. Numerous organizations, commentators and everyday people have roundly condemned this maneuver. In my book, this extortion attempt is reason enough to get Delaware North kicked out of the park.

Having worked much of my life in the hospitality industry, I can tell you that running hotels and restaurants is not rocket science – although the hotel and restaurant operators will certainly tell you something different.

Why does the federal government contract out hospitality operations in national parks anyway? If the National Park Service is capable of maintaining the roads, the campgrounds and the trails, why are they not capable of running the hotels, restaurants and retail outlets?

Would it not be better if the motivation of those who provide accommodations to Yosemite visitors was to provide for the visitors’ enjoyment and to preserve Yosemite, instead of being motivated by a desire to milk the visitors and the park service alike for all the moola they can get?

The National Park Service was created in 1916 to run the show at our national parks. These parks belong to the people, not to any set of corporate entrepreneurs. In the words of a young Abraham Lincoln, “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.”

I think the next big step at Yosemite should be to kick the Delaware North out of the park, and put the National Park Service in charge of running the show. Maybe the park service could hire the same people who now make the beds and cook the food and run the cash registers, but make them government employees. Maybe they should even hire people like Cornforth, the General Manager of Camp Curry who has lived in the park for a quarter of a century.

In short, the park should be run “by the people, for the people.”

That would be a genuine and fitting tribute to President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Grant just over 150 years ago.

CHECK OUT TIME

When it came time for me to check out of my tent-cabin, I brought our keys to the registration office. I did not talk to anyone, as I only had to put the keys in a box.

But I could not help but overhear a conversation that the Front Office Manager, the same manager I had talked to earlier, was having with an elderly gentleman. I heard the Front Office Manager tell this gentleman that he was also sorry to see the old cabins go, but that the company was in the process of “upgrading” the facilities for visitors.

“Upgrading” in the hotel industry, for those who do not know, means getting more money out of the guests.

On January 23, Delaware North shut down Camp Curry, except on weekends, through March 13. This forced many Yosemite Valley visitors into more expensive accommodations at Yosemite Lodge and the Ahwahnee.

And at the beginning of March the park service raised the $20 fee for getting into Yosemite to $25 during the off season (November through March), and to $30 during the during the peak season (April through October).

The people need our affordable cabins back. We want our tent-cabins back. We do not need more upscale hotel rooms. We are talking Yosemite here, not Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf.

Let’s put the people in charge, not the profiteers.

POSTSCRIPT

From a March 30 report by Kurt Pepanshek in National Parks Traveler:

“National park concessionaires… want Congress to authorize… expanded concessionaire opportunities in the parks.

“Derrick Crandall, counselor of the National Park Hospitality Association, recently presented to a House appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

‘[W]hen you look at Yosemite Valley, and you have 1,500 rooms… and only 800 of those have bathrooms, I’m not afraid to say at some point we should look at how we upgrade those rooms so that 1,500 rooms have 1,500 bathrooms.”

Marc Norton’s website is www.MarcNorton.us

Copyright © 2015 Marc Norton

 

Marc Norton’s website is www.MarcNorton.us.

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