TOPICS > Politics

Federal Government Opens Back Up

January 8, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Giant waterfalls and towering granite mountains are the lures that draw 4 million visitors a year to Yosemite. For the past three weeks, only employees who live and work in this park, most of them not getting paid, have been allowed to take in these sights. But this weekend, the gates reopened, a direct result of Congress and the President agreeing on an end to the government shutdown. Even though visitors were slow to take advantage, the opening was a relief to park officials like B.J. Griffin, the superintendent.

B.J. GRIFFIN, Yosemite Superintendent: We’re unable to collect fees, so that’s about $22,000 a day that the Treasury forgoes. Last December, we had almost 150,000 visitors. Most of those visitors do come Christmas week, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that in the two weeks of December that we were closed, we turned away more than 75,000 visitors.

SPENCER MICHELS: With the tourists back taking pictures of the scenery, which this weekend included a family of coyotes, officials had to consider the lasting effects of the shutdown. The Park Service will have to play catch up on its ongoing studies of wildlife. And the company that supplies lodging and food and bus service, Yosemite Concession Services, says it lost between two and three hundred thousand dollars a day in gross revenues. A thousand of its employees were laid off. No one, including Gary Fraker, the CEO of the concessionaire which runs the historic Owani Hotel, foresaw the three-week shutdown or its monetary effects.

GARY FRAKER, CEO, Yosemite Concession Services: We as a company will never make that up. Those are some costs that you’ll just never, never recoup. I think that there is going to be a certain faction of people that are going to be afraid to re-book and afraid to come, so it probably will have some long-range impacts.

SPENCER MICHELS: Yosemite’s capital improvement fund comes from the concessionaire’s revenues. That means this year’s fund will be short and projects will have to be postponed. Because of it’s losses, the company has already begun informal discussions with the National Park Service on revising its contract, hoping to recoup its losses from the government. In Yosemite and other national parks and monuments, there was obviously upset and inconvenience among employees and visitors, but outside the park boundaries, there was concern as well. The residents of Mariposa County, where Yosemite is located, suffered losses of money and of confidence. This rural county, whose only real city is the unincorporated town of Mariposa, depends for its income almost exclusively on the big national park up the mountain at the end of the road. Seventeen hundred of its sixty-two hundred person labor force works inside the park. With motels empty and tourist business nonexistent, the unemployment rate here has jumped to nearly 30 percent. Even though it looks as though the park is funded through September, Jeff Irons, head of the Visitors Bureau, remains uneasy.

JEFF IRONS, Mariposa County Visitors Bureau: I’m not entirely confident that it’s–that it’s over and things aren’t going to stabilize because I’m not entirely confident on after the last three weeks of watching the Oval Office and the House of Representatives fight like kids.

SPENCER MICHELS: The county has already lost $5 1/2 million in business. That translates to a county government loss of eight to ten thousand dollars a day in its transient occupancy tax on hotel beds, for a total loss of two to three hundred thousand dollars. County Supervisor Garry Parker says that is a major hit for a small county.

GARRY PARKER, Mariposa County Supervisor: A lot of the revenue that is generated, about $4 1/2 million worth of tourist occupancy tax, goes into our general fund and from our general fund, we, of course, pay for services such as fire, sheriff services, ambulance services, and things of that nature.

SPENCER MICHELS: Businessman Jerry Fischer tried to get the park open by lobbying California senators and representatives during the past three weeks. He is managing partner in Yosemite Motels, which operates several motels that depend on overflow from Yosemite. They are still practically empty. He had to lay off 2/3 of his 140-person work force.

JERRY FISCHER, Motel Owner: I think it’s inexcusable. You know, I can’t–I can’t find it in my heart any way to, to accept the behavior on the part of the politicians in this country that led to this. I mean, it’s just beyond the pale in my mind.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fischer is frustrated but says he and much of this mountain county will survive.

JERRY FISCHER: In the last 18 years that we’ve been here we’ve seen rock slides and floods and too much snow and not enough snow. We’ve survived oil embargoes. I think we’re just going to add the Congress to the list of things we’ve survived and plan on making it one more year, and yes, we’ll be here for a long time to come.

SPENCER MICHELS: While business may return to Mariposa County and Yosemite, itself, the people around here may not look on these mountains and the government that owns them in the same way as before.