Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Yosemite: available to the highest bidder?

Camp Connell, CA -- Yosemite National Park has been a special and happy place for my family since our first visit on a snowy October years ago to a now-closed campground named Smokey Jack. It is not difficult to recall the wonder and awe the park inspired in us then.

Yosemite is still wonderful and awe-inspiring, but I am no longer as happy about it as I once was. I am, reluctantly, discouraged about the future of this unique public treasure.

Future generations better visit while they are young and strong enough to rough it in the wilderness, or rich enough to afford the rapidly climbing costs of visiting a national park. The rest of the public may be out of luck. Average Americans won't be able to get in because they won't be able to afford it.

I have visited six major national parks in recent years, but Yosemite is closest to my home and my heart.

And there are serious problems:
Too many people want too many different things from the stewards of our national parks; too many politicians and park managers accept short-term solutions to continuing problems, and too many people have made too many bad decisions in the past.

I am not optimistic about the future of this wonderful place.

Unless your grandchildren are rich, they may not get to enjoy it.

Yosemite National Park is becoming a public park for the wealthy.

Park employees are busy trying to survive in a nation where politicians believe all government services must pay for themselves with fees, Congressmen care more about reelection than preserving public access to precious public places, and concessionaires claim they do a better job than any one else so long as they are allowed a very good profit for their efforts. And because they complain louder and are better organized, local business interests, regional politicians and a handful of environmental organizations have far more say in decisions than the average taxpayer who paid for the park and keeps paying the bills.

This is not a new trend.

After Yosemite was "discovered" by white guys in the 1850s very few people came because it was hard to reach and expensive. Only a select few made the arduous trip by horseback or stage from the Bay Area until an enterprising promoter named James Mason Hutchins built a hotel and invited artists and photographers to visit and capture the beauty. He also published a popular magazine, in which he extolled the virtues of Yosemite and published their work. He did great PR. You can see his photograph in most early stereographs.
The Valley's popularity grew among those who could afford the trip. It was good for business.
Just like today.
A few hardy souls, more interested in nature and wildlife than hotels, camped along the river bank and enjoyed the scenery without paying for housing.
Just like today.

The Ahwahneechee tribe members that had lived in the Valley part-time were killed, run off, or reduced to servanthood in the name of Manifest Destiny. The remnants of the those people left today aren't in total agreement which tribe was where when, but they all know they were screwed out of a good deal and a lovely place to live.

Fast forward to recent years, and you'll notice that lots of people still love the place and want to visit. And the conflicts have not changed much, even though it is now a national park.
But, as a public park, it is becoming more and more expensive to visit.
Yosemite rangers do not see a lot of poor people coming into their park.

One reason has to be the cost of access.

When I recently planned a one-night off-season stay in Yosemite I went to the internet for a reservation since I did not want to try to camp in uncertain weather.
The one-night cost for rooms available with bath and heat ranged from $437 at the Ahwahnee Hotel to $147 at the Yosemite Lodge. Nothing was available at the Curry Village except tent cabins, with no bath and most with no heat.

A room without a bath was available at the Wawona Hotel, an hour outside the Valley but inside the park, for a $86.90 plus tax. I took it.

In four recent cross-country driving trips, I never paid more than about $100 for a comfortable clean room with a bath.

Over the past 27 years I have stayed at every Yosemite lodging available, from backpack camps to the Ahwahnee Hotel. (I can afford it, even if I worry because it excludes those who cannot.)
I can vouch for the fact that the Valley is beautiful.
And I can testify that most of the accommodations are just average, but nowhere near comparable in costs to similar places outside the park. And some are really worn, crowded, noisy and uncomfortable.

The Ahwahnee Hotel is an exception,it is a luxury hotel after all, but even so the rooms are just average -- in a pretty building a great location. The lobby and dining room are magnificent. If you can afford to eat there you should.

But if you want a luxury hotel in a pretty location in the Sierra Nevada you can go to Lake Tahoe and stay at a number of places for a lot less money than anything available in the park. The view at Tahoe is quite good, and you can hike or ski all day and gamble all night, if that's your thing.

Working families that live within a day's drive of the park are aware the entrance fee went from $5 per car to $20 per car in recent years. That was scheduled to go higher until the park service dropped that idea. Falling attendance at national parks everywhere might have played a part in the decision.

The median household income of all those people whom own the parks, is $48,000 a year(in 2006). The median American wage earner makes about $12.50 an hour.

Camping is about your only inexpensive option in the park if you can find a place available. Tent cabins, which are often available at average-motel prices can be crowded and noisy and cold.
If you happen to be old, require a toilet, and don't own an RV or want to sleep on the ground, be prepared to pay big bucks.

If you want to stay in a comfortable room the park, you'll pay resort prices.

I know that some people will disagree.

But those of us who live in California, near the highest-average-income regions of the nation, need to remember there's a lot of other people out there who helped pay for this park. They deserve a better chance to see what their tax dollars have purchased.

This situation is not necessary.
Accommodations in the park could be priced fairly within reach of average families.
Congress could provide the support the park needs to fix the things that are broken.
Concessionaires could accept lower profits.
Then we could all compete for the limited space available on an even footing, rather than being outbid because of money.

Whatever your view I encourage you to take part in the discussion by letting the park management or your local congressman, or both, know how you feel.

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