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Who Owns Yosemite?

September 30, 1990|Maura Dolan

A chain of low hills began to rise. Moving plates beneath the earth's crust pushed them skyward. They climbed imperceptibly at first, fractions of an inch over centuries. On the western flank of the central range, a river accelerated into a torrent. The crashing water cut a narrow, V-shaped canyon out of the granite.

Twenty-three million years passed. An icecap enshrouded the summit of the range. Tongues of ice streamed down into the canyon. The ice thickened. It pushed and ground against the canyon walls and polished the granite domes. More glaciers came. They scoured the canyon into a U-shaped valley, about a mile wide and seven miles long.

Sheets and blocks of rocks broke loose from the valley's granite sides. The falling rocks deepened the cliffs into abruptly rising walls. Sculpted spires, crevices and alcoves appeared. Waterfalls leaped over the recesses. During the past 10,000 years, the river filled the glacial lakes with sediment and gravel. Seeds blew in. And shimmering flower-sprinkled meadows grew, bordered by the towering, sheer walls of rock.

Man arrived about 3,000 years ago; from where, nobody is certain. He hunted deer and burned fires but left few enduring scars. And then descendants of European settlers discovered the wondrous valley, and the wars over Yosemite began. THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a special year for Yosemite National Park. It turns 100 tomorrow, and festivities and fanfare will mark the milestone. But a nasty, raging battle threatens to overshadow the entire centennial. It is a late-breaking skirmish in a classic American conflict: use versus preservation in the nation's wild lands. This time, the battle lines have been drawn over a park concessioner's contract. And the prize is the heart of Yosemite, the seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley.

In the high season, from a ledge halfway up the valley cliffs, the conflict is clear. Majestic granite walls, carved and sculpted over eons, tower overhead. Half Dome looms in the distance. But look downward, and Yosemite Valley might be taken for a suburban subdivision. The baby-blue tint of a large swimming pool catches the eye first; then dozens of brown buildings and white tent cabins compete for attention. Cars and buses sit sandwiched neatly into asphalt parking lots, a sea of metal gleaming in the sunlight. A garbage truck passes by, its engine loud enough to puncture the mesmerizing thunder of a waterfall only a few feet away.

There are about 1,300 buildings in Yosemite Valley, plus 30 miles of paved roads, eight miles of paved bikeways, 17 acres of asphalt parking lots, a vehicle maintenance garage, three swimming pools, a tennis court, an ice-skating rink, a jail, a courthouse, a gas station and two warehouses. To a preservationist, the roar of traffic and the stretch of development are intrusions. To a concessioner,the garbage trucks, parking lots and swimming pools are the price that must be paid if visitors are to enjoy comfortable access to the park.

In 1993, the biggest concessioner contract in Yosemite goes up for grabs. The Yosemite Park and Curry Co.--owned by MCA Inc., the entertainment giant that brought you "Jaws" and "Back to the Future I," "II" and "III"--must negotiate to renew its for-profit hold on most of the buildings and many of the services in Yosemite, including the Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Lodge. In the running against MCA will most likely be a nonprofit organization formed by conservationists.

The conservationists want nothing less than MCA's ouster from the park. The terms of the new contract, they say, should mandate fewer hotel rooms, fewer cars, fewer parking spaces and less of everything that isn't "natural" in Yosemite.

But the contract is just a symbol of the contention at Yosemite. The real conflict is about power and who will wield it. As the park's 100th anniversary kicks off, the balance of power is clear: The advantage lies not with the National Park Service, the agency nominally in charge, nor with the preservationists, the self-styled defenders of nature. The advantage in the battle brewing in Yosemite Valley lies with the Curry Co. and MCA, the corporation that makes millions of dollars off the most scenic valley in the world.

SEATED AROUND A TABLE in the dining room of Yosemite's luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel several years ago, two government bureaucrats from Washington watched in fascination as Edward Hardy, president of the Yosemite Park and Curry Co., held court. The federal officials had come to Yosemite to go over the park's budget with Robert Binnewies, then park superintendent. "We had not asked to meet with the concessioner, but before we knew it, he was around us and we were around him," remembers one of the bureaucrats. "They definitely wined and dined us. Ed was a wonderful host."

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