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Who Owns Yosemite?

September 30, 1990|Maura Dolan

THE FIGHT OVER Yosemite Valley has already produced some changes. Interior Secretary Lujan has begun to overhaul both the concession contracting process and the terms of the deal. The government's cut of the profits is virtually certain to be higher than .75%, and Lujan promises to use outside consultants to help the Park Service forge better deals in future negotiations. He also wants the federal government gradually to buy the buildings now held by park concessioners, including the Curry Co.

According to the Park Service, any rival bidder for the Yosemite contract would have to be able to purchase MCA's interest in its physical plant in Yosemite, which by some estimates is worth as much as $200 million to $300 million. "Unless the Department of Interior is able to own those buildings, the concessioner still has control of the park," a Lujan spokesman said. In the park itself, Superintendent Finley is still working at playing a mediator's role. "The thing I am trying to do is defuse the rhetoric, all the torpedoes flying back and forth," he said, seated in his office in Yosemite Village.

He betrays irritation at the ruckus raised by the preservationists. Their constant nattering about the park's failure to enact the master plan or vigilantly oversee the Curry Co. has frustrated him. "The point is," he says, "that even the 1980 master plan did not envision Yosemite returning to wilderness or a natural setting. It called for reduction." Why can't the environmentalists focus on threats from air pollution instead of what kind of coffee mugs the Curry Co. sells? he asks.

Despite his irritation, Finley has heeded the criticism about his predecessor. There will be no more dinners with the concessioner at the Ahwahnee--Finley refuses to socialize with Hardy. The new superintendent also appears intent about fulfilling more of the goals of the master plan: The Park Service announced in August that it will soon raze 20 park buildings. Finley, moreover, seems reluctant to allow the concession in the next contract to set aside more rooms for tour-bus travelers. "Due to the bus roar in Yosemite, my home in Yosemite Valley is noisier than it was in the Miami suburbs," he said.

Over at the Curry Co., Ed Hardy seems satisfied with Finley's decisions so far. Hardy, who refers to Finley as "my sixth superintendent"--says Finley is better at the job than his predecessors, even better than Morehead, who considered Hardy a friend. "He is articulate and understands the balance of preservation and use, and I don't believe he is tainted by any side of the issue," Hardy said.

In the wake of the controversy, however, Hardy is not happy with the way outsiders may be viewing his company. Every time the 100th anniversary of Yosemite comes up, it seems the contract challenge comes up, too, and with it, preservationists' gripes about MCA. "I'm sick of being bashed," Hardy grumbled.

As he did at the beginning of his tenure at the park, Hardy is spending time putting out image brush fires. Reporters who have covered the conflict at the park have learned to expect scathing letters from the Curry Co. to their editors and publishers. In a form of subtle intimidation, the company provides copies of these letters to other reporters in the park to cover the dispute. In one such letter the Curry Co. complained about a story in the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, a Park Service spokesman called the reporter to compliment the story's fairness.

For their part, the preservationists are simply trying to keep the planning process for the contract challenge on track. This month, their side was dealt a setback. Schifferle resigned after the Wilderness Society reassigned her from director to senior counsel. She said the Park Service--unhappy with any attacks on its image as park caretakers--complained to the Wilderness Society about her role in the contract challenge.

The Wilderness Society strongly denied this and pledged a strong campaign at Yosemite. But to conservationists close to the action, Schifferle's loss was significant. "She was the only person from the mainstream environmental movement willing to call a spade a spade," Boland said.

Still, the Wilderness Society has forged ahead without Schifferle. With its board of directors in place, the Yosemite Restoration Trust began to search for an executive director. In the coming months, it will initiate studies to help it make an effective bid for the contract. Financing will be sought, including foundation money for the trust itself.

In the meantime, Yosemite's centennial is under way. It will begin tomorrow with a low-key ceremony in a meadow in Yosemite Valley. Dignitaries will gather for speeches, an actor will portray John Muir in a short monologue and the 6th U.S. Army Band will perform. There also will be a moment of silence--even nearby traffic will be stopped--during which guests will be asked to envision Yosemite before people came.

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