The National Park Service director has told the chairman of MCA Inc., the owner of Yosemite National Park's main concession and the object of a possible takeover by a Japanese firm, that the federal government would prefer to keep the park operation in American hands.
National Park Service Director James Ridenour telephoned MCA Chairman Lew R. Wasserman late last week after the Park Service received dozens of letters from citizens objecting to a foreign-owned firm running the accommodations in a national park, a National Park Service spokesman said Tuesday.
"What is driving this is these (national parks) are America's national treasures, and while foreign owners have the right to invest in the United States, that doesn't mean they should be buying up all of America," said Steven Goldstein, spokesman for Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, who presides over the National Park Service.
"People identify Yosemite . . . with mom and apple pie."
An Interior Department source said Ridenour called partly in response to indications that the Japanese firm, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., might not be interested in acquiring the Yosemite operation because the purchase would trigger "bad publicity" for the company.
Ridenour suggested to Wasserman that MCA talk to the Yosemite Restoration Trust, a not-for-profit group formed by environmentalists to compete for the concession contract, to other potential bidders or to the National Park Service about buying the Yosemite operation, the park spokesman said.
"If the price is right, the government would be interested," said Park Service spokesman George Berklacy, quoting Ridenour.
The Park Service's contract with the Yosemite Park & Curry Co., an MCA subsidiary, expires in 1993. The company owns lodgings, restaurants and stores in the park.
Berklacy said the Park Service has received "pretty strong" letters, "all negative," from the public upset about the possibility of a foreign-owned firm running a concession in a National Park. Although such ownership is not barred by law, there currently is no park concession owned by a foreign company, Interior Department officials said.
"I think there is a sort of prejudice, this whole issue of Japanese investment," Berklacy said. "It's not MCA, it's Yosemite specifically (that unnerves the public), a concession in an American park being operated by a foreign firm."
Curry Co. profits, criticized by environmental groups as excessive, represent only a small fraction of MCA's overall earnings. MCA's holdings include Universal Studios, record companies, a film library and a television station. Matsushita is one of Japan's largest consumer electronics companies.
Word of the takeover negotiations first surfaced in a news report Sept. 25 but neither company has discussed details or how much progress has been made. Outside financial analysts previously had speculated that should the deal go through, the Curry Company would be sold to a buyer other than Matsushita, as would MCA's New Jersey television station, which under law cannot be sold to a foreign owner.
Matsushita is aware of the "sensitivity" over Yosemite, said an industry source close to the situation. "Curry does not fit Matsushita's strategic focus," said the source, noting that the possible friendly takeover is in only "the second inning of the ballgame."
Matsushita, MCA and the Curry Company declined to comment.
Interior Secretary Lujan was described by aides as personally unhappy about the possibility of a foreign-owned park concession. An Interior official said Lujan refuses to stay at Japanese-owned hotels, and Goldstein, Lujan's spokesman, confirmed that the secretary believes in buying "all American."
"He won't buy a foreign car, and he discourages his staff from buying a foreign car," Goldstein said.
Goldstein and other Interior Department officials said Wasserman listened politely to Ridenour but did not express an opinion on the subject or offer to sell the Curry Co.
"Obviously, this is a fluid situation, and we do have a dog in this fight," Goldstein said. "So we want to make sure that everyone is clear on where the Interior Department stands."
The MCA-owned Curry Co. has been under siege during the past year by environmentalists who complain that the company has made Yosemite too commercial and cluttered. The company has fought back aggressively, contending that it has acted only at the direction of the Park Service and has placed environmental programs among its highest priorities.
Joan Reiss, a spokeswoman for the Yosemite Restoration Trust, said she was pleased to learn about Ridenour's call, but added that foreign ownership is "not an issue for the trust."
"The trust is willing to compete against whomever ends up owning the Curry Co.," she said.
Reiss also said she thought it would be a "great idea" if the Park Service acquired the company's holdings in Yosemite. They have been estimated as high as $200 million, but Reiss says the trust believes they are worth less than $100 million.
Purchasing a concession would not be unprecedented for the Park Service. It bought the Yellowstone National Park concession in 1979 for $20 million and leased it to a private company to operate. Berklacy said the concession buildings at the time needed $100 million in upgrading, and the Park Service has plowed its revenues from Yellowstone into repairing the buildings.