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Sleeping in a bag or in a hotel bed?

A longtime Yosemite camper believes the national park is catering more to those who stay in fixed-roof lodgings than those who rough it under the stars.

August 13, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- A creature of habit, Brian Ouzounian joins a swallow-like migration each summer to this park's glacier-cleaved valley.

Ouzounian has camped in Yosemite Valley in nearly every one of his 57 years, setting down stakes a week at a time with family and friends at the panoramic junction of the Merced River and Tenaya Creek.

He lives for those days and the memories of them. Morning hikes to the valley rim. Inner-tube afternoons on the river. Nights in a sleeping bag, under the stars. First light striking Glacier Point. Sizzling bacon, chirping birds and the burbling river play a symphony to his soul.

But this family tradition, which used to seem as solid as the granite cliffs, now appears imperiled to Ouzounian. Add us, he says, to the federal list: The endangered campers of Yosemite.

Ouzounian, who petitions and protests, writes letters and attends park meetings, believes he is leading a fight against the extinction of his kind.

People may still come in RVs and SUVs loaded with tents and sleeping bags and Coleman stoves, but the opportunities for camping -- the bargain-basement entree in Yosemite Valley -- have been in decline over the last decade.

After a New Year's flood in 1997 cut a destructive swath through the valley, National Park Service officials abandoned several riverfront campgrounds, justifying it as a way to shrink humanity's footprint and give nature a hand up along the banks of the Merced.

The number of valley campsites fell 43%, from 828 slots to 475 today -- and only about 300 of those remaining are the car-camper spots Ouzounian, a general contractor from West Los Angeles, considers akin to Mom and apple pie.

Just count the dearly departed, he says. Upper River Campground -- gone. Lower River Campground -- gone. Lower Pines Campground -- shrunk roughly by half. The group campground across the creek -- gone.

The past quarter of a century has seen a shift in lodging tastes -- and as baby boomers have given way to Generations X and Y, the number of tent and RV campers in national parks across the U.S. has dropped 44%. Meanwhile, the number of visitors in fixed-roof park lodgings has barely changed at all.

The camping decline comes amid debate over how to balance nature's needs with the recreational agenda of national park visitors. Ouzounian believes Yosemite's planning efforts "have profit motives written all over them." The valley now has nearly three times more lodging units than campsites, and in that he sees a socioeconomic plot, a push to place more valley visitors in expensive accommodations.

Campers, he says, are the underdogs: "We're at the bottom of the food chain. You've got a camping culture that's more than a century old, but the park service really doesn't want to hear from us."

For nearly three decades, Ouzounian has been trying his red-faced best to be heard.

As a young man just turned 30, he began jousting with park officials in 1980 over a general management plan that proposed a campsite reduction. He later helped launch the Yosemite Valley Campers Coalition, like-minded car campers worried that park service leaders have, as Ouzounian puts it, "confiscated" whole campgrounds without proper public discourse.

His latest effort is an online petition calling for the return of the flood-closed campsites. His goal is to send the thoughts of 10,000 campers to Congress. At last count, he had collected more than 700 signatures and testimonials from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.

Diane Mello wrote that camping provides a more "intimate" Yosemite experience than hunkering down in a hotel room. Joel Swan of Illinois spoke of the slippery slope if the National Park Service discriminates against those of modest means. Richard Conklin suggested that "John Muir is turning over in his grave."

Or maybe he's applauding. Park officials insist they remain bullish on camping, but they point out that times have changed.

A few generations back, 80% of Yosemite visitors spent the night, said park spokesman Scott Gediman. Now just 20% do, a sure sign that people's vacation patterns are changing. They're taking fewer days off, planning shorter excursions. Research shows that in the park, hotel-style accommodations are king.

Meanwhile, the park service is struggling to strike a delicate equilibrium between accommodating 3 million annual visitors -- making Yosemite the nation's third-most-visited park behind Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon -- and protecting nature. Even before the flood sent the Merced a dozen feet above its banks, "there was a realization that the riverfront wasn't the best place for a campground," Gediman said, taking note of the fragile flora and river biota that can be unwittingly trampled in the zeal to experience the great outdoors.

"Camping is just as valid now as it was 50 years ago," Gediman insists. "We just need to do it differently."

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