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In Yosemite, an emptying park becomes an emblem of partisan divide

A pall settles over Yosemite National Park amid the federal government shutdown, an area already reeling from the Rim fire.

October 02, 2013|By Kurt Streeter and Scott Gold
  • Campground and hotel reservations inside Yosemite National Park were no longer being honored Wednesday because of the federal government shutdown; visitors were issued refunds and were told that they could no longer enter the park. "This was supposed to be the highlight of our trip," said Gemma Edwards, 35, right, standing next to her boyfriend, Stuart Ackroyd, 33, in Yosemite's Curry Village. The pair were visiting from Guildford, England.
Campground and hotel reservations inside Yosemite National Park were… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Clare Cogan and Daniel Mohally stood forlornly inside the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, trying to determine how to salvage their honeymoon.

The Cork, Ireland, couple had flown to the United States last week for a honeymoon that started in San Diego and will end in San Francisco. In between — the highlight of their trip — was an excursion to Yosemite.

"We grew up seeing pictures of it in books," said Cogan, a 31-year-old receptionist. "You know, the cars underneath those huge sequoia trees. That was America."

On Wednesday, Yosemite National Park was nearly empty, an emblem of the bitter, partisan battle in Washington that has shut down parts of the federal government for the first time in 17 years, including all 401 National Park Service sites.

For years, Yosemite was an emblem of something different — the very notion of preserving American wilderness "for all people, for all time," said Mike Tollefson, its former superintendent.

But this year is unlike any in Yosemite since Abraham Lincoln signed the park's land grant in 1864. The government shutdown comes while the last embers of the Rim fire are still smoldering. The blaze was one of the largest fires in California history, ripping through more than 120 square miles of the national park and chasing away many of the tourists who generate a $370-million annual economy.

"Now this," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. "The double whammy. Right on the heels of it. The timing is horrible."

On the second day of the shutdown, there was a pall over Yosemite. Among rangers, employees, naturalists and visitors, there was an unsettling sense that something ancient and sturdy had become beleaguered, reduced to just another political football.

Six hundred park employees had been sent home on furlough, with no clue when they might return or whether they might be paid retroactively. Roughly 150 employees were still working, but most devoted their day to clearing out the park.

Campground and hotel reservations inside Yosemite were no longer being honored; visitors were issued refunds and told that they could no longer enter the park.

Authorities walked through the cluster of campgrounds in Yosemite Valley and told everyone remaining that they needed to leave the park by 3 p.m. Thursday. Hotels will serve breakfast to remaining guests Thursday, then begin shutting down.

Wednesday afternoon, Curry Village on the valley floor was almost deserted. It was silent, except for the sound of squirrels, birds and wind rustling through the trees.

Small rescue teams will still be available; this is a popular time of year for climbers to scale the park's famous "big walls," such as the monolith known as El Capitan. There will still be hikers in the backcountry for days to come; most were warned before leaving that a government shutdown was possible. And basic services — a market, a post office — will still be available to park employees who live there.

"But the park will be closed," Gediman said.

Mohally had long yearned to place his hand on "El Cap" — "just to be able to say I did." Instead, he and Cogan spent a moribund day Tuesday sleeping at their hotel, located just outside the park, and watching reruns of "Law and Order."

"We were depressed," Mohally said. "But then we figured we had to get up and get on with it."

At least, Mohally said, they still had tickets to the San Francisco 49ers game this weekend.

"The NFL — that's not run by the federal government, is it?" he asked.

Early October is a far cry from the crush of visitors during the height of summer, but still a bustling time in Yosemite.

"It's when everybody who doesn't come in the summer comes," chuckled Tollefson, now president of the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy. As many as 20,000 people a day would normally be in the park, many of them foreigners who time their trips long in advance and specifically for the late season.

"They don't understand it," said Jan Quistad, a retired principal who works at the front desk of the visitors bureau in Oakhurst, about a 30-minute drive from the park. On a typical day, the bureau receives about 100 visitors. This week, it was overrun by about 200 a day — many of them foreign visitors who didn't know where else to turn.

"Really, we are spending a lot of time apologizing for what the government has done," Quistad said.

Gediman said he had just met a couple from Israel who had planned a 14-day trip — first Yosemite, followed by Death Valley, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

"Their entire vacation was based on national parks," he said. All of them are now closed.

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