Park Service Director Praises Effort to Fight Yosemite Wildfires

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lightning fires that burned 25,000 acres and destroyed the village of Foresta in a two-week rampage were fought as forcefully as possible, National Park Service Director James Ridenour said after an impromptu inspection of the damage.

Despite grumbles from some in the Yosemite area that park officials were slow to attack the fires, Ridenour praised the effort without reservations.

"I thought they were outstanding," he said in an hourlong interview in Yosemite Valley Monday night at the end of a West Coast visit to national parks.

The Mariposa County Board of Supervisors met in Yosemite Valley Monday and heard complaints about the response of firefighters. T-shirts on sale at the fire camps have reflected the rivalry between the Park Service--which allows natural fires to burn unchecked in some areas of Yosemite--and the U.S. Forest Service, which favors more aggressive tactics to protect valuable logging forests.

But Ridenour and Yosemite park Supt. Michael V. Finley said there was no disagreement about tactics on this month's fires, which burned about 13,000 acres in the park and 11,610 acres in the adjacent Stanislaus National Forest. The plan was always to fight these fires because of their proximity to settled parts of the park, and Yosemite's wilderness was opened to bulldozers as soon as requested by fire commanders, they said.

Ridenour, the chief Bush Administration parks official, said the fire that destroyed 70 homes and other buildings in Foresta clouds the future of the village, one of the last clusters of privately occupied homes within Yosemite.

Although many residents want to rebuild, leases for some of the homes specify that the government may disallow new construction after a fire. Ridenour said the fire may give the government the opportunity to take over land in Foresta for park services it wants to move out of Yosemite Valley.

"It certainly opens up the question about what should be done in that area," Ridenour said. "It's something we will have to strongly consider."

As a general rule, Ridenour said, the park favors taking over the so-called "in-holding" private communities such as Foresta and Wawona. But he said that legal commitments allowing residents to stay will not be violated.

"We have to realize people made agreements in good faith," he said. "We're not going to do anything that breaks the faith. "

Finley, who endorsed Ridenour's position, said the lost residences were valuable as housing for park employees and others who work here. But the water and sewer works may not be suitable for new construction, he said.

"We have to look at the entire Foresta situation," Finley said. "What happened was a tragedy. But is it in the best interest of Yosemite National Park to build new seasonal vacation homes in the park?"

In the wide-ranging interview, Ridenour also offered little comfort to activists and Yosemite employees who had hoped that many buildings and employees would be removed from Yosemite Valley as proposed in an official 1980 plan for the park's future.

"I would like to see more of the valley restored to a more natural setting than it has become," Ridenour said. 'But we have to have a touch of realism."

Asked if it would ever be feasible--or even desirable--to remove most private vehicles from the valley, as the 1980 policy proposed, Ridenour was sympathetic to the skepticism of some park officials.

"I don't know if that's a winnable fight," Ridenour said. "I don't want to get into a situation where the handicapped or the aged are excluded from the park."

Ridenour said, however, that there is enough money to move park warehouses and other utility services from the valley to the town of El Portal, just west of the Yosemite boundary.

He also said a recent controversy over hotel, restaurant and other services at Yosemite has brought about a rethinking of such park concessions by the Park Service.

Future contracts for the exclusive right to provide services in parks will require concessionaires to pay more of their profits to the parks. A furor broke out last winter when it was disclosed that the concessionaire Yosemite Park & Curry Co. took in more than $80 million a year but paid a fee of less than $800,000.

Ridenour, who confirmed that the Yosemite contract is the most profitable in the national park system, also said there is no guarantee that the Curry Co., as it calls itself, will retain the concessions contract when it expires in 1993.

But he acknowledged the difficulty a competitor would face because of favorable terms in the 1963 contract that granted any concessionaire exclusive right to make money providing guest services at Yosemite. The Curry Co.'s interest in facilities such as the historic Ahwahnee Hotel would have to be bought out.

And, he said, the Park Service is pleased with the service provided by the Curry Co. "Experience has shown the (company) has been a pretty good concessionaire through the years," Ridenour said.

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