Yosemite Deal Includes 'Golden Parachutes'

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

A widely acclaimed agreement by the Yosemite Park and Curry Co. to sell its hotels and other holdings in Yosemite National Park to the government contained an undisclosed provision awarding nearly $2 million in severance pay to five company executives.

U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., who won widespread praise for helping negotiate the agreement, which removed the famed Ahwahnee Hotel and other buildings in the park from the prospect of Japanese control, was unaware of the severance pay at the time, his office said Friday.

Environmentalists on Friday assailed the severence package, warning that it would raise the cost of doing business in the park, which would in turn result in the continued commercialization of one of the nation's natural wonders.

At the time the accord was reached in January, there was widespread consternation because the Curry Co.'s long-held concession contract had fallen into Japanese hands. The Curry Co.'s parent firm, MCA Inc., had been bought out by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan.

Under terms of the accord, the Curry Co. was to sell its holdings for $62 million to the nonprofit National Park Foundation, which would then deed the property to the National Park Service when the Curry Co.'s contract for the concession expires Sept. 30, 1993. Bidding will be held to determine who will run the park concession. The purchase will be financed by revenues earned by the next concession.

But, it wasn't until mid-March--2 1/2 months after the agreement--that Lujan, National Park Service Director James Ridenour and the National Park Foundation learned of the "golden parachutes," spokesmen said.

"The situation is (that) we were not aware, either the park service or the National Park Foundation, that golden parachutes were part of the package," park service spokesman Duncan Murrow said Friday. "We learned of it later."

Lujan's press secretary Steven Goldstein added, "I do not believe the secretary was aware initially." Lujan and Ridenour were attending a meeting of the park foundation at Yellowstone National Park and were not immediately available.

Spokesman for the Curry Co. and MCA did not return phone calls placed by The Times.

Negotiators are still hammering out the final agreement, based on the understanding announced last January. It was unclear whether the salary severance package would remain or who would pay for it.

But, the park service said Friday that the issue was now on the table. "Clearly that would be an issue (that) I'm sure has been up for discussion as they negotiate the final agreement," Murrow said.

The severance package for the five executives, including Curry Co. President Ed Hardy, is nearly $2 million, the San Jose Mercury News reported Friday. The newspaper quoted unnamed government sources as saying Hardy's annual earnings were between $410,000 to $425,000.

The payments to Hardy and four other executives would cover two full years of salaries after Curry's contract expires, if the Curry Co. does not win the new concession.

But both Goldstein and Morrow called severance pay "standard business practice."

They said it would be up to MCA and the National Park Foundation to make any changes.

Goldstein said Lujan has removed himself from the ongoing negotiations because of a potential conflict of interest.

The Interior Department oversees the National Park Service. In addition, Lujan sits on the National Park Foundation board.

Word of the golden parachute provisions drew indignant cries from environmentalists.

"Someone is going to have to be accountable for this," said Ed Wayburn, who sits on the national board of the Sierra Club and the Yosemite Restoration Trust. "At this moment we are simply outraged at this happening."

Wayburn said the severance pay should either be deleted from the deal as negotiators hammer out final details or MCA should foot the cost itself.

Marc Frances, chairman of the club's Yosemite Trust Task Force, warned that the severance pay will make it all the more difficult for whoever wins the next concessionaire contract to make the park less commercial.

The new concessionaire, he explained, will have to generate $2 million in additional revenue to pay for the salary buyout. That may necessitate more commercialization at Yosemite, not less, Frances said.

"This is what hurts the park. People come in by automobile, go to the big commercial centers, buy stuff and then leave," Frances said. "It just chokes the park up and is trashing the place."

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