Saying its hands were tied by its predecessor, the Clinton Administration will award a controversial concessionaire contract at Yosemite National Park to a corporation that specializes in servicing sporting events, Interior Department sources said Wednesday.
Environmental groups had asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to review a decision by the National Park Service, made in the final days of the Bush Administration, to designate Delaware North Cos. Inc. to run Yosemite's hotels and other concession outlets. They protested that the Buffalo, N.Y., conglomerate has no experience with parks, and that the decision was made too hastily.
But Interior Department sources said Wednesday that they have little choice but to approve the contract because the company followed the procedures outlined by the Bush Administration and there is no time to reopen the process. The current contract at Yosemite expires Sept. 30.
"Delaware North played by the rules," said an Interior Department source. "There are constraints of law and constraints of time here, and we've made a determination that the process is clearly best served here by sending up the contract. Essentially our hands are tied."
The National Park Service reportedly will notify key congressional committees of the decision next week. Congress does not approve or reject such contracts, so it would automatically become effective after a 60-day waiting period.
Valued at about $1.5 billion over its 15-year span, the contract to run the park's historic Ahwahnee Hotel, other lodges, campgrounds, snack bars and other outlets is the largest and most lucrative concession business in the national park system.
The 78-year-old Delaware North Cos. run concessions at the Boston Garden and at horse and dog racetracks, as well as the Fresno Airport.
Environmentalists who were notified by The Times on Wednesday said they were disappointed that Babbitt did not throw out the decision and have companies submit new bids using new guidelines for choosing the winner.
"This is the biggest concessions contract in the national park system, and they could have taken the time to set a positive tone and positive precedent for the other national parks," said Anne Iverson, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Yosemite Committee.
"For Yosemite, this was their chance to make a difference for the next 15 years. The Clinton Administration came late to this and now they have to watch this and clean up if there are any problems."
Iverson said it is too early to decide whether environmentalists will take legal action to try to stop the contract from taking effect. In May, Delaware North cleared a major hurdle when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a competitor alleging that the process for choosing the winning bid was unfair.
Interior Department officials emphasized that this is not indicative of the Clinton Administration's policy toward managing national parks. "This is the last contract of the Bush Administration and not the first contract of the Clinton Administration," an Interior Department official said.
Babbitt had promised environmentalists that he would review the Park Service's choice for Yosemite because he wanted to set a new course with national park concessions. But after analyzing the issue, Babbitt and his staff decided it was too late in the process to reject it, and that doing so would only trigger disruptive legal challenges, the Interior Department source said.
Babbitt plans to handle future contracts differently, giving more emphasis to the needs of each park than to the high financial returns the company would get, Interior officials say. Today, a top Interior Department official plans to reveal in a congressional hearing a new policy geared toward the specific needs of each park.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Babbitt would not address the Yosemite decision, but he criticized past Administrations' practices in awarding park contracts.
He compared the granting of concessions in the past to federal policies on grazing and mining, saying they were giveaways "akin to British titles of nobility" that left the taxpayer bearing the burden and the lucky beneficiary getting rich.
In a letter to Babbitt in March, Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Bruce F. Vento, (D-Minn.), who chair committees that oversee parks, harshly attacked the Park Service's process for selecting the Yosemite concessionaire. They said it was made after "little analysis and discussion," but they did not specifically criticize Delaware North as the choice.
"A lot of environmental groups have been highly critical of the actual selection of Delaware North, that it is the wrong type of people to have in Yosemite. That is not a conclusion that our committee chairman (Miller) came to," said an aide to the Natural Resources Committee.
The current contract is held by the Yosemite Park & Curry Co., but the company's parent, MCA, was sold to a Japanese company and former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. wanted the contract to remain with a U.S. firm.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this story.