Budget Impasse Forces Shutdown of Yosemite : Parks: Valley has a near-pristine look, while tourists, staff voice anger, worry. Thanksgiving holiday is in doubt.

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For only the second time in half a century, this national treasure was closed Friday to visitors, its spectacular valley emptied of campers, hotel guests and fume-belching buses.

Left behind was a near-pristine scene of trickling streams and fall colors that might have pleased naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams, Yosemite’s famous chroniclers, but which made the living livid over a budget impasse 3,000 miles away.

Harry Dempster and his bride-to-be, Jan Willeford, had planned to marry today in the simple wooden Yosemite Chapel on the valley floor. But by 3 p.m. Friday the A-frame wedding chapel was locked, along with many other public buildings in the park.


“It’s my fourth marriage,” Dempster said sheepishly, “and I wanted to do something special. Both Jan and I love Yosemite. We’re disappointed but the folks there have been great helping us relocate everything.”

The Santa Monica couple was forced to work the phones to notify friends of the change in plans, and try to find another place for the wedding. They finally found accommodations for themselves and 65 guests at the Tenaya Marriott hotel in Fish Camp, an hour’s drive across a mountain road.

But they complained that when the Washington budget crisis first broke, they called repeatedly and received assurances that the Yosemite hotels and chapel would remain open even if the park was forced to curtail operations.

“I think it’s absurd,” Dempster said. “Politicians playing their games and disregarding the public’s interest--it doesn’t have to be this way.”

The only other time Yosemite has been shuttered was in 1990 when wildfires crept close to the valley and forced a total evacuation at the height of summer. That time nature was to blame, but on Friday it was politicians taking the heat.

“It’s an odd feeling in America to be forced to leave any public place,” said Annie LoBombard, who was finishing lunch before beginning the drive home to Marin County. “It’s just a shame. I’m very disappointed in Washington.”


Win Hall, a Bay Area physician, had arrived on Wednesday for his annual stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel and hoped to stay through the weekend. Reservations were made a year ago and he was not happy as he checked out, just ahead of the evicting rangers.

“The park aspect of this budget fight could have been resolved,” Hall said. “If nothing else they should have allowed the [hotel] to stay open and not ruin people’s vacations.”


Some guests blamed President Clinton, others House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at a banquet of California winemakers Thursday night in the Ahwahnee’s grand dining room. It was a sumptuous last meal, a five-course, three-hour affair that began with the lobster lasagna and moved to pheasant with lemon grass and seared apples and ended with warm goat cheese tart, filet mignon with pancetta and shallots and Sacher torte--each course accompanied by a distinctive wine.

“We’re not going to discuss politics at dinner,” Jerry Schwartzman of Menlo Park warned his table, then he proceeded to rail at Clinton.

Twelve hours later, the dining hall was empty, along with 600 rooms at three hotels in Yosemite. Six wedding receptions had been abruptly canceled, and nearly 400 Park Service workers furloughed by the government shutdown. About 1,000 hotel, gift shop and other concessionaire employees were told to go home because the park would be closed.

Because many of the workers live in the park, the village grocery store and gas station and the cafeteria at Yosemite Lodge will remain open a few hours each day.


With plans for the popular Thanksgiving holiday now in doubt, the park’s staff voiced anxiety as did vacationers with long-held and difficult-to-get reservations.

“If we don’t open for Thanksgiving, it’s going to be a tremendous letdown for people all over the country who have been making plans for a year to be here,” said Keith Walklet, spokesman for Yosemite Concession Services Inc., which operates the lodge and the Ahwahnee.

“Even if the budget is approved on Monday or Tuesday, we’re going to need at least three days to get back to speed. It’s like stopping your car on a really steep hill and trying to get going again.”

With only a skeleton staff on hand and the gates closed, Yosemite Valley on Friday afternoon appeared both eerie and beautiful.

Some park employees were looking forward to having the place to themselves for a few days. Dusting off his Rollerblades, one longtime waiter fixed eager eyes on the abandoned roads.

But the grim-faced doorman at the Ahwahnee did not know how he would pay for Christmas if the historic lodge stays closed through Thanksgiving and he loses his holiday overtime wages. There was also his own upcoming wedding to finance.


“Right now things are looking bleak,” Matt Hudak said, moments after his boss told him to go home. “Oh well, there’s always fishing and taking pictures.”

In the hotel’s huge kitchen, executive chef Bob Anderson, who would normally be gearing up to serve 1,500 traditional turkey dinners, was putting food on ice. “I need two days’ notice to get ready,” he said. “It’s an awful lot of potatoes and yams to peel.”

When the 1990 fire closed Yosemite, things happened so quickly that the chef had no way to call up the hotel’s food providers and cancel orders. Stuck with hundreds of pounds of lobster and filet mignon, he cooked a feast for all the staff and firefighters.

“It was one big party,” waiter Marty Braselton said. “This time, I’m almost looking forward to Thanksgiving off. I’ve been here 16 years and I’ve never got to spend the holiday at home.”

Across the valley at the Ansel Adams studio, Richard Seiling wondered what the old master would make of it all.

“He’d be disgusted with the politics, I think,” Seiling said, “but it would also please him. A chance to photograph this valley with no people.”


* GRAND CANYON PROPOSAL: Arizona offer to staff park with National Guard is rejected. A20