In Yosemite, an emptying park becomes an emblem of partisan divide
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.
Yosemite’s tourism economy is responsible for 5,000 jobs, and there were already indications that an extended shutdown could represent a cascade of trouble. In Oakhurst, the Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn’s 133 rooms were scheduled at near-capacity, said manager Bill Putnam. Then came the shutdown — and 25 cancellations by Wednesday afternoon.
“The longer this goes, the more we’ll get,” he said. “My staff’s very apprehensive. If we don’t have occupancy, they don’t have work. The guests — they are not able to do what they came to do. We are watching the situation very closely, and hoping that our friends in Washington get their act together.”
Several naturalists said Wednesday that although the effect of the shutdown is being felt across the nation, the closure of Yosemite feels particularly significant and painful.
Determined to curtail development and industry, Congress approved a bill in 1864 that protected Yosemite. Technically, it was not the first national park — that honor goes to Yellowstone, created eight years later. But it was the first time the federal government had protected a piece of wilderness for the public’s use and enjoyment.
“Yosemite was the seed of the national park idea,” Tollefson said. He noted that Lincoln signed the bill at a time when an average of more than 500 Americans were being killed each day in the Civil War. “Makes our little gridlock seem pretty silly,” he said.
“There are millions of people every year who come from all around the country and all around the world, and for many of them, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see one of the crown jewels in the national park system,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. “It reflects very small-minded thinking that we would lock the gates and prevent people from visiting the park. It’s an insult and a tragedy.”
Dan Thill, who had traveled from Egan, Minn., to explore Yosemite with his wife, was slightly less lofty about the whole matter when he found out he had to leave Wednesday: “We own this!”
Streeter reported from Yosemite, Gold from Los Angeles.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.