Government shutdown closes Yosemite

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comOctober 1, 2013 

Hot on the heels of the month-long RIM fire, Mountain Area business owners again find themselves vulnerable to potentially staggering financial losses due to the U.S. government shut down. As a result of the inability of Congress to come anywhere close to reaching an agreement over the fiscal budget and the new health care initiative, Yosemite National Park closed Tuesday morning at 12:01 a.m. With the Highway 41 south entrance historically handling the heaviest traffic, it didn't take long for local businesses, which depend upon park visitors for economic security, to feel the negative impact of the closure.

"Within the first four hours this morning, we had about 15 rooms cancel," said Jerry Rankin, owner of Oakhurst's Comfort Inn. " That's $1,500 in lost income. Even as we speak, another cancelation is coming in."

Within the park itself, close to 600 non-essential park employees have been furloughed indefinitely, entrance stations will be staffed with law-enforcement officers and a skeleton crew of management staff will remain on duty.

Also, while non-park staff will be prohibited from visiting Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point or the park's Sequoia groves, vehicles will be allowed to pass through over the Sierra via Tioga Road, which will allow quick glimpses of such iconic sites as Tunnel View, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome & El Capitan. However, a quick glimpse is not quite the idyllic vacation a Yosemite visitor envisions.

"It is unfortunate that people's well-earned vacations to Yosemite are being hampered by the government shutdown," said Dan Cunning, CEO of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau. "Economically, if there is a silver lining to this cloud, it is that it didn't happen during our peak season."

Darin Soukup, executive director of the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce agreed with this assessment.

"We are fortunate that the shutdown has happened near the end of our peak season," Soukup said. "Most of the visitors today (Tuesday), although initially disappointed, have been very understanding when learning of the park's closure and are rather eager to enjoy what Oakhurst and Eastern Madera County has to offer."

Even so, a prolonged government shutdown could potentially impact the revenue of Eastern Madera County businesses.

"The continuation of a government shutdown could bring a premature close to our regions peak visitation season," continued Soukup. "This translates to less dollars coming into and being spent in our local economy. It would be in our region's best economic interest if this situation could be resolved much sooner rather than later, regardless of any ideological differences members of Congress may have."

It seems that Tenaya Lodge is looking more at the silver lining than the possible negative implications.

"If the park closure is resolved fairly quickly, we feel things will continue as normal," said Jonathan Farrington, regional director of marketing & sales for Delaware North and spokesperson for Tenaya Lodge. "Our focus now has been on what there is to do in the southern Sierra region. Even with Yosemite National Park being closed to the public, there is an array of other historic and culturally diverse activities and sights to visit here."

"What we have to remember here is that we have an incredible destination, regardless if Yosemite is open or not, and as a community, we need to talk about that more," continued Farrington. "We want visitors to fall in love with the region and come back on their own to explore everything in our area, and to experience the hospitality that we provide. More than a decade ago, in anticipation of such an occurrence, Tenaya Lodge developed an online brochure on 101 things to do and see in this region, other than the park."

Jarrod Lyman, director of media for the visitor bureau, offered viable alternatives.

"For those who want to see the Giant Sequoia, there's Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoia along the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, which itself is also known as the secret Yosemite ... this can serve as a substitute. Our region also has many museums and art galleries, plus attractions like the train and Bass Lake that provide great scenic and recreational options in lieu of Yosemite."

Still, there are those business owners who aren't quite as optimistic, considering the Yosemite visitor as key to a good and profitable year. October 2012 statistics provided by Rhonda Salisbury, the bureau's director of marketing, showed that about 37,200 vehicles entered the park via the south entrance, which equates to nearly 93,000 park visitors traveling through Oakhurst.

"We were expecting bus tours starting tomorrow (Wednesday)," Rankin said. "That's big business and serious income, but we've had no word whether they are coming or not. After all, it's Yosemite they want to visit. Right now we have no idea how much business we're going to lose. Multiply that all around town, with other motels, restaurants, food stores and it means hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income to this area. If this keeps up, it will be a disaster for us. For anyone who doubts that Yosemite is essential for our economic survival, this closure ought to convince them."

The last federal government shutdown, which took place during the Clinton administration, lasted three weeks, from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996. The question then becomes what the economic effect would be should the shut down end later than sooner.

"The entire gateway community will feel an impact from the shutdown if it's not resolved quickly," said Farrington.

"I have no faith in what Congress says," admitted Rankin. "What they say at noon today may be history by 3 p.m."

For print versions of Tenaya's 101 Things to Do and See, visit the Visitors Bureau in Oakhurst or Mariposa, or download a copy electronically at tenayalodge.com/101.

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