Yosemite is a grand and wonderful place, a gem that draws about 4 million people a year. But it is increasingly becoming a playground for the rich.
Yosemite National Park administrators intend to raise the price of daily entry fees, annual passes and the costs of camping at Yosemite. The park administration quietly announced the new rates recently and gave the public until Nov. 20 to respond. You probably did not see this on the evening news.
The announcement did not actually indicate that public responses will make any difference, even though it was couched as a “proposal.”
Forgive my skepticism, but I doubt if public feedback will make any difference unless it is loud and overwhelming. It hasn’t made much difference in the past, which is why the struggling Park Service still uses this approach to survive.
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Fees to visit your National Park will increase as much as 50 percent. This comes on top of a 300 percent increase in entry fees a few years ago. You can stay at a motel along the interstates for the price of a tent in Yosemite; the “lodge” rooms are equivalent to discount motel chains at twice the cost; and the luxury accommodations start at about $350 a night. They’re usually fully booked. Read some of the feedback on Trip Advisor or Yelp about the quality problems. It is all about location, and that cannot be beat. And it is supposed to be a public park, not a destination resort.
The entry fee may not seem like a lot – a seven-day pass for each car would go from $20 to $30 – until you consider the impact such increases have had in the past. The last time entry fees were raised, park attendance dropped by about a half million people. That’s not all bad for a park so crowded in peak summer vacation times that parking is impossible. But it keeps people out of their park.
Who were those people? Not the expensive package tour folks from Europe and Asia, and not the traditional well-off environmental club supporters from San Francisco.
The missing visitors are the folks from the San Joaquin Valley and the foothills who struggle to make it on minimum wage, or near that, and count every penny. One-quarter of real people in America make less than $25,000 a year, and 75 percent make less than $50,000 a year. We park users are not all Silicon Valley dot-com millionaires, or DINKs, Double Income No Kids from West L.A.
The park’s congressman, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, won’t have much to say about this. He does not support the park service or Yosemite. He is big on privatizing stuff. Yosemite has no advocates except people like you.
Faced during recent years with more demand and less support, the Park Service cut a deal with Congress that said if a park increases its entry rates, the local park – Yosemite – can actually use half of that money to take care of deferred maintenance and other needs, like toilet paper. The other half of the money goes back to the general budget for Congress to use or misuse as it sees fit.
The result is a park policy that is takes us back to the good old days of a century ago when only the rich could afford the expensive accommodations and personal service required for a good experience. Forget about a day trip with the children from Merced or Gustine or Vacaville unless you are willing to sacrifice.
I have been camping, hiking and staying in Yosemite for more than three decades. My family has donated to its preservation through the nonprofits that support the park. Shortly after I retired, my wife and I volunteered six weeks in Tuolumne Meadows, a place we spent family camping vacations when the children were small.
I know the less crowded spots and slow months and back trails, and appreciate the park immensely for all that it offers.
The views are stupendous, and the park employees still loyal, underpaid and often overworked.
But Yosemite should be available to every American citizen and taxpayer, and a showcase for foreign guests. The argument that people who can afford it will continue to come ignores the values that established the National Park System.
National parks are either for all the people, or for just a few. You may still be able to influence the choices the Park Service makes in the next few weeks.
You can let the Park Service know how you feel by going to the park website, www.nps.gov/yose/parknews/feeincreaseopen.htm, reading the details and filling out the comment form. I did, even with my skepticism. You will have to search hard for the link to the comment form, but it is there.
If all people who love the park speak up, maybe you can change a bad policy. Or pretty soon Yosemite will become a place families used to go in the old days.
We can still look at the pretty pictures.
Sanders LaMont is a former ombudsman for The Sacramento Bee.