Towns near Yosemite feel pain after fire, politics chase away visitors

phecht@sacbee.comOctober 20, 2013 

— Starting Aug. 17, a force of nature devastated the economy of this historic Tuolumne County town, 3,100 feet high on the mountain pass into Yosemite National Park.

The Rim fire burned well into October, devouring more than a quarter-million acres of forest. Its choking smoke and gloom smothered business at Groveland’s Iron Door Saloon, built in 1853, and frightened off Yosemite-bound tourists at the charming Groveland Hotel, dated 1849.

Now this town of 600 residents is left to ponder what was worse: the force of nature that scorched the forests or the force of politics that shuttered the federal government and closed down Yosemite.

The tourist economy of Yosemite National Park provides critical life support for nearby counties, including Tuolumne, Mariposa, Merced and Madera. And while the park reopened Thursday after a 16-day federal government shutdown, the regional fallout may be long-lasting.

Nationally, financial services company Standard & Poor’s estimated the shutdown cost America’s economy $24 billion. The National Park Service reported that closed parks and communities depending on them may have lost $76 million a day in tourism revenue.

In Groveland, economic heartbreak is counted in decidedly smaller numbers – and felt in deeply personal ways.

For Pamela Harris, 45, soon-to-be former owner of the Pine Mountain Deli sandwich and ice cream emporium, her heartbreak figure was $15,000. That’s what Harris took out in a loan four years ago to buy the business where she worked.

Harris started struggling to make her payments when the Rim fire erupted. Yosemite was open but the ferocious, billowing blaze stopped the tourist traffic on Highway 120 that supported the Pine Mountain Deli. She had a glimmer of hope when the fire died down, the roads reopened and people started passing through again on their way to Yosemite. But the Oct. 1 federal government closure brought Harris a financial death knell.

“Just when I thought I was going to be OK, they shut down the park,” Harris said.

And so last week, when the government closure ended, when busloads of foreign tourists resumed their stops in Groveland on pilgrimages to America’s natural treasure, Harris stood outside her deli, with its “Going Out of Business Sale” sign, and sobbed. She has sold off her sandwich counter and ice cream display and will close at the end of the month.

“I can’t blame the fact that we had a huge fire,” Harris said. “But I blame the government. It’s because they don’t listen. They don’t care about me. This was irresponsible and stupid and sad and disgusting.”

At the Iron Door Saloon, which claims to be the oldest bar in California, the developments were confounding to owner Chris Loh.

For weeks, Loh says, Groveland has resembled “a ghost town.” As the fire fallout morphed into the federal fallout, Loh let go 40 of 49 people who worked for him at businesses including his saloon and restaurant and his Iron Door General Store, the town’s main market.

Many of those workers have since had to apply for food stamps or other government assistance, Loh said.

As the battles in Washington roiled with vitriolic exchanges over the nation’s new health care law and the federal debt ceiling, Loh saw politicians and big-business lobbyists embroiled in a political donnybrook that seemed oblivious to the troubles of a small town just outside Yosemite.

“They’re fighting over their money, and we’re the ones suffering,” he said. “You can’t reach that point without sacrificing some basic morals.”

Millions in lost spending

At the Groveland Hotel, owner Peggy Mosley has long delighted in serving prize-winning Tuolumne County wines and staging dinner shows from live jazz to Elvis impersonators. But even as Yosemite reopened, Mosley was finishing some painful bookkeeping, tallying losses from a period in which she dramatically slashed hours for her 35 employees and let a handful go.

Mosley, a board member of the American Lodging Association who lobbies on Yosemite tourism issues, has been a supporter of Rep. Tom McClintock, the Republican congressman who represents the area. But during the budget impasse, McClintock was a staunch defender of efforts to withhold funding for the government to force changes in, or repeal of, the federal health care law.

McClintock called Mosley during the shutdown to ask how she was faring. Mosley, who suggests she is no great fan of the Affordable Care Act, gave her congressman an earful over a political tactic that extended the misery of a region already scorched by fire.

“I told him, ‘Let Obamacare fall on its own,’” Mosley said. “ ‘If it’s that bad, it will crash and burn. But let’s reopen the park.’”

During the impasse, McClintock blamed Democrats for being unwilling to negotiate. Even though he voted against the deal to end the shutdown, the congressman said in a news release Wednesday that “it relieves the immediate economic damage ... that has fallen particularly hard on the gateway communities surrounding our national forests and parks.”

In Tuolumne County, administrator Craig Pedro said the county of 45,000 residents will be out at least $350,000 in hotel and sales taxes, a ripple effect from the estimated $3.25 million in lost tourist spending during the Rim fire and Yosemite closure.

“My gut tells me that (estimate) is low,” said Pedro, who said it may take months to assess the fallout.

Mosley, a board member for the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, said local business will “take a humongous hit,” possibly as much as $15 million in lost hotel and motel tourism.

In neighboring Mariposa County, also dependent on the peak May-October Yosemite tourism season, administrator Richard Benson estimated the county lost more than $3.5 million in lodging revenues during the federal shutdown.

Still not business as usual

With Yosemite’s reopening, a busload of German tourists stopped in Groveland late last week. They went into the Iron Door Saloon, taking seats at the old bar and ordering shots of authentic American whiskeys.

They bustled around a shining red engine at the Groveland Fire Department, aiming their cameras at a symbol of togetherness: a seal on the engine door honoring “America’s bravest” – firefighters who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s hard to understand that it’s possible to close down a government,” said one of the tourists, Jerry Veo of Hamburg.

Even with the park open, Groveland and other towns around Yosemite remained largely empty because tourists had canceled bookings en masse and made other travel plans.

In the town of Mariposa, the Mariposa Lodge – which normally fills all 45 rooms this time of year – had four bookings. The Yosemite Way Station motel had booked 11 of its 79 rooms. At the turn-of-the century Mariposa Hotel Inn, all six rooms, elegantly furnished with antiques, were empty.

Owner Mary Foster fears she may have trouble filling them for a while.

“It’s not back to business as usual,” she said. “It’s going to be a long, long time. We have foreigners who booked months in advance and then canceled. They’ve made other plans. They’re going to Tahoe. They’re going to Monterey.”

Yosemite National Park Assistant Superintendent Scott Gediman said the 660 park employees who were furloughed are back at work, and campgrounds and trails have reopened in time for visitors to savor the changing fall colors in the majestic setting.

While the federal employees will be reimbursed for lost wages, employees in the private sector won’t be. So Mark Deger, 42, a service waiter at Yosemite’s regal Ahwahnee Hotel, lost two weeks’ pay. So did his wife, chef Laura Le Messurier.

Deger, who was put of work by the last federal shutdown in 1995, found himself cursing in disbelief that it could happen again. “I’m happy to be back at work, but I’m very pissed off,” he said.

Stopping to photograph the spectacular view from Yosemite’s Half Dome overlook, Dutch tourists Stefan and Paula Essing were strangely bewildered by it all. They had waited at a Mariposa hotel, hoping they might visit the world-renowned park before their vacation was over. The stalemate in Washington ended just in time.

“It’s stupid,” Stefan Essing said. “The people of America are the losers in this – and so are the tourists.”

In Groveland, Pamela Harris said she seethed with grief during a recent visit from a representative for the U.S. Small Business Administration who met with merchants affected by the Rim fire and passed out business cards to those who might want disaster loans. By then, Yosemite was a victim of the federal shutdown, and her business was finished.

“The government has done enough for me,” she said she told the representative, brusquely handing the business card back. “Thank you very much.”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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