Business owners, visitors rejoice as Yosemite reopens
By AMANDA LEE MYERS, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Yosemite National Park's reopening can't come soon enough for Douglas Shaw.
The 20-day closure during peak tourist season at one of the busiest parks in the U.S. cost Shaw $200,000 in lost revenue at his 120-person hotel just outside Yosemite. Most of the park is set to reopen Tuesday.
The nearly three-week closure was the result of a massive wildfire that has burned 150 square miles (389 sq. kilometers) and killed two firefighters since it started July 13.
During that time, Shaw wiped out his savings account, had to lay off eight of 43 employees, and he's considering early retirement to avoid a possible future with similar devastating wildfires in the area.
"If I hadn't had savings, which is depleted, I'd be scrambling for money or I wouldn't have a business," Shaw said Monday. "It's a huge setback."
Shaw is among hundreds of business owners in small communities surrounding Yosemite who depend on tourist dollars. Tens of thousands of visitors from across the globe canceled trips to the region because of the park's closure, which began July 25.
The Ferguson Fire is one of several devastating blazes that have cropped up in recent weeks and have killed at least a dozen people, the latest a firefighter from Utah who died Monday while battling a blaze north of San Francisco.
In Yosemite, the Ferguson Fire peaked during the busiest month for tourism. The park draws more than 600,000 during a typical August, according to the National Park Service.
Visitor bureaus in the area and the park are roughly estimating $50 million in combined tourism dollar losses, said Steve Montalto, creative director at Visit Yosemite Madera County.
"From an economic standpoint, it's majorly significant to the region," said Montalto, who visited one of the most popular attractions at the park, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, when it reopened Monday ahead of the Tuesday's larger opening.
"It's like a big breath of fresh air to be able to get in there and explore these places again," Montalto said.
While hotel owners and other business are relieved about the opening, they say it will likely be weeks before their bookings return to normal levels.
Shaw said his hotel probably won't be more than 45 percent booked this week, when normally it's sold out well in advance. There were just 10 people staying there on Monday night, he said.
"Once the closure hit that three-week mark there's a full panic across the board for visitors, whether they're from Beijing or Paris or San Francisco," he said.
Tom Lambert, who rents out an apartment within the park, said he and his wife have lost about $20,000 in income because of the closure.
And because the apartment is located along the one entrance to Yosemite Valley that will remain closed for at least a week, he said his next booking isn't until Aug. 31.
"And now people are starting to cancel into September and we have October people asking about canceling," the 55-year-old Lambert said. "It's still rough. The summer is pretty much lost."
The park and visitor bureaus are trying to get the word out internationally that the park is back open. They've begun posting pictures of themselves and visitors at attractions along with red paddleboards that say #YosemiteNOW, and they're encouraging visitors to do the same.
As for the park itself, the dent in visitor fees will impact park improvements, such as fixing roads and updating facilities, said park Ranger Scott Gediman.
Because those projects are planned years in advance, Gediman said all improvements for this year will be covered but that projects in the following years will be impacted, though he said it was too soon to know which ones.
In Montana, a wildfire destroyed structures and forced evacuations Monday from the busiest area of Glacier National Park. Park officials said structures on the north end of Lake McDonald were lost, but they did not provide details.
Although the fire near Yosemite was 86 percent contained on Monday, visitors likely will notice some smoke and may even see flames on their way in, Gediman said.
"People won't have the crystal clear blue skies they're used to," he said.
But the smoke "is the best I've seen it in several weeks," and the fire impacts minimal, he added.
Although Yosemite Valley reopens Tuesday, a major road from the south, Highway 41, and a popular park attraction known as Glacier Point will remain closed for likely at least another week for fire operations, Gediman said.
But as Gediman walked around the park on Monday ahead of the reopening, he said there was a newfound sense of anticipation among workers who were tidying up campsites and readying entrance stations.
"We are very excited to get the park reopened," he said. "It seems like a long time and it's certainly been very quiet."
When Shaw heard Friday that most of the park would be reopening Tuesday, he said he felt pure joy.
"It's a beautiful thing," he said. "You realize that roads are actually paved with money."