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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Yosemite tourism businesses wary as government shutdown threat looms. ‘It about kills us’

Yosemite National Park visitors take a look at El Capitan rock formation, left, and Bridalveil Fall from Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley in June.  (Craig Kohlruss/Fresno Bee/TNS)
By Erik Galicia Sacramento Bee The Sacramento Bee

A $4,000 night could become a $2,000 night for Castillo’s Mexican Restaurant if the federal government shuts down, a server said of what could be ahead for the eatery a few steps up 5th Street from Highway 140, one of the primary routes to enter Yosemite National Park in central California.

Tiffany Strange, who’s served plates there for five years, said a few locals regularly eat at the restaurant. Castillo’s, like the Little Shop of Ramen just a seconds-long walk southwest, and like the Mariposa Marketplace around the corner, sell a lot to people who come through the town to visit Yosemite.

“We rely on the park,” Strange said about Castillo’s. “When they close down the park, that’s it for us.”

A new fiscal year for the government starts Oct. 1, but Congress has yet to agree on a funding deal that would keep it fully functioning. Members of the Freedom Caucus – some of the most right-wing legislators – are opposing bills to keep the government open, calling instead for cuts to federal spending.

Only essential federal services and spending would continue if the government shuts down. That means Yosemite National Park could close.

Tony McDaniel, communications director for the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau, said 52% of the county is employed in tourism. Without “reading the tea leaves,” McDaniel said, any sort of federal government shutdown is going to bring massive financial impacts.

Those impacts could also affect the Oakhurst area of Madera County on Highway 41, the southern route to enter Yosemite.

Sue Graham, owner of Oakhurst Giftworks, said park closures hurt the entire area. About 20% of sales at her antique and gift store, which she opened in 1983, are made to tourists.

“They’ve done it to us before,” she said.

The park closed down completely when the government shut down in 2013. The National Park Service estimated a nationwide loss in visitor spending of more than $500 million during that shutdown.

A “partial closure” of the park occurred during the government shutdown that began in December 2018 – the longest one ever at 35 days. Staff were furloughed and facilities were closed, but visitors were still allowed to enter the national park.

“The people who did go into the park totally trashed it,” Graham said. “There was no one there to police them.”

If a partial closure occurs and there is still access to the park, McDaniel urged, visitors should practice “leave no trace” principles. They should also take caution, as even something like a twisted ankle can become much more serious when there is less help around, he added.

Diane Boland, manager and owner of the Coarsegold Historic Village, said her shopping center and its vendors also stand to suffer from a closure of the park. The village’s website advertises it as “The best place for a pitstop on your way to Yosemite National Park and right off Highway 41!”

“It about kills us,” Boland said. “Anytime the government shuts down Yosemite, we die.”

While Boland argued the need for responsible spending by the federal government, “we’ve already had way too much shut us down,” she added. “Our small businesses are already struggling anyways.”

McDaniel agreed: Whether it’s a fire, snowstorm or government shutdown, “it’s one thing after another for our region.”

To Alice Leaf, a manager at Reimer’s Candies and Gifts in Oakhurst, a government shutdown is like a wildfire. Leaf said she and her husband previously owned a BBQ restaurant in the area.

“Previous government shutdowns have wreaked havoc on these towns,” she said.

Kate Holden, public relations director for Visit Yosemite Madera County, said the Oakhurst area still has attractions such as Bass Lake to offer visitors in the event that the national park closes.

“But (a closure) is impactful because summer in Yosemite is kind of the quintessential time to go,” she added. “When the park is not open during the summer or it’s inaccessible during the summer, that really impacts our prime business season.”

Without tourists, there’s no way the Little Shop of Ramen would make it, said co-owner Travis Medlock.

“We opened our doors in February of 2020,” Medlock said. “All we know is pandemic. We’ve made it, but it’s been rough.”

Celee Evans, one of 12 vendors at the Mariposa Marketplace, said 75% of the store’s sales are made to visitors – even as the summer winds down. About half of all the items for sale in her area of the store “are homage to Yosemite and Mariposa.”

“We’ve been very fortunate this tourist season that we haven’t had a fire,” Evans said. “The rains don’t happen this season, so we haven’t had something come up that’s out of our control until this (possible government shutdown).”

Traffic into Yosemite National Park through its south entrance, just a 20-minute drive north of Oakhurst on Highway 41, remained below a 10-year average during last year’s summer. Visits to the park through that entrance were much higher this year from June to August. There were a total of 372,376 recorded visits through the south entrance as of August.

Matthew Cornell, co-owner of the Big Cedar Springs wooden art shop on Highway 41, said his store will remain open for local shoppers.

“If the park shuts down, this whole road will slow down,” he said. “I’m not really sure what’ll happen. I guess it depends on how it’ll affect everyone else.”

Cornell said past shutdowns have slowed traffic in his shop. He’s hoping those with plans to travel to the area still come, seeing as many are international tourists.

McDaniel hopes the same in Mariposa. He said his bureau is working with Madera’s, as well as with those in Tuolumne and Mono counties, to cross-promote their attractions in case there is a partial closure.

“Consider not canceling and recreating in our gateway communities, or reschedule,” he said. “All of our gateway communities have something to offer. The culture of our towns is worth experiencing.”