Pamela Harris sheds tears as she closes the doors of her Pine Mountain Deli after 10 years in business in Groveland, California, on the outskirts of Yosemite National Park. Businesses in the area of Yosemite National Park took a double hit as first the Rim Fire wildfire kept visitors away followed by the federal budget shutdown of the park. Photo: Randall Benton / MCT

By PETER HECHT
24 October 2013

GROVELAND, California (The Sacramento Bee) – Starting Aug. 27, 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 last week 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 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."

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.'" [more]

Near Yosemite, residents wonder if shutdown was the real scorched earth

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