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Yosemite visitors center may go to Mariposa

A long-awaited new Yosemite National Park visitors center could land in Mariposa, under a bill getting its first congressional hearing Thursday.

The House hearing suggests some momentum behind legislation that allows the National Park Service to buy up to 18 acres, eventually intended for a visitors center and administrative office. The hearing also highlights the kind of Capitol Hill deal-making that can move a bill across the finish line.

“I want to make the park better,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, said Wednesday, “and this will help create jobs in Mariposa.”.

Denham’s bill does not specify the parcel to be bought, nor does it list a price tag. The basic plan, though, revolves around the park service purchasing property near the intersection of Highways 49 and 140, near Yosemite’s Arch Rock entrance. Park entrance fees would fund the purchase.

The new visitors center would replace the current Mariposa facility, housed in a rented World War II-era building. Officials also anticipate constructing a work space for dozens of Yosemite employees who currently commute into the park.

“Visitors (could) get all their orientation in town the night before they show up at the park,” noted Mariposa County Supervisor Kevin Cann, who was called to testify Thursday. “They won’t need to talk to the entrance station ranger; frustration and long waits are eliminated.”

Cann estimated the 18 acres could cost roughly $1.8 million. Himself a former Yosemite administrator, Cann added in an e-mail interview that many park office jobs “can be much more efficiently performed in town, leaving park facilities for more essential purposes.”

Denham introduced the Mariposa legislation last December, with Democratic Rep. Sam Farr of Monterey as a co-sponsor. Politically, they are polar opposites. The League of Conservation Voters gave Denham an 11 percent vote rating last year and the American Conservative Union gave him an 84 percent. Farr earned a 97 percent from the conservationists a 4 percent from the conservatives.

On certain public lands issues, though, they’ve evidently found common ground. On the same day Farr joined Denham in introducing the Mariposa land bill, Denham joined Farr’s legislation that converts the 26,605–acre Pinnacles National Monument into the higher status Pinnacles National Park.

Potentially, the mutual, bipartisanship sponsorships could help both measures move hand-in-hand through the minefields found in a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate.

"I’m confident I could get my bill through the House,” Denham said, “but it’s good to push for bipartisan support.”

Farr’s and Denham’s bills are among eight being considered Thursday morning by the House national parks, forests and public lands subcommittee. They are a grab bag that could put some true-blue conservatives in a bind, even if one of the bills renames a visitor center in New York state after former conservative senator James Buckley.

Another bill would establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park spanning parts of Washington, Tennessee and New Mexico, and a third bill would create a First State National Park in Delaware.

The potential problem, some Republican lawmakers say, is that the federal government already administers more public land than is reasonable; the National Park Service alone currently manages about 84 million acres. This fear helped prompt 70 GOP House members earlier this year to oppose a seemingly non-controversial measure to study park service recognition for the Buffalo Soldiers cavalrymen who once rode from San Francisco to Yosemite.

“We don’t need more national parks in this country, we need to actually sell off some of our national parks,” Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., an opponent of the Buffalo Soldiers bill, told constituents earlier this year.

Practically speaking, though, even staunch conservatives often line up in support of national park ventures. In 2004, then-President George Bush signed a bill authorizing Yosemite to construct facilities outside of park boundaries.

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