Yosemite is forcing homeowners to leave without compensation. Here’s why
The week before Christmas, residents of the El Portal Trailer Park got letters from Yosemite National Park saying they have to remove or surrender their homes by early 2022 because Yosemite has other plans for the trailer park and is worried about power lines there that Yosemite owns.
“Thank you, Park Service,” Luke Harbin said sarcastically, shortly after heavy snowfall recently covered the mountains surrounding his mother’s home near Yosemite with a thick coat of white.
Yosemite is not paying for mobile homes that residents own or moving expenses. Letters dated Dec. 13, signed by Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, informed them for the first time that authorized tenants have to leave within 90 days.
Harbin said his mother has worked in Yosemite for over 40 years and has lived in the trailer park for 38 years – 34 years in her current home.
“It’s sad. Imagine losing your home after 40 years,” Harbin said while standing beside a community playground built by his father, who died a couple years ago, and other parents.
The 32-year-old has fond memories of growing up in the small community for Yosemite workers, including learning to swim in a swimming hole near his family home. Tranquil El Portal, mostly populated by oak and pine trees, sits beside the Merced River and is about a five-minute drive from the west entrance of Yosemite National Park along Highway 140.
Yosemite owns land in El Portal, but not many of the homes that sit upon that land.
Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Harbin said his mother spent at least $5,000 on a new metal roof for her double-wide mobile home that’s guaranteed for 10 years. She wouldn’t have done it had she known she’d be forced out without compensation two years later.
There are around a dozen mobile homes remaining in the community, along with some other smaller trailers. Many tears have been shed there since the December letter that told residents to leave.
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said unauthorized tenants, including renters who aren’t supposed to be there, only have 60 days to leave. It’s unclear how many homeowners and others live there. Gediman estimated there are about 12 residents, “plus or minus.” One homeowner estimated there are at least over 20 residents who are actively working for Yosemite.
Gilbert Domingues is among those who will soon be displaced. He was born in Yosemite Valley and spent most of his life living and working there. His aunt is Julia Parker – the face of Native Americans in Yosemite for many park visitors because of her longtime service at the Yosemite Museum.
“I just look at it as like I’m a Native American, and the government can take my land, so they are,” Domingues said.
Like the others, he’s not sure where he will go.
“There’s not much I can do really except just pack up and go,” Domingues said. “The government wins again.”
Why do El Portal Trailer Park residents have to leave soon?
Trailer park residents received another letter from Yosemite’s superintendent in October, cautioning that the overhead electrical system was found to be in “very poor condition” in September and Yosemite “has contracted PG&E to fully assess the condition” – adding that “one potential outcome” might be Pacific Gas & Electric Company determining the power lines should be de-energized.
“If requisite repairs are not feasible, particularly in the context of the NPS’ long-term plan for the site,” then the National Park Service would “accelerate” the relocation of residents, giving them at least 60 days notice, the letter from Muldoon continued.
The letter said the site will be converted to a public and administrative-use campground for recreational vehicles, with campground construction slated to begin in 2024. Several residents interviewed for this story said the letter was the first time they were informed of the 2024 date.
“We are not requesting tenants to vacate housing at this time,” the October letter reads. “This letter serves only as a notice about the conditions of the Trailer Court’s electrical distribution system.”
A subsequent Dec. 13 letter, titled “NOTICE OF TERMINATION,” does tell them to go: “Based on follow up assessment of the electrical utilities and input from PG&E, park management confirmed that long-term operation of the current infrastructure is not viable. Given the safety risks of continued operation the NPS is accelerating the closure of the Trailer Court and requiring authorized tenants to vacate their sites within 90 days of this notice.”
Some residents were told by others that the real reason they’re being forced to leave so quickly is because Yosemite wants to use the land as a staging area for construction equipment for various Yosemite projects starting this spring.
The recent letters to residents don’t mention that, but Gediman confirmed it when asked for this story. The site being used as a construction area is ironic to some who recall residents being punished with community service for disturbing dirt in their yards and park rangers there trying to protect elderberry longhorn beetles. The area is also an archaeological site, with ancient mortar holes on boulders – circular depressions created by Native Americans while grinding food.
Gediman said some major, multi-million-dollar Yosemite projects that might benefit from the trailer park being used as a construction staging area include a new planned wastewater treatment facility in El Portal, work on Glacier Point and Tioga roads, and campground rehabilitation.
“This is the administrative site,” Gediman said of El Portal. “The area is designed to meet the administrative needs of the park. Again, with our budgets coming up and a need for staging area and temporary camping for the construction workers, this is the use that we need in order to operate the park.”
Yosemite recently redid power lines from Yosemite Valley to El Portal, but that didn’t include the El Portal Trailer Park.
PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the company looked at El Portal power lines for Yosemite as a courtesy, not as a contractor. Boyles said the company isn’t sharing what it told Yosemite but that “there would never be a time where we would have any kind of authority to recommend a tenant be evicted for any reason.”
A worker who inspected the lines told residents there aren’t safety issues that warrant evictions. But if the infrastructure really is that bad, “why haven’t they been maintaining them?” Harbin asked. “We’ve been paying them this whole time, for years. Why aren’t they out here doing their job?”
History of the community for Yosemite workers
The El Portal Trailer Park – also called the El Portal Trailer Park Village and El Portal Trailer Court – has been around since the 1950s.
Homeowners of the trailer park, who have to work in Yosemite to live there, were no longer allowed to sell their homes after the flood of 1997. Annual lease agreements for the land beneath them changed to say the closure of the trailer park would “continue to be implemented through attrition.”
Several residents said they understood that to mean they had to leave when they no longer worked for Yosemite.
One resident said there was once 58 occupied spaces in the trailer park.
There were plans to close the trailer park in 2000, but that changed in 1999. At that time, a previous Yosemite superintendent wrote, “Since the closure of the trailer village is dependent upon available funding, the January 1, 2000 closure date has been postponed. No new date for closure has been identified.” Another NPS letter in 2003 said, “this statement continues to be fact.”
Several residents said Yosemite didn’t share plans for the site with them – or a new move-out deadline or construction timelines – aside from the termination letters received in December.
Yosemite’s 2014 record of decision to preserve the wild and scenic Merced River – now a guiding document for park management and construction projects – talks about adding employee housing in El Portal. Within El Portal’s trailer park/adjacent Abbieville, parking and camping spaces will also be added, the plan states, while employee housing facilities there within the floodplain “will not be removed.”
There’s also plenty of contradictions within the 200-page document, which, in another section, addresses removing or relocating some homes in the trailer park/Abbieville and restoring a 150-foot riparian buffer. The plan says to “remove development, asphalt and imported fill” right after noting a 300-space parking lot would be added in that area – an archaeological site.
Changing and uncertain plans have left many residents unsure what to expect. Harbin said Yosemite was recently redoing sewage lines in the trailer park.
Gediman said park officials communicated with residents numerous times about plans to close the trailer park through letters and community meetings and that “our intentions have been this way for almost thirty years now.”
Harbin has a very different take: “They’re pulling a fast one on us.”
Challenges include little time, no compensation, narrow roads
Most who live in the trailer park now are older people who have worked in Yosemite for decades, residents said. They thought Yosemite would have given them more time to find a new place to live and move out – and not in the middle of winter.
Most of the homes in the trailer park can hardly be considered “mobile” anymore. Some have been there since the 1950s and have been retrofitted with various add-ons, like covered porches and attached sheds.
The chances are slim that many could be moved, even if residents have the money and want to, due to narrow sections of road past the trailer park. There’s been a one-lane bridge down the Merced River canyon since the massive Ferguson rockslide buried part of Highway 140 in 2006.
Going the other direction, the road just past Yosemite’s west entrance narrows to one lane as it squeezes through an opening between boulders.
For those who can’t or don’t want to move their mobile homes, Muldoon told residents that “you have the option of surrendering your trailer and/or belongings to the NPS. Recognizing that the property holds no value and is not considered a donation to NPS.”
Residents recall others in the past having to cut up and discard their homes themselves before leaving the trailer park.
A letter sent to residents over 20 years ago from another Yosemite superintendent said trailer park residents might be eligible for possible relocation benefits under Public Law 91-646.
There was no mention of compensation in recent letters. Why not? Gediman said that the National Park Service is terminating the lease agreement, and “we’re not addressing anything beyond” that.
It’s a harsh reality for those now scrambling to find new homes.
“We have rights and benefits as displaced people,” Harbin said, “and they’re trying to ignore all that.”
Most soon-to-be displaced residents now face either potentially renting a dorm room in Yosemite Valley or driving along the often-icy Merced River canyon to Mariposa, 40 minutes from El Portal. Housing is limited in rural Mariposa County, especially at the rate trailer park residents were paying, around $400 a month for trailer space.
Some hope Yosemite will offer more time to move and said Rep. Tom McClintock’s office offered to review and endorse letters requesting time extensions.
“Congressman McClintock’s office is aware of the issue,” said Jennifer Cressy, a spokesperson for McClintock, “and expects YNP to fairly consider the circumstances in each letter request for a time extension.”
Shock, pain and neglect near Yosemite National Park
Two Yosemite employees and trailer park residents asked not to be identified in this story out of fear of losing employment opportunities at the park.
One said they were offended by comments attributed to Gediman in a recent Mariposa Gazette story, in which the trailer park and its residents were described multiple times as “hodgepodge.”
“It’s the humanity part of it.”
The resident has lovingly worked on their small house for decades to make it a beloved home.
Plus, “How can they do this when COVID is still going on? It’s still active. It’s still spreading.”
About not getting compensated: “It’s just wrong. I know that eminent domain happens everywhere – it’s progress – but people get paid.”
Even a little compensation from Yosemite would be helpful, they said. This resident recently saw similar mobile homes in Mariposa being sold for over $100,000.
Residents also talked about wanting their community to look nicer. Harbin said after some previous trailers were torn out, there was trash littered across the trailer park for five years before Yosemite cleaned it up. In another instance, Harbin said he cleaned up some neighboring mess himself after Yosemite failed to do it after a couple of years.
“It’s messed up. It’s not fair,” Harbin said of the state of the trailer park. “If you go over to the elementary school, it looks prestigious, and you come over here, and it looks like, literally, a dump.”
Harbin said the Park Service owes trailer park residents at least some more time to leave.
“It’s just not right how they went about doing all this.”