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1st Woman to Be Head of Yosemite : Environment: Park Service picks a veteran administrator who has worked there before. She faces a host of problems, many originating outside the park.

November 07, 1994|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

For the first time in its 104-year history, Yosemite National Park will be run by a woman.

The National Park Service is expected to announce today the appointment of Barbara J. (B. J.) Griffin as superintendent, marking the first time a woman has been placed in charge of any of the three Western parks, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, regarded as the crown jewels of the Park Service.

Griffin, who is 52 and has worked at Yosemite in the past, is a 20-year veteran of the Park Service and served most recently as director of the Mid- Atlantic Region, which encompasses 30 sites, including the Gettysburg battlefield and Shenandoah National Park.

Griffin was traveling Sunday and could not be reached for comment, according to Park Service officials. Park Service Director Roger Kennedy is to personally announce the new assignment. The busiest national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, already is headed by a woman.

Griffin is replacing Michael Finley, who has been appointed superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Finley came to Yosemite in 1989.

A Southerner, born in Louisiana and educated at Mercer University in Georgia, Griffin will be presiding over hallowed ground in California. More than a park, Yosemite and its High Sierra environs represent the crucible of the modern conservation movement.

Griffin will be in charge of an area the size of Rhode Island with a $16-million annual budget and a work force of about 2,500. But Griffin's success will depend, to a growing extent, on her ability to influence events outside the boundaries of her jurisdiction.

"Today, the threats to the national parks come as much from the outside as they do from the inside," said Judy Kunosky, executive director of the Yosemite Restoration Trust, a nonprofit citizens watchdog group that follows environmental issues at the park. "The superintendent has to be someone who understands the value of collaborative relationships with the surrounding communities and with groups like us."

With urban sprawl reaching deeper into the Sierras every year and the impacts of industrial society--acid rain and air pollution in particular--the fate of Yosemite will require political skills that past superintendents did not need to have, Kunosky said.

Griffin will be returning to Yosemite as it struggles to accommodate nearly 4 million visitors each year, and at the same time attempts to reduce human impacts. Griffin will be judged by environmental groups and others on how she carries out a complex and controversial plan to restrict traffic, reduce motel space and retail operations and move some Park Service operations out of Yosemite.

"She could be the most important superintendent in the history of Yosemite," said Bill Alsup, a former board president of the Yosemite Restoration Trust and a trustee of the Yosemite Assn. "What is accomplished in the next three to five years could well shape what the park looks like for the next 100 years," said Alsup, who has worked with Griffin in the past and speaks well of her.

"I think she has a strong attachment to Yosemite and understands what needs to be done to preserve it," he said.

Environmentalist groups, such as the Sierra Club, which would like to see cars banned from Yosemite Valley, will be watching closely whether Griffin endorses a compromise proposal by a Park Service consultant to funnel cars into the west end of the valley, where the only parking facility would be located--a proposed 2,000-car lot or garage.

From 1987 to 1990, Griffin was an assistant superintendent at Yosemite. For the next three years, she served as associate director of the Park Service's Western Region, which includes Yosemite.

In that position, she supervised the awarding of the park's $1-billion-plus tourist concession contract to Delaware North Companies, a firm with extensive experience selling food and beverages at racetracks and baseball stadiums, but no experience operating in a national park.

The process that led to the selection of a firm without park experience was criticized by senior members of two congressional committees that oversee national parks. However, Delaware North's first years of operations in Yosemite passed without incident.

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