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David Mihalic

Adventure Travel: The Rough Road to a New Vision for Yosemite

January 09, 2000|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is an editorial writer for The Times

YOSEMITE — This is a year of decision for Yosemite as the National Park Service completes a plan to guide future development in its rockbound valley, one of the world's natural wonders. The planning process has been more than 20 years in the making, emerging in fits and starts from a lengthy study in the late 1970s and an ambitious general-management plan adopted in 1980 but never fully implemented. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is determined to bring the planning process to a conclusion before leaving office early next year.

To do this, Babbitt selected Park Service veteran David A. Mihalic, 53, to be superintendent of Yosemite National Park. Babbitt took the unusual step of personally introducing Mihalic to the public last October, while making clear his frustration with earlier attempts to conclude the process. Mihalic was introduced as the person who could finally get the job done.

The goal has been to disperse some of the tourist development jammed into the eastern neck of the one-by-seven-mile valley and reduce the crush of autos. A scaled-down voluntary plan has already been adopted, which has visitors parking at three outlying areas and then taking buses into the valley for the day. Even this small step faced opposition from two of the region's five counties, which feared the busing plan was a prelude to a ban on cars in the park.

Mihalic is one-quarter Oglala Sioux, and the Park Service calls him the highest-ranking Indian in the agency. His family includes Billy Mills, the runner who won a gold medal in the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Olympics, and two former officials in the Department of the Interior. But Mihalic says his heritage has played no role in his career or his approach to the job. "I don't look like an Indian. That is very hard to do with blue eyes and no hair," he says with a grin.

After serving in the Army engineers from 1968-72, Mihalic worked for the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska and Denver, Colo. He joined the Park Service as a ranger in Yellowstone and was then named the first superintendent of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska. He subsequently served at Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave and as chief of policy in Washington. Since 1994, Mihalic has been superintendent of Glacier National Park in Montana.

Mihalic is married to the former Jeri L. Andrews, also a career National Park Service professional. They have two children, Emily, 10, and Nicholas, 8. He discussed his new mission in his somewhat cramped, rustic office at park headquarters.

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Question: The Yosemite planning process has been going on since the late 1970s. How will you get a new valley plan in effect by the end of this year?

Answer: Well, we haven't been able to do it up to now. It's actually easier to do it this way, to make it into a crisis. You know, one of the best things the Park Service does is rise to a crisis. If somebody falls off this rock around here, we can do a bang-up job of rising to the crisis. If there's a flood, we can do a bang-up job. If there's a fire, we can do a bang-up job. These emergency kinds of things are what we do best.

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Q: What is it that is so special about Yosemite Valley and therefore such a problem?

A: It is a magnet. The valley was the core. It was the Old Faithful of Yellowstone, the Crater Lake of Crater Lake. As a result, over 100 years ago, as this place became more well-known, the development was concentrated in the valley. The park was so isolated, and it's still relatively isolated, it took some time to get here. People would come, they'd stay a week. All the stuff inside the valley--the campgrounds, the overnight accommodations--people came and stayed a week. I'm told that in the '50s and '60s, about 80% of the folks who came to the park stayed at least one night. The average was around three nights. About 20% came for the day. Now that's reversed: 80% come for the day.

That's one of the reasons we're confronted with an infrastructure that was set up and developed and designed over time to serve visitors who spent the night here.

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Q: Doesn't that reduce the demand or need for lodging in the valley?

A: It certainly reduces the need. It may not reduce the demand. The fact is, if you have less supply, you'll have more demand. So what you have to do is manage the demand. It would be horribly difficult to try to add overnight accommodations. But if there are people staying in gateway communities, they can come for the day. That's the visitation pattern. That's a good thing, because it's dispersing the demand placed on the valley part of this great park. Because many times when people talk about Yosemite, they're not talking about the park, they're talking about the valley.

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Q: The law that established the Park Service in 1916 set the goal of preserving the resource while also making it available to the people . . .

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