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Yosemite's New Superintendent Brings Track Record of Getting Big Jobs Done

Recreation: Mike Tollefson is seen as a can-do administrator who will carry out provisions of the park's much-debated valley restoration plan.

September 29, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When official word came last week that a leadership change was in store at Yosemite, the reaction from the national park's legions of admirers was swift--but far from certain.

Was this, ecologists asked, a Bush administration run on the environment? Would it sidetrack the Yosemite Valley restoration plan? A few players even took to dissecting a press announcement for clues to what the personnel shift might mean.

But the story behind the departure of Supt. David Mihalic and arrival of Mike Tollefson at one of America's most beloved, yet battled-over parks is simple, insiders say.

Top national park officials lost faith in Mihalic's desire to speedily deliver on the key infrastructure projects that over the next decade are intended to rejigger civilization's imprint on Yosemite's crowded valley floor.

Tollefson, 55, is seen as a can-do administrator with a track record of getting the job done.

"I think it's a fabulous thing for the valley plan," said John Reynolds, who until his retirement in August served as the National Park Service's western regional director. "If I had to choose someone to ensure that the valley plan is carried out, it would be Mike Tollefson."

Reynolds and several others with a deep interest in Yosemite also say they have seen no indications that the Bush administration is angling to undermine the much-debated valley master plan, which was pushed through in the waning months of the Clinton administration.

"My radar remains on alert," said Jay Watson, the Wilderness Society's California regional director. "But I don't think it will happen, based on the character of Mike Tollefson. If the Bush administration made a run at the valley plan, we'd oppose them with every ounce of energy."

Tollefson said he has been told by National Park Service Director Fran Mainella that the valley plan's list of projects--ranging from rejiggered roads to a revamped Yosemite Lodge and, most controversial of all, shifting 65% of the day-use parking out of the valley floor--is the top priority.

"My marching orders are to implement it," he said in an interview last week. But he admitted that, despite a five-year stint as superintendent of neighboring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the latter 1990s, the ambitious plans for the Yosemite Valley remain a bit murky to him. "I have heard there's controversy over the plan," he said, "but I don't even know what it is."

At Sequoia, Tollefson won plaudits for pushing through a restoration effort that eliminated about 300 buildings around the Giant Forest grove. The structures were replaced by new sequoias and vegetation.

For the last two years, Tollefson ran Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Appalachian Mountains. He was credited with pushing a key biological study that cataloged scores of insects and other creatures, as well as pushing forward a congestion management plan at a park that is the nation's busiest, with more than 10 million visitors a year. By contrast, Yosemite was visited by about 3.5 million people last year.

Some say Tollefson's experiences elsewhere won't translate at Yosemite, a crown jewel of the National Park System and perhaps its most politicized.

"People care so much about Yosemite, being superintendent there is like working in a fish bowl," said George Whitmore, the Sierra Club's Yosemite committee chairman.

Mihalic, who spent three years as Yosemite superintendent, was slated to switch with Tollefson and become the leader at Great Smoky Mountains. As of last week, Mihalic had not committed to making the switch, park officials said. Mihalic did not return calls. Some park staffers said he was considering retirement.

During his tenure at Yosemite, Mihalic won kudos for helping cement the valley plan. But critics said he could be gruff and impersonal. When it came to getting the valley projects off the ground, the efforts lagged, earning criticism in Congress.

Tollefson faces several challenges, among them persistent charges that the valley plan smacks of elitism. While Yosemite Lodge is set for significant reconstruction and is expected to see room rates rise, the number of campsites in the valley is slated to be reduced to about 500 from the 849 that existed before the disastrous flood of 1997.

But the biggest controversy remains a plan to reduce traffic congestion in the valley by cutting the number of day-use parking spaces, currently about 1,650, by two-thirds. The 550 remaining spaces would be clustered in one central spot. The plan envisions more than doubling the park's shuttle bus fleet to help ferry most day-use visitors from remote lots outside the valley.

Tollefson may have an edge in trying to win over the biggest opponent of the valley transportation plan: Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa). Radanovich said he thinks highly of Tollefson from his days at Sequoia, where the congressman and park official worked well together to iron out some tough issues.

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