Yosemite National Park — BEFORE WE GET TO THE SPITE AND CLUMSINESS -- OR maybe it's hypocrisy and greed -- let me say it's a great spring here. Waterfalls raging. Meadow grass of electric green. Deer nibbling and coyotes creeping in the shade of those great granite walls, climbing up and up and up.
But of course there are problems.
On April 20, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a halt to work on seven major park construction projects after environmental groups complained that rangers hadn't put enough safeguards in place to guide and limit future projects along the Merced River, which meanders past those electric green meadows in Yosemite Valley.
And there is the fickle old earth, which can hurl tons of tumbling granite at you one year (as in 1996, when a hiker was killed and scores of trees were leveled) and surging floodwaters the next (as in 1997, when the Merced jumped its banks and destroyed park facilities).
Amid all this grandeur and drama, it's easy to overlook a bout of nasty correspondence between a local congressman and the Sierra Club over a building the size of a suburban garage. But the building in the middle of this battle -- the granite-walled Joseph LeConte Memorial Lodge, built in 1904, moved to its current valley location in 1919 -- stands for something more.
Now meet U.S. Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), a 48-year-old former winemaker first elected in 1994. Radanovich, whose district includes the park, chairs the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and has been a frequent foe of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
Like those environmentalists who prevailed in court a couple of weeks ago, he's unhappy about the National Park Service's long-term plans here. Unlike them, he has resisted plans to subtract campsites and reduce parking in Yosemite Valley. Last fall, the congressman proposed HR2715, a bill that would keep more tents in the valley, restrict spending on shuttle buses -- and banish the LeConte Memorial Lodge.
"If you are serious about reducing the human impact," Radanovich wrote to Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, "you should remove the LeConte Memorial Lodge and restore that portion of Yosemite Valley to natural conditions. Any other position is nothing short of hypocritical."
One of four sites in the valley designated as National Historic Landmarks, the lodge was built to honor Joseph LeConte, a Berkeley professor and Sierra Club founder who died in 1901. It went up when the Sierra Club and the Park Service were each young, and in the early 1920s its custodian was a bright, camera-toting kid from San Francisco, just out of his teens, named Ansel Adams.
Though the Sierra Club presses plenty of political causes, its pact with the Park Service here requires it to run the lodge as a nonpartisan free museum and library. It attracts about 15,000 visitors every summer. On July 3, the club and the park will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the lodge's opening -- assuming, of course, that nobody's come to cart the place away.
"The congressman is simply fighting for public access," insists Radanovich's press secretary, Heather Davis. "It's America's park, not just one organization's."
The Sierra Club's Pope, meanwhile, has called the congressman "a vindictive politician employing blackmail and other bully tactics."
You could say the first battle went to Radanovich -- on Oct. 29, the House Resources Committee approved his bill on a 21-20 vote, and it's still alive. But old hands in D.C. say measures with such tepid support seldom advance, and the Bush administration has been mum on it so far.
As for the Park Service, because the agency is part of the government's executive branch, park spokesman Scott Gediman says he can't comment on pending legislation. But the rangers' mission, he notes, is to preserve natural and cultural resources, such as the lodge.
OK, on to some larger questions. Is the Sierra Club sometimes guilty of hypocrisy and greed? Sure. But not this time. Is the congressman being spiteful and clumsy? Yes.
So can we get on with our lives now? In a sec. The point here is that without adult supervision, our park system these days is vulnerable to all sorts of stupidity, and it's a mistake to wait for rangers to blow their whistles.
Consider Teresa Chambers, the U.S. Parks police chief who was fired in December. Her sin, apparently, was speaking plainly to a reporter about the park system's budget woes. In the ensuing uproar, federal officials said they'd review the firing. Then, in March, park system pooh-bahs advocated spinning program cuts as "service level adjustments."
Rangers are nervous. Denny Huffman, former superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument and spokesman for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, warned in March that under the Bush White House, "employees are avoiding any message, no matter how true or how important, that could upset the 'happy talk' cart."