You are here

Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Promoted to Yosemite National Park


Don Neubacher, a 28-year veteran of the National Park Service who has spent the past 15 as superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, is moving over to take the helm at Yosemite National Park.

The appointment made this week fills sends Dave Uberuaga, who has served the past year as acting superintendent at Yosemite since Mike Tollefson resigned to head the Yosemite Fund, back to Mount Rainier National Park where he has been the superintendent.

The cross-state move for Mr. Neubacher, who grew up in California and is "old enough to remember the firefalls as a kid,” comes with a plateful of issues, and then some, awaiting him. Foremost is the renewed effort to produce a management plan for the Yosemite Valley that does not clash with the values of the Merced River, a wild and scenic stream.

But neither is controversy new for Mr. Neubacher, for at Point Reyes he's been at the forefront of controversial Park Service efforts to close out in 2012 the lease of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which is operating in an area of the national seashore destined for official wilderness designation.

At the same time, Mr. Neubacher oversaw the recovery of the Giacomini Wetlands, a nearly 600-acre area on the south end of Tomales Bay that once had been impacted by levees and dairy operations. These days the wetlands are the setting for bald eagles, otters, waterfowl and shorebirds. Under his tenure the seashore also developed a Fire Management Plan and a Coastal Watershed Restoration Plan/EIS and implemented a Land Protection

Earlier this year Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, who was Mr. Neubacher's boss as head of the agency's Pacific West Region office before moving to the directorship last fall, asked Mr. Neubacher to take the Yosemite reins. The move was finalized this past Sunday.

"I’m close friends with Jon Jarvis and I feel very strongly about what he’s trying to accomplish on national level," Mr. Neubacher said Wednesday evening.

While the issues awaiting him in Yosemite have been highly publicized, Mr. Neubacher declined to elaborate his take on them, saying he needed time to become more familiar with the record that's been accumulated. Too, he said, it'd be premature to take a position while the public process on issues such as the Merced River Plan is progressing. Regardless of the issue, said Mr. Neubacher, more important than quickly coming to a decision is coming to the right decision.

"I guess they’re going to take a long time, but they’re definitely worth the effort. We're talking about one of the most precious places on the planet," he said. "If you want to work on something that is sacred, Yosemite is the place to go.”

While Mr. Neubacher and his staff were accused of manipulating the findings into the impact of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. on the seashore, Ron Sundergill, who heads the National Parks Conservation Association's Pacific Region office, said the National Academy of Sciences later went on the record stating that there was no intention on the park's behalf to "fabricate any scientific information."

“I think the park, as soon as they realized that there was some information that wasn’t completely researched, that they made an adjustment," Mr. Sundergill said Wednesday.

While the move to Yosemite will certainly raise Mr. Neubacher's profile with the public, he has the skills to handle whatever comes his way, the NPCA official said.

“He’s a very easy person to talk with. He’s a very personable, reasonable guy. We’ve seen that manifested in the relationships he has with most of the people who are associated with Point Reyes National Seashore," Mr. Sundergill said. "He’s been very effective in developing those relationships. And that’s one of the things that Yosemite needs more than anything else, continual care and feeding of the different constituencies that make up the Yosemite family, as it were.”

When it comes to developing the Merced River Plan, he said, Mr. Neubacher likely will benefit from the settlement the Park Service reached with two groups that long have challenged Yosemite's past approaches to handling development in the iconic valley.

“I would say that a lot of the angst about that has been relieved because of the court settlement. It’s very prescriptive settlement, which requires the park to do certain things and requires the plaintiffs to do certain things," said. Mr. Sundergill. "I think now is a good time for Don to step in. A new face, somebody whom the plaintiffs haven't worked with before. ... The really difficult period is hopefully behind us on that with the settlement of the court case.”

Of course, while the Merced River Plan arguably is the most high-profile issue awaiting Mr. Neubacher, who expects to be on the ground in Yosemite in early March, it isn't the only one. The park also is working to develop a long-term management plan for hikers heading to Half Dome, and there has been talk of addressing congestion along some of the trailheads that stem off from the Tioga Road, just to name two other issues.

Again, stressed Mr. Neubacher, how long it takes to find the answers to these issues isn't foremost.

"If there’s one spot on the planet where you should get it right," he said, "it should be Yosemite.”


The oyster farm debate is going to the public. It will include an open house style meeting at three locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Two of these meetings are going to be in Marin County, and the other will be in Berkeley.

The National Park Service will be hosting three public meetings during the initial scoping phase of this process. The open house style meetings will be identical in format and are intended to gather comments from the public that will be used in shaping the EIS. You are welcome to arrive anytime between 6-8 p.m., as there will be no formal presentation. The meetings are scheduled at the following locations:

Tuesday October 26, 2010, 6-8 p.m.
Dance Palace Community Center
503 B Street
Point Reyes Station, CA 94965

Wednesday October 27, 2010, 6-8 p.m.
Multi-Purpose Room, Bay Model Visitor Center
2100 Bridgeway
Sausalito, CA 94965

Thursday October 28, 2010, 6-8 p.m.
Community Room, REI Berkeley
1338 San Pablo Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94702


On your point on the Heritage Area concept, that in national parks in England and in National Heritage Areas here, the character-defining features of a working landscape -- in this case, oyster farming -- can be permitted to preserve and sustain this special character of a cultural landscape:

I am a big fan of Heritage Areas (WHEN PROPERLY OPERATED AND AUTHORIZED BY CONGRESS WITH NATIONALLY DISTINCTIVE PRESERVATION PURPOSES), and also a big fan of the English national park system, as a sustainable landscape model.

However, we have an unreconciled problem in the USA on this issue if you apply it to parks. At this stage, we do not have the right legislation for the parks in the United States to permit economic activities without specific statutory language. There are exceptions, and in a few places there have been some (I think) dangerous exceptions made to the normal non-consumptive use principle in existing parks. For example, using the rationalization at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller that the park was established to experiment with scientific land management, the park in effect is logging the resource. This is justified in the same way retaining the historic setting in a historic park like Gettysburg, Valley Forge or Petersburg is consided "management" of the historic scene. In those cases however, the park is being managed to a specific interpretive setting. In Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, we have a multiple-use management system more akin to the BLM or the Forest Service, without I believe any thing like the Multiple Use legisllation like FLPMA guiding that park's management decisions.

I think we should take several of the nationally significant National Heritage Corridors and make them national parks, with a specific working landscape model, including protected status for private property and business owners within the area. I believe this website should do a piece about the havoc being created by OMB, the NPS washington office and the appropriation committees to the national heritage areas.

These people have ZERO experience in managing an heritage area from the fiield perspective, and seem instead bent on destroying all that is really creative in heritage areas, without helpfully addressing the operating problems of SOME of those areas. The parks need to learn about the public outreach skills of the heritage areas, needs to learn about models of sustaining distinctive working landscapes, needs to develop preservation strategies for lands NOT owned by the federal government, based on cooperation and pride, not coersion.

But, all that is a long way from opening a park like Point Reyes to a commercial use of resource exploitation on a whim.

If the NPS takes on this issue, and it would not be a bad idea to do so, it should be on a systemic basis, nationwide, not by dropping key protections and calling it cultural landscape preservation, as at Marsh-Billings. Very soon, that way, we will relax all the special protections that make national parks special.

To do all this, first I would recommend that the quality of the Membership in the authorizing subcommittee in the House of Representative be jacked up several levels of imagination, experience and wisdom. We need the equivalent of a Rep Saylor or a Rep. Mo Udall or a John Seiberling. Even a Rep. Phil Burton might do if the weather turns ugly. Where are those people today?

Second, I would recommend getting rid of the people in OMB, the NPS comptrollers office and the appropriations subcommittee and replace them with positive people who want to help find ways to build partnerships to protecting working landscapes.

I understand Sec. Salazar is now working on a landscape protection strategy to forever enshrine his name, but with the new budget restrictions, all that will probably come down to will be a few million for buying land at the state or local level. And even with such a scheme, for people with no field experience whatsoever ignoring what really works in heritage areas is a really, really bad idea.

Kurt, really appreciate the comment by MSutherin specifically regarding the Greg Adair guote (Greg is the President of Friends of Yosemite Valley) on the camping issue in Yosemite Valley. The fact is that the Park decision to remove roughly 50% of the 800 campsites in Yosemite Valley (with no public input, and in violation of their own approved General management Plan), post 1997 flood, while proposing a pricey upgrade of 500 units at Yosemite Lodge and additional units at Curry Village, was an outrage and Greg responded appropriately with a wonderful little brochure titled "Campsites, not Hotels". Of course all of this was done without an approved Merced River Wild and Scenic Plan (the plan was 7 years in arears). NPS sometimes is railroaded by political decisions and the post 1997 flood recovery effort in Yosemite Valley was, in my opinion, a case study of said.

What I read was that Drakes Bay was not directed by Congress to be designated official wilderness, as someone stated above. Instead, it was listed as "possible future wilderness". No doubt that many places that are near, in our around National Park land might be seen in the same light. Does it make sense to assume that simply the statement that if and/or when a use permit lease runs out, that it wouldn't be a candidate for renewal simply because the NPS wants the land? The mistake, I believe, is to assume the lease can not be renewed, and that even if it were to be renewed, that it still can't continue with the "possible future wilderness" status in place.

An argument for keeping the Oyster Farm in place now, might be that because the NPS has renewed some of the area's dairy farm leases, beyond what dates were in place for those lease to run out, as they say, there are impurities associated with these farms that continue to drain into water associated with the Drakes Bay Estuary. Oyster farming, as has been argued by scientists discussing Drakes Bay over the past year or so, may be the best possible use of the area for the time being, as Oysters filter impurities from the water, leaving it cleaner than would be the case without oysters. That the farmer has demonstrated a good steward of the property, and some of these facts as stated here were not represented by the NPS in their study, is why Senator Feinstein was on the same side of the table with Mr. Lunny, the Oyster Farmer, when the scientific information, and related news articles came out of NPS wrong doing, with regards to environmental data being misrepresented and withheld by the NPS which would clearly have put the farmer and this farm in a better light.

Spinning information to the media is nothing new to the NPS, nor is it new to Yosemite National Park. I am very concerned that Jarvis heads the NPS, and then moved Neubacher to Yosemite, almost as an "in your face" advertisement to those who backed the Friends of Yosemite Valley, the successful plaintiffs, in the recent litigation that forced the NPS to scrap the former Merced River Plan, and the Yosemite Valley Plan, to start anew, from scratch, because of the NPS's oversight in former Yosemite park planning efforts to include a proactive method to deal with human impacts in The Park, also called a Carrying or Use Capacity study. This study must be done with proper environmental impact science this time, per a court mandate that was fought by the likes of Jon Jarvis when he was the Western Regional Director of the NPS.

Now, as Director of the NPS, Mr. Jarvis transferred his kindred Park Supervisor from Point Reyes to Yosemite, in a move that disturbs me greatly. I hope that his past experience was a lesson to him, and to Mr. Jarvis, that their decisions and all related so-called scientific data that they represent to substantiate whatever decisions they make, moving forward, in Yosemite will be looked at upside-down and sideways by independent experts. His statement that it will be a long process is very correct. And, he is also right that we must get it right in Yosemite.

It is encouraging to know that Nuebacher is from Northern California, and has camped and hiked in Yosemite hundreds of times in his life. Like the perhaps "non-conforming" use in some Wilderness areas of various things, be they dams or campsites, Yosemite will require comprehensive ORVs (Outstanding Remarkable Values) established in and for the section of Merced River that runs through The Valley. In these ORVS, which determine what non-conforming uses are allowed, will be those various human activities that such an area, referred to as "Front Country", as compared to "Back Country", things like carefully managed low impact auto based camping is a use that is historically relevant and valued by those who recreate there, and also value the balance between preservation and recreation.

There will be many planning discussions and scoping studies associated with this topic moving forward, and I hope all of you participate, as Yosemite and the Yosemite Experience, is something not so much about us, but something we want to get right for future park visitors. Getting it right is critical.

Recently, and until February 9th, scoping for the new Merced River Plan is open, and comments are being received. I wish to quote from the text of one of these letters that I had the privilege to see, written by Mr. Greg Adair, as follows:

Family auto-camping in Yosemite Valley is a nature-focused activity that is often the seminal experience that instills a life-long resource preservation ethic in young and old alike. A close corollary to this is walk-in camping, which offers a bit more independence from the car for some. It is from the idyllic and traditional front-country experience of camping that future climbers, backpackers, hikers, and conservationists are born.
There has been a significant public outcry over the 40% reduction in family camping opportunities in Yosemite Valley following the 1997 flood. The Rivers Campgrounds and a portion of Lower Pines Campground were closed by NPS administrative mandate (a loss of more than 300 sites)—even though Congress appropriated $17 million as part of a flood appropriation package to “restore damaged property to its pre-damaged condition” ( U.S. House of Representatives Field Report, 3/97). Additionally, the Group campground was eliminated. In the meantime, it appears more campers are being squeezed into smaller and smaller sites at Upper and Lower Pines Campgrounds creating increased human-bear conflicts, law enforcement conflicts, and greater opportunities for environmental degradation. We have grown concerned that allowing such a negative
situation to continue will ultimately become the justification to get rid of camping in the Valley altogether.

End of quote.

Thank you for your website, Kurt, enabling an objective discussion on Park related topics. As Yosemite National Park is going to perhaps dictate how other future park planners perform their jobs, balancing recreation with preservation, worthy debates on these related topics will get heated. I do home that we can agree that the future experience of visitors is at stake, as well as the preservation of these places is equally valuable, perhaps more so. And, that one experience is not equal to another. It is important to promote the "nature focused" experience as the "seminal experience", as Mr. Adair points out, and allow autobased camping in Yosemite Valley as he outlined above.

Mark Sutherlin

Did that say "non-confirming". OK - that should have been "non-conforming".

I would imagine that the High Sierra Camps are somewhat controversial to some, and beloved to others. However - I've been to some wilderness areas where I saw dams. Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness has a big dam that is maintained by the El Dorado Irrigation District. I certainly sounds to me as if there is precedent for several pre-existing "non-conforming uses" in wilderness areas that are allowed to stay indefinitely as potential wilderness.

@y p w: My understanding of the Wilderness Act is that preexisting backcountry ranger cabins are not "non confirming". They may be used and maintained, just not expanded. The High Sierra Camps though are way beyond the acceptable not to even mention a commercial oyster farm.

Pete Peterson and the committee didn't officially look into charges of scientific misconduct. That doesn't mean that based on his reading all of the reports related to shellfish mariculture in Drakes Estero he didn't gain basis for his "opinion that those claiming scientific fraud or misconduct by NPS in the Drakes Estero case are simply wrong".

The NRC report on shellfish mariculture in Drakes Estero criticized NPS for not including potential beneficial ecosystem effects of the oyster farm, even though there are absolutely no available data quantifying positive ecosystem effects of farmed oysters in Drake's Estero. It also objected to "incomplete and non-representative" disturbance data, even though those are the only data available (not collected explicitly to address DBOC), and states that the significant correlations between mean seal counts and oyster production level & El Nino cannot be used to infer cause & effect.

I don't know Jarvis nor Neubacher, but I've met Pete Peterson in a scientific context more than a decade ago (haven't contacted him since), I've read a number of his papers, and I respect him. He and Bob Paine are the 2 members of the committee I know and trust. The emphasis in the report that NPS should have considered data that don't exist seemed screwy to me, but I'm usually in favor of more research, and I can see the request for "more research" including potential positive ecosystem effects as a consensus among the committee (of the National RESEARCH Council), especially given the number of aquaculture & mariculture folks on it.

The Tess Elliot article in the Point Reyes Light linked above casting aspersions on Peterson is pretty bogus on its face. The "favor" Pete Peterson needed from Jarvis doesn't appear until something like the 39th paragraph: Peterson's email to Jarvis asked “How would unacceptable negative visual impacts be defined for National Seashores? … I wondered if you might be able to direct me to an appropriate person in the Park Service who could begin to answer that question.”

Peterson's report on offshore windfarms 5 days later included (again, from the article) “The National Park Service (NPS) is under Congressional mandate to preserve these natural areas and may prohibit significant shore-based utility infrastructure installation. Development seaward of the National Seashore will require permission from and coordination with the NPS,”.

Treating a request for help contacting the right person in NPS to find out the official NPS policy as a nefarious request for a favor and a conflict of interest is bogus. And the excerpt about Peterson being under a gag order from NAS is a bit misleading: as the end of the same article notes, even the NAS now refuses to deal with the Point Reyes Light, finding their reporting both wrong and irresponsible, and egregious.

Given these attacks on Peterson, and the previous twisting of even the results of the NAS/NRC report, I put no trust in what the newspaper and advocates for Lunny say about Neubacher or Jarvis.

My response to Kurt's last question is that I think that an oyster farm might very well be appropriate in PORE, but that his last phrase is the key problem: "as long as its impacts on the environment were closely monitored?". NPS does not have the funds to adequately monitor the (positive and negative) impacts of an oyster farm, and if NPS had a couple of hundred thousand extra available in its budget, I can think of dozens of more beneficial uses than monitoring to allow continued operation of a for-profit private business. My opinion is that a for-profit operation in a NPS unit should have to pay for it's own monitoring, but I am afraid that the cost of what the NRC committee deems adequate monitoring exceeds the profits of DBOC and would make continued operations economically inviable. [If I'm underestimating the profits of DBOC, then I am in favor of continued operations if DBOC pays for independent monitoring of the effects, for as long as the monitoring shows that the net impact on resources is positive or neutral.] From what I can see, the options being fought over are either not renewing the lease after 2012, or else letting the operations continue with no good monitoring data on the positive and negative impacts of the operations and either hoping that the net effect is positive or not worrying about any of the other resource values in Drakes Estero.

My understanding on the "non-confirming uses" for full wilderness designation in Drakes Estero probably go beyond simply the motorboats used by the oyster farm as well as the commercial use. Apparently the State of California also has water bottom (including mineral) rights and some interpretations of state law are that they can't relinquish them.

I suppose the NPS could have simply let the lease expire knowing that they could point to the Point Reyes Wilderness Act and say their hands were tied. However - once the Lunnys started waging a public relations campaign (including enlisting the aid of Senator Feinstein) to lobby for an extension, that's when the NPS scrutiny started. Without even taking sides on the matter, I think most people would conclude that this battle started getting personal between Neubacher and Lunny - and then turned into a fight about public opinion.

I started thinking of a lot of "non conforming uses" in potential wilderness areas that might be the last obstacle to full wilderness designation. One of them would be the Yosemite High Sierra Camps. I'm not sure, but I think the Little Yosemite Valley campground is also on potential wilderness, as would be many backcountry ranger stations at several NPS units. I think there's plenty of precedents for existing uses staying indefinitely. Of course the DOI Inspector General report noted that congressional intent (on the basis of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act) likely mandated that the oyster farm leave in 2012. However - there has been new congressional intent with Sen Feinstein expressly authorizing that the farm's lease can be renewed for a ten year term. I'd be interested in seeing how that competing congressional intent gets fleshed out by the DOI.

Point Reyes is very much a different kind of place than most NPS units. It was distinctly founded as a place where agricultural uses would continue to exist. I don't know how that fits in with Heritage Areas, but the fact that commercial farming businesses would exist at Point Reyes was part of the enabling legislation.

I've seen some pretty strident language about what people want to see with the oyster farm. I've heard of a few suggestions that the current oyster farm land (which isn't even in the wilderness plan) be completely razed and the road be closed and allowed to be taken over by vegetation. Of course that ignores that regardless of wilderness designation, kayaking in Drakes Bay would be legal, and the area currently serves as a kayak launching area.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments