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.”