NPS Centennial Q & A with Don Neubacher

Don Neubacher, Superintendent of Yosemite National Park. Photo by NPS

Don Neubacher, Superintendent of Yosemite National Park. Photo by NPS

August 25, 2016 marks the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. We asked Don Neubacher, Superintendent of Yosemite National Park, to look back and also look forward to the next 100 years.

What’s your favorite memory from Yosemite?

When I was 10 to 15 years old, in the late ‘60s, I vividly remember camping. I have strong memories of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, all the classics. I remember the firefalls in the late ‘60s: Up at Glacier Point, the concessionaire would burn up red fir, which creates a lot of embers. They’d build a fire up there at 7,000 feet, then they’d push the embers over the side and let them fall down the cliff. That was a tourist thing. They did it every night at 9 o’clock. We’ve become more astute about not trying to create Disney World experiences.

What might Yosemite look like today if it hadn’t been protected?

I think it would have been heavily developed. Humans have a hard time controlling themselves. We would have put a lot more hotels in the Valley. It would have been highly commercialized.

What does the NPS Centennial mean to you?

It’s a chance to learn from our history, and we did make a lot of mistakes. Mariposa Grove is a great example, where we paved right up to the base of these trees. And we want to look to the future. We’re trying to emphasize working with young people and developing stewards. We live in a great democracy, and we need to have people who will support protecting this park forever. Reaching out to Millennials is another goal.

What is Yosemite doing to connect with a younger, more diverse crowd?

We have more than 30 youth programs underway. We start with very young individuals in the Junior Ranger program, and we do programs with youth who are disadvantaged or at risk. We’re trying to connect with them emotionally and intellectually. Yosemite is also making great headway with culturally diverse populations. We’re up to 20 percent Hispanic visitors, and we’re making headway with African-Americans.

What is Yosemite doing to deal with threats like climate change?

We can build resilience. Take Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep: We’re moving them into new areas. That gives the population a better chance when seasonal changes occur. We’re doing restoration efforts on meadows to make sure they’re as healthy as we can make them so they can take on this stress as we go forward. We’re trying to do our little part to make sure we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.

What about the threat of overcrowding, or “loving the park to death”?

Yosemite is only 1 percent of California and we get 4 million visitors. We do need to work on that issue. The Valley has one road in, one road out. At some point the road system can only handle so many cars. That day is going to come. If we can get people on buses, that’s a lot better. A lot of the park is not overcrowded, so we haven’t gotten to the point where we say we’ll shut down the gates. When the Valley gets full, we divert people to other areas.

What else is the park doing to celebrate the Centennial?

We created Yosemite ambassadors, everyone from climbers to artists to environmentalists to teachers. We’re going to highlight 50 of them this year, one a week. We’re telling their stories, how they got connected to us, why Yosemite is so important to the nation, how special this place is. We’re also doing smaller projects, like reintroducing red-legged frogs and Western pond turtles to Yosemite Valley, and involving youth. Can you imagine a group of 4th graders going along the Merced River, putting those frogs and turtles back in the system?

We’re also creating a sister park on every continent; our nonprofit partner, the Yosemite Conservancy, is paying for it. We want to build long-term relationships so we can make a difference worldwide. I just signed off on sending a team to Ngorongoro Crater [in Tanzania], and we’ve sent teams to Mexico, Germany, Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. We went to Mongolia and helped build entrance signs to mark park boundaries. Simple things, but it really creates this incredible bond across continents. We’re going to use the Centennial to touch the world.