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Sierra Club and Radanovich battling over Yosemite lodge

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avatar Sierra Club and Radanovich battling over Yosemite lodge
August 07, 2003 07:04PM
<HTML>The LeConte Memorial Lodge is a historic landmark, but its future is in peril as part of legislation by Rep. George Radanovich.


Published: August 5, 2003, 12:28:19 PM PDT

YOSEMITE -- The year was 1898.
Yosemite Valley was drawing no more than a few dozen visitors per day, and those who made the difficult trip found just a handful of rustic cabins and some rudimentary administrative buildings.

Visitors who wanted to learn more about the valley and the surrounding mountains had nowhere to go.

So the state commission that oversaw the valley -- it would not attain national park status for eight years -- invited a fledgling group of alpine enthusiasts to set up an information center in a spare cottage.

That was the genesis of LeConte Memorial Lodge, the newest flashpoint in a decades-long fight over the balance between amenities and serenity in one of the nation's most popular national parks.

Five years after setting up temporary shop in the cottage, the Sierra Club spent $4,714.28 to build the permanent lodge in memory of a charter member and former board member, University of California geology professor Joseph LeConte, who died at age 76 in 1901 at Yosemite's Camp Curry on the eve of a club trip.

Today, the lodge is owned by the federal government and operated by the club under an agreement with the National Park Service. It is one of five Yosemite National Park buildings listed as National Historic Landmarks.

But in the eyes of Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, whose district includes the park and stretches to east Modesto, the lodge is an example of inappropriate "special access" granted to a group that is opposing his proposal to rebuild 144 of 361 riverside campsites wrecked by the New Year's flooding of 1997.

The flood prompted Congress to provide more than $170 million in repair money to jump-start the effort to improve the valley. The National Park Service planned to restore the natural landscape next to the river; the 361 swamped campsites would not be replaced.

In 2000, an immense valley plan was approved by the Department of the Interior.

The opponents -- surrounding community residents, business owners, outdoor enthusiasts and others -- continued to lobby until this year when Radanovich held a field hearing to discuss the issues with the park service, which stuck by its plan.

Last month, Radanovich introduced legislation to prevent the loss of 700 valley parking spaces and restore 144 campsites, the maximum that experts say could be installed while maintaining a small buffer for the river banks. In addition, Radanovich's bill calls for the removal of LeConte Memorial Lodge from the valley.

"I like to think that those who would exclude the public from Yosemite Valley ought to be willing to move themselves out, too," Radanovich said.

Club leaders are not budging. They maintain that since its earliest days, LeConte lodge has been devoted to public education, not special services for club members.

Curator Bonnie Gisel said about 150 people per day drop in to study exhibits on the history of Yosemite and the Sierra Club, which have been closely intertwined since both were established.

"This is a public building all the time," Gisel said. "There are never any special events for Sierra Club members or for groups of any kind."

Nevertheless, Radanovich portrayed the Sierra Club as hypocritical for fighting against the campsites in the name of habitat preservation while operating the lodge in a permanent structure a short distance away.

"I don't mind if it's moved to some other place in the park," he said. "But it's located in prime habitat on the floor of Yosemite Valley. If they're so concerned about the habitat, why don't they move their lodge out?"

Center's historical value

Not so fast, say some of the lodge's visitors, who enter through an arching doorway to a room of rough-hewn granite block walls under a steep wood-shingled roof.

"It has a very old-world feel about it," said Vonnie McGinn, visiting from Lincoln. "It would be really bad if this building were torn down."

Helen Wu, a first-time Yosemite visitor from Galveston, Texas, recoiled when told about Radanovich's proposal.

"I don't think they should tear it down," she said. "Why not preserve it just for the historical value, and not because of the people who use it? It's just incredible."

As chairman of the House subcommittee on national parks, recreation and public lands, Radanovich has the wherewithal to get serious consideration for his legislation, even though some provisions of his bill -- including the restoration of the riverside campsites -- would reverse provisions of previously adopted park plans.

The Sierra Club supports much in those earlier plans. But George Whitmore, chairman of its Yosemite committee, said the club's members do not oppose adding more campsites to the park; they just want them to be outside congested Yosemite Valley.

As a result, Whitmore said, he does not understand why Radanovich has taken aim at LeConte lodge.

"Maybe it embarrasses him to be seen on the same side as the Sierra Club," he said.

Park historian Jim Snyder went to a shelf and pulled out an 1898 report from the California state commission that supervised Yosemite Valley at the time under a Civil War-era grant from the federal government.

"The Sierra Club has been provided with a building, the results of which have been a complete success," the report stated.

"The club maintains at this building a young man who gives information to all those who visit the place. Photographs of the scenery are kept in large quantity, and maps of the surrounding country together with tracings of trails and the means of access."

The arrangement was born of necessity -- the commission had too little money to do anything by itself -- and sparked by a shared interest in focusing attention on the valley and its surrounding mountains.

Visitors today can browse a library containing hundreds of books, study interactive exhibits on Yosemite and Sierra Club history, and sign up for park outings.

"It's not a private club," Snyder said. "It's never been a private club. Our congressman didn't know."

One Bay Area newspaper quoted Radanovich as saying that the Sierra Club's founder, John Muir, "would be rolling over in his grave if he knew this thing had been built in the valley."

But club leaders offered a quick retort: Muir, they pointed out, was not only still alive when the lodge was built, he was the Sierra Club's president.

Still, Gisel said that she believes Radanovich would change his view of the lodge if given a chance.

"He hasn't visited us once since all this came up," Gisel said. "But I would be happy to speak with him. I would invite him to come here and spend an evening with us."

Through his spokesman, Radanovich said he would consider the idea.


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