New Yosemite chief in awe of his charge

January 15, 2003 11:00 pm
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK is now headed by Superintendent Mike Tollefson, who took office on January 6. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK is now headed by Superintendent Mike Tollefson, who took office on January 6. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).

By GENEVIEVE

BOOKWALTER

Like someone seeing Half Dome for the first time, Yosemite National Park's new superintendent says he is in awe of the park and the position he has been given.

Michael Tollefson, 55, took office Jan. 6, replacing David Mihalic.

The transfer was to be a superintendent "swap," with Mihalic replacing Tollefson at the helm of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

But rather than return to a park where he once worked as deputy superintendent, Mihalic chose to retire.

As Tollefson walked through the foot of snow that still covers the valley floor Wednesday, he said that after a week on the job, he still steps out at lunch and looks up in amazement.

"You can stand here and look at Yosemite Falls, and back there is Half Dome," he said, taking it all in again.

Tollefson served as superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in the southern Sierra Nevada between 1995 and 2000.

He had only visited Yosemite about six times before taking this job.

Now, he returns to the Sierra after a three-year hiatus in the South. During his tenure at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he faced air-quality issues and traffic, as well as the challenges of overseeing educational programs and scientific studies.

Here, he's got other challenges.

When Tollefson was appointed, rumors flew that he would reconsider controversial aspects of the Yosemite Valley Plan — a $441 million makeover for the heart of the park to reduce the number of camp sites and parking spaces in the valley and rebuild employee housing and parts of Yosemite Lodge that were damaged in a 1997 flood.

Some environmentalists say the plan is a development scheme masquerading as restoration. Other critics say eliminating campsites restricts valley access to people who can't afford hotels.

But the plan isn't the first thing on his mind.

Tollefson said 15 projects are already ready to go, including continuing restoration at the foot of Yosemite Falls.