Presentation to the Oakhurst
Responding to H.R. 2715
(Radanovich, Calif-19, R.)
Legislation Proposing Removal of
LeConte Memorial Lodge
National Historic Landmark
November 15, 2003
Harold Wood, Jr.
Chair, Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge Committee
Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.
There have been so many mis-representations and
mis-statements of fact in the debate over LeConte Memorial Lodge in the media, I wanted to begin by clarifying five facts, before going into the history and current use of the LeConte Memorial.
You can legitimately disagree
on matters of opinion, but you can't legitimately disagree about matters of fact or matters of taste; they just are.
Reasonable minds can differ on issues of balancing, such as in the case of Yosemite, balancing the appropriate degree of environmental protection against the appropriate degree of visitor access, but before we can address those matters of opinion, we should all have a firm grounding on the
facts. If our factual premises are wrong, then our opinions will need
modifying. So first I want to address five factual issues, before how LeConte Lodge came to be where it is, and its current use.
1. "Private Use and Ownership"
This is a NPS owned building, open to the public as a history museum and
library, not a "private use."
The Sierra Club is just one of many private park partners who operate
various NPS-owned buildings for public use - e.g. the Nature Center at Happy
Isles, the hotels and restaurants operated by the concessioner, the Ansel Adams
Gallery, the Yosemite Institute, the chapel, the medical center, and so on.
No one stays overnight in LeConte (It is not a "lodge" in the
sense of rustic accommodations, but rather in the traditional sense of a
gathering place, like the Elks Lodge.
3 "The Name"
The name of the building is: "Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge" and
that is what the sign in front of the building says. Whether the Club operates it or not - that is its name, and
that seems to be the crux of Mr. Radanovich's dispute. The Curry Village is named after its
founders, even though it is operated by a modern concessioner and owned by the
NPS; the Ansel Adams Gallery or
Degnan's are in the same way named for people who were crucial to their
history. These are just historical facts; we don't re-name Curry Village the
"Yosemite Concession Services Village," There is no special privilege here, it is just the
name due to historical fact. The Sierra Club funded and built it, and so the
name is "Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge" whether the club continues to
provide services to the public there or not.
Mr. Radanovich has said in the press that he only intends to "move" the
building to another location in Yosemite, not to demolish it. But the bill, H.R. 2715 doesn't say
that, it says it shall be removed from Yosemite national park. The justification is based on a flawed
premise, that the Memorial is a "private use." Yes, it was moved in 1919 - about half a mile, and at that
time Mother Curry paid for moving it in order to expand Curry Village. At today's dollars, it would cost the
taxpayers an enormous amount of money to move the granite block building
outside the park.
The Sierra Club does not oppose more campgrounds in Yosemite
National Park. It simply supports
location of new campgrounds outside the flood zone. That is a fact; people are angry with the Club believing it
takes a position it does not
have. Another fact: The Plan to restore the Merced River
campgrounds to natural vegetation, allowing natural processes to prevail, is
the National Park Service Plan, not the Sierra Club plan. The NPS plan calls for alternative sites for campgrounds and other facilities which had been located in the high-hazard floodplain. Turning to a matter of opinion: I personally witnessed the 2003 annual spring flood, which required the temporary evacuation of numerous campsites. A 10 year or 50 year flood is going to
be far worse, damaging infrastructure.
Modern campgrounds are not just bare dirt to pitch a tent; there are
paved roads, water pipelines, sewers, utilities, bear boxes, picnic tables, restrooms, etc. which will be seriously damaged in floods considerably less high than the massive 1997 flood that wiped out the Merced River campgrounds. It is nonsense to put campgrounds back in such a location. The 1997 flood servs to confirm the wisdom of Yosemite's General Management Plan and the Yosemite Valley Plan. Both documents call for the removal of structures and facilities from the floodplain.
Understanding the history of
LeConte Memorial is essential to understand why it is where it is and what it
stands for. To do that, we need to go back not just to 1903 when it was built,
and not just back to 1890 when Yosemite National park was established, but way
back to President Lincoln.
1864 - Yosemite and Mariposa
Grant - federal government gives Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of
California as a public park.
Yosemite Valley is a public park, but operated by the State of California,
not the federal government. A State Commission operates the park.
1870 - Professor Joseph LeConte visits
Yosemite with 10 of his students. Meets John Muir. So began a 30
year-friendship. Joseph LeConte
during this time becomes a leading public figure - a famed geologist,
professor, and president of the AAAS and other scientific organizations.
1890 - John Muir
successfully lobbies Congress to establish Yosemite National Park. Yosemite
Valley and the Mariposa Grove are not included - the idea was to protect the
watershed above the waterfalls. It's like a giant donut, with the Valley being
the hole in the center.
1891 - Sheep-men,
timber-men, mining companies, and others begin lobbying to reduce the
boundaries of Yosemite NP.
1892 - The Sierra Club is established,
primarily as a kind of Yosemite defense league to protect the new National Park
(only the 3rd national park in
history). Joseph LeConte
and John Muir are among the first board members, with John Muir as
President. Sierra Club and
John Muir begin lobbying to get Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove receded
to the federal government to be added to the Yosemite national Park. It took 14
years before it achieved this.
1898 - Sierra Club is
requested by the California State Commission to establish a public reading room
and information center at a small cottage in the old "Yosemite Village." You can still see the iron pitons in
the granite boulder where people used to tie their horses to visit the cottage,
but that building, like the rest of the historic "old village" except for the
chapel is now gone.
1901 - The Sierra Club
understands that people need to see the mountains if they are to learn to
protect it, so begins an annual Outings Program. These outings continue today, with the purpose being to
encourage people to visit and learn about the mountains and other wild
places. When these outings
started, there was simply one annual outing each year. There are many national and local outings
today, and while the national outings are fee-based, the chapter-led outings
are usually free of charge, so accusing the Sierra Club of limiting access to
the mountains as Rep. Radanovich does is ludicrous. The first Outing was to Yosemite. An elderly Joseph LeConte joins the Outing, but in the
beginning, while still in Curry Village, takes ill, and dies.
1902 - Sierra Club raises funds through donations,
including setting a $1.00 "tax" on all of its members, to build a Memorial to
Joseph LeConte in Yosemite.
1903 - John Muir, President
of the Sierra Club, goes camping in Yosemite with President Theodore Roosevelt,
proving that even Republicans can support environmental protection. Truly, even
today, I believe that environmental protection should be a bi-partisan issue.
1903 - LeConte Memorial
begins construction. This is in recognition of Professor Joseph LeConte, who
was a great deal more than just a Sierra Club leader. He was a founding faculty
of the University of California, a well-known scientist and author, a President
of the American Society for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a public figure
who was beloved and well-known throughout the United States.
1904 - July 3 - LeConte Memorial is dedicated,
at a ceremony that includes not only leading Sierra Club figures, but academics
from the University of California, and writers and poets, such as Harriet
Monroe, who founds Poetry magazine, still in existence. From the beginning, the
Sierra Club maintains a library in LeConte Memorial, which we continue today.
1906 - Sierra Club's campaign to get Yosemite
Valley returned to the National Park finally succeeds. This 14-year campaign is
too often forgotten today, but is crucial to the history of Yosemite and the
National Park System.
The Following Decades
In the decades that follow,
LeConte Memorial plays an important part of National park history:
- Sponsoring the
"LeConte Memorial Lectures" that become the basis for the NPS interpretive
programs that occur all over the U.S. in national parks.
- The Sierra Club welcomed the NPS when it was established in
1916, with Sierra Club member Stephen Mather as its first director and another
Club member, Horace Albright, as assistant director and later a long-time
- A young Ansel Adams is
caretaker there for a few years, (1919)
and later he returns in the mid-50's to install an exhibition, "This is
the American Earth." This award
winning exhibition of photography and free-verse in 1960 becomes the first
"Exhibit Format" book, arguably the first modern "coffee-table book."
- 1985- Is designated by the
NPS under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan as a National Historic Landmark. This is a prestigious distinction,
fewer than 2500 historical sites nation-wide receive this designation. This honor identifies the national importance of LeConte Memorial Lodge, compared to the only state or local significance of places on the National Register of Historic Places. The two most important reasons for this designation was its unique architecture, explicitly designed by the architect to fit in the verticality of Yosemite's granite walls; and the history of the Sierra Club and its role in Yosemite and the entire national park system.
I hope this history clarifies that LeConte Memorial is not just about Sierra Club history - it is a cultural resource, a place that has inspired generations of people, and practically invented the NPS practice of "nature interpretation" and the modern coffee-table book. It is a celebration of the National Park idea - a place with national - and in fact, global - significance.
Today, the Memorial is
owned by the federal government and operated by the Sierra Club, as a public
service with public access to all visitors to Yosemite National Park, under an
agreement with the National Park Service.
People may not realize how
many such park partnerships occur in Yosemite. Lack of funding prevents the NPS from doing very much public
programming these days; instead they turn to volunteer organizations to help
them out. Two of these are the Yosemite Association, which single-handedly
keeps the Happy Isle Nature Center open, and the bookstore in the Valley
Visitor Center, and another is the Yosemite Institute, an outdoor experience
education program for children.
The Sierra Club collaborates with both of these privately operated
groups; the Sierra Club is just one of such Park Partners.
The NPS owns the building.
The NPS and the Sierra Club have an agreement for the Club to operate the
memorial as a public service. The Sierra Club receives no money from the
government for this public service.
Nor does it charge the visitors a fee to visit the museum or attend any
of its activities.
The NPS supervises
everything we do. All the exhibits are reviewed and approved by the NPS before
they are installed. The curator
attends weekly Park Interpretation meetings with the NPS along with other Park partners. The museum displays focus on the
National Park Idea. By necessity, that includes some retelling of Sierra Club history because of the
club's role in advocating for the national park system, but we scrupulously
avoid any political messages; we just focus on the history. Even our
celebration of Joseph LeConte stresses his importance as a public figure, not
just a Sierra Club leader.
We have a range of
historical displays - a 100-year old 3-D map of Yosemite Valley, historical
photographs, mountaineering history, the original bas-relief of Joseph LeConte
and other artwork. We have a library where people can curl up for an hour on a
hot or rainy day and learn more about Yosemite and the natural world we live
in. We have a children's corner,
where kids can play with a stuffed animal while they read a children's book.
All these services are provided for free to the public, funded entirely by the
Sierra Club and donations received for the purpose. This does not meet my definition of a "private use" as Mr.
Radanovich's bill claims.
Over the years, the LeConte
Memorial has become more than just a building.
It has many activities,
including evening slide shows, family sing-alongs and story-telling, with guest
speakers coming from colleges and universities, authors and artists and
musicians, and including NPS rangers among others. Day time programs include
watercolor painting and poetry workshops and nature walks for families. We have a Wilderness Quilt project
where visitors of all ages painted individual quilt squares, which volunteers
are now quilting together for our Centennial next year. [Janet Wood, chair of
our Quilting Committee -showed one of the quilts-in-progress at this point in
For our Centennial, we have
a Words for Wilderness program, encouraging people to engage in creative
writing and keeping journals about nature themes, just as Joseph LeConte and
John Muir did 100 years ago.
To demolish this cultural
and historical resource would be a travesty. It would cost taxpayers a huge
amount of money to move the building, and to what end? So a petty politician
can chalk up a score against an organization he hates?
Let's not make decisions
about public resources with hatred in our hearts.
# # #
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Information and Donations
For more information, during the summer contact Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge
Curator, P.O. Box 755, Yosemite, CA 95389, 1-209-372-4542; e-mail:
During the winter, contact LeConte Lodge Committee Chair, Harold Wood, P.O. Box 3543,
Visalia, CA 93278; phone: (559) 739-8527; e-mail: email@example.com
Tax deductible donations to support the new exhibits and renovation efforts of the
LeConte Memorial can be made to "Sierra Club Foundation," marked for the "LeConte Lodge Fund."
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