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LeConte Memorial Lodge

Nancy Newhall: Detail of a photograph by Ansel Adams. Used with permission of the Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Who wrote "The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask."?

This picture is a detail of a photograph by Ansel Adams. Used with permission of the Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Presentation to the Oakhurst Democratic Club

Responding to H.R. 2715 (Radanovich, Calif-19, R.)
Legislation Proposing Removal of the
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.

2.  "Lodge"  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.

4.  "Removal"  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.

5.  "Campgrounds"  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 director.

- 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 the presentation.] 

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:

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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