In a move that is raising questions about the future of Yosemite National Park, the National Park Service announced Wednesday that it was reassigning park Supt. Mike Reynolds, a 34-year park service veteran who grew up in Yosemite.
Reynolds will become regional director of the agency’s Lower Colorado Basin, Upper Colorado Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas-Gulf regions. He is expected to begin his new assignment by the end of the year, park service officials said.
Reynolds’ departure comes amid controversial proposals for increasing recreation and tourism in the park, reportedly put forward by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. They include a proposal that would for the first time allow boats on the park’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Cicely Muldoon, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore since 2010, will serve as acting superintendent at Yosemite after Reynolds departs and until a permanent superintendent is named, officials said.
News of the switch drew mixed reactions from conservationists and national parks watchdogs.
“Mike was moved, in part, because of the disagreement over Hetch Hetchy,” said Destry Jarvis, a former director of external affairs for the National Park Service. “We understand that he is not a happy camper right now.”
In statement on Thursday, however, a National Park Service spokesman disputed such claims. “Mike’s new assignment to lead the NPS regional office in Lakewood, Colorado has absolutely nothing to do with any issues related to Hetch Hetchy,” said spokesman Jeremy Barnum.
At the same time, Jarvis and others praised Muldoon’s pending arrival at Yosemite.
“His promotion is legitimate, and his new post is important,” Jarvis said of Reynolds. He described Muldoon as “terrific and needed in a park that has struggled to deal with management and workforce issues.”
“The male rangers in Yosemite have long been known as the ‘Yosemite mafia’ because they are so hard-nosed and self-righteous,” he added. “Cicely will take that whole situation by the throat and wrestle it to the ground.”
At Yosemite, Reynolds oversaw an iconic park that covers more than 750,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada and is staffed by 1,200 park service employees and about 1,700 hospitality business workers. In his new role, he will oversee 89 park units in nine Western states.
“Mike is one of the most experienced and respected leaders in the National Park Service,” said NPS Deputy Director David Vela in a statement. “His dedication to our employees, the parks we protect, and the visitors we serve will be of enormous benefit to the 89 national park sites and regional office which he will lead in his new assignment.”
Reynolds took charge of Yosemite in 2016 amid an unfolding scandal over workplace harassment that had rocked the national park system.
He replaced Don Neubacher, who stepped down as superintendent amid allegations that a hostile work environment where employees, particularly women, were bullied, belittled and marginalized had been allowed to develop.
A short while later, Neubacher’s wife, Patty Neubacher, who faced accusations she had protected him as a federal official partly responsible for overseeing national parks, announced her retirement.
The Yosemite scandal was only one of several involving allegations of sexual harassment and bullying that roiled the National Park Service administration in 2016. It led to the resignations of at least four senior national park managers and a series of congressional hearings.
Now, Yosemite is part of the Trump administration’s shift in a management strategy on public lands, raising the profile of industry and recreation and putting less emphasis on conservation.
The proposal to allow kayaks and an electric-powered ferry on Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, is moving ahead with support from Spreck Rosekrans of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a nonprofit advocacy group based in San Francisco. In an earlier interview, he said he has discussed that proposal with Reynolds and May.
The public has been forbidden from boating on the 300-foot-deep reservoir since the 1920s, when it was impounded by O’Shaughnessy Dam, which is managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
“It was a constructive adult conversation about the practical challenges and benefits of putting boats on the water at Hetch Hetchy,” Rosekrans recalled. “The challenges include that an existing boat ramp is too narrow, the area needs a wilderness toilet and it won’t be easy getting funding and permits.”
“I’d like to say that Mike Reynolds suggested we move forward with this proposal, but he didn’t,” said Rosekrans, adding he has high respect for Reynolds and wished him the best in his new position.
For her part, Muldoon has worked in national parks across the country, including a stint as acting deputy superintendent at Yosemite.
Overcrowding, congestion and trash have worsened as the number of Yosemite visitors has increased from 3 million in 1986 to more than 5 million in 2016.
With only about 6,500 available parking spaces, officials say, traffic accidents are up, as is the number of park visitors reporting on Yosemite’s Facebook page that they had a miserable experience at the park.