Don Neubacher begins his work next month as the new boss of Yosemite National Park, but his agenda will be the same as that of his four predecessors -- to finish cleaning up after the massive flood of 1997.
A decadelong lawsuit has kept the cleanup on the front burner for 13 years in the iconic national park.
National Park Service officials say the park needs a Zen master who can navigate $50 million projects, federal court orders and passionate opponents.
Neubacher, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore for 15 years, has been in an uncomfortable spotlight before, say park service officials, and he is ready for this.
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He was a key figure in the controversial discussion to bring the historic Presidio military base into the Golden Gate Recreation Area in 1994. As the top man at Point Reyes, he has worked on many sensitive issues among ranchers and environmentalists in west Marin County.
But there are few pressure-cookers in the park service like the superintendent's job in Yosemite, officials say.
"It's not a starter job," said park service Director Jon Jarvis, based in Washington, D.C. "Yosemite is in a select group with the Everglades, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, where top managers need a high degree of sophistication and experience. Don Neubacher is one of those managers."
Neubacher, 57, a native Californian, will follow a tough act -- Michael Tollefson, who left a year ago to head the Yosemite Fund in San Francisco.
He left after six years, during which he rebuilt Yosemite Valley utilities and mended relationships with surrounding communities. But there also were legal setbacks stopping the $40 million reconstruction of Yosemite Lodge.
Neubacher, who has been in the park service 28 years, said one of his toughest challenges was the Presidio. He led the planning effort to bring it into the park service.
Getting it 'right'
Many argued the agency could not possibly afford to maintain the 1,500-acre site, which has 800 buildings. They feared motels, restaurants and commercial businesses would be allowed into the site to pay for maintaining it.
That didn't happen.
"We worked on the plans for four years," Neubacher said. "We didn't get sued. You have to just do it right. But the problem is the definition of 'right' is different for different people. It takes time."
In the past five years, he also was involved in heated debate at Point Reyes, including a dispute over phasing out a commercial oyster farm and the thinning of the non-native deer population.
Point Reyes -- 70,000 acres along the rugged Northern California coast -- is different from Yosemite, which is 10 times larger and mostly wilderness. Aside from the oyster farm -- which continues to operate, at least until 2012 -- Point Reyes has dairy ranches within its boundaries.
Neubacher had critics on both sides of the fence at Point Reyes -- environmentalists decrying the killing of deer and some business leaders saying he was an enemy of small businesses.
But most environmentalists and many businesses give Neubacher high marks for his protection of nature and ability to work with different groups. He is known for his partnerships with interest groups on many projects.
Activists and the business community around Yosemite say they do not know Neubacher, but they know his reputation.
"We've heard some good things about his work with the resources," said George Whitmore of the Sierra Club.
Greg Adair of the Friends of Yosemite Valley agreed. Adair's group took the lead in stopping the Merced River protection plan twice in the past decade. A third plan is expected to be completed by late 2012, and it will be Neubacher's responsibility to make it work.
He said he wants to work with the Yosemite activist and advocacy groups, as well as the business community.
"I'm accustomed to working with issues that have a lot of complexity," he said. "Between Point Reyes and the Presidio, I think I'm prepared to take on this challenge."
Neubacher initially will move into a house in El Portal, just west of the park and decide later if he will live in the superintendent's house in Yosemite Valley.
His wife, Patty, is a deputy regional director at the park service's office in Oakland.