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Like No Other Park in the System (I Hope)

eltonlin Photo

"Named must your fear be before banish it you can," says Yoda. Was he talking about national park privitization? He stands guard in front of the Lucasfilm Letterman Digital Arts Center in the National Park Service managed Presidio. eltonlin photo via Flickr

Let's start with a little park trivia. Where in the national park system will you be able to view materials illustrating the vision and legacy of Walt Disney? No, I promise this isn't a trick question. Here's a hint, it's at the same park where you can go to stand in front of a sculpture of Yoda and reflect about galaxies far, far away. Honestly, this is a real place in the parks, in fact, it is inside the second most visited park unit in the country. OK, last clue, this park is currently accepting Requests for Proposals to build a public museum to display the private collection of contemporary art belonging to Doris and Donald Fisher, the co-founders of The Gap. If you haven't guessed yet, take some time and play a round of golf, maybe the answer will come to you.

If your answer is the Presidio, you nailed it. Located at San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio is a former Army base that was transfered to the National Park Service when the base closed in 1994. Quite a gift. The trouble is, the yearly maintenance bill for the 469 historic buildings is far more than Congress has given the park to spend. The solution from Washington was to make the Presidio the first park in the system to operate self-sufficiently. If it isn't turning a profit by the year 2013, the entire base could be turned over to developers.

Earlier this week, I wrote a summary of the Presidio story for the daily newsletter. The story, "Trading Spaces: The Park Service Turns Over the Presidio to Private Parties", covers some of the costs and consequences of the operations game in the park. The article provides a "backgrounder" of sorts of how privatization entered the picture at the Golden Gate NRA.

At the end of the Frommer's article, I suggest that if the money-making plans at the Presidio succeed, it wouldn't be hard to imagine similar plans being created for other historic structures in park units around the country. What I didn't mention in the article, is that a similar type of development plan is under way on the other side of the country in New Jersey, at Fort Hancock in the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Things haven't been going as well for the private developer at Fort Hancock. Nearby residents are fighting tooth-and-nail to stop the development inside their park. Plus, the developer has munged things up so badly, that now the Inspector General is looking into the 60 year lease agreement signed with the NPS. Congressman Frank Pallone described the entire lease and development process as a debacle.

Longterm lease agreements for private developers? A Walt Disney museum? Managing the park for profit? Little public accountability? These places feel less and less like they are operated in the best interest of either the public or the parks.


And, just like the booze party at the Charlestown Navy Yard, it creates a PRECEDENT, which would make any future handover of parks to private developers much easier to slide through.

To avoid the precedent issue,, they just need a new unit designation so such activities would be restricted to those particular types. Let's see... National Hysterical Park and Playground?

-- Jon Merryman

First, does anyone think that Golden Gate or Gateway NRAs are "national treasures" along the lines of Yosemite, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Denali, or Mesa Verde? Please do not infer from this question that I think these places don't deserve protection. I just wonder if they belong in the national park system.

The solution from Washington was to make the Presidio the first park in the system to operate self-sufficiently. If it isn't turning a profit by the year 2013, the entire base could be turned over to developers.

There is a difference between operating self-sufficiently and "managing the park for profit", and the author seems to use the two synonymously. "If it isn't turning a profit by the year 2013, the entire base could be turned over to developers." Is the use of the word profit here the author's or the politicians'? Self-sufficient means able to supply its own needs without external assistance while profit is the monetary surplus left to a producer or employer after deducting wages, rent, cost of raw materials, etc. With a maintenance bill of $42 million a year, I doubt there would be much monetary surplus at the Presidio.

I think we need to be clear in terminology so as not to cloud the issue.

Reform the National Park Service!

I'm not sure, if the Presidio of San Francisco should be a unit of the NPS, but the way they manage it, seems very well done. It was an US-Army base (1848-1994), and before one of the Spanish (1776-1822) and Mexican Army (1822-1848). Thousands of people lived there and worked there for several centuries. It includes a National Cemetery as well as a golf course, the former air field "Crissy Field", where a number of aviation pioneers reached records. The 9th Cavallery (Buffalo Soldiers, I might add) did their patrols of Yosemite National Park, Sequioa National Park and General Grand National Park (now Kings Canyon NP) out of the Presidio, before in 1916 the National Park Service was founded and took over. The soldiers for the Spanish-American War 1898 and the following war in the Philippins embarked there. First World War Commander of the European theater, General John Pershing, came from the Presidio, not long after he returned from the expedition against Pancho Villa. In Second World War the Presidio was the HQ of the 6th Army, and the school for military intelligence, where the Navajo "Wind Talkers" were trained. In the Cold War Nike-Rockets were installed.

This was always a hub of activity, on the forefront of technology. And it contains living quarters with a view on the bay, on the Golden Gate Bridge, and downtown San Francisco. They are among the most valuable places in the world.

You can't manage a place like this as a museum. It has to be used. With modern uses. Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic and LucasArt are only so many of the tenants. There is Alexa Internet, the Internet Archive, there are about 30 non-profit-organizations mostly in the field of education and art (they get the space at a discount for non-profits), and a number of firms from finance to law. The living quarters are completely rented out, after a decent renovation.

And already in 2005 the Presidio Trust reached the break-even-point and was able to spend more on restoration of the landscape. Because there is "Crissy Marsh", a brack water marsh down at the bay. The next project it to restore a small watershed in the hills of the area. And there are the woods, that shall be turned to local species over time.

Again, I'm not sure if this is a job for the NPS, but they are doing it very well.

Sounds like a perfect candidate for administration by a private trust or foundation. San Francisco is full of wealthy philanthropists and civic minded tycoons who would be more than willing to take care of such a treasure if given the chance. This would be an appropriate site to transition to local control that could potentially be a template for future such transfers of park areas better suited to that type of administration.

You can't manage a place like this as a museum. It has to be used. With modern uses.

I couldn't agree more; 469 empty buildings seems quite wasteful to me. The best way to preserve historical buildings is to use them. It's recycling at its best!

Reform the National Park Service!

If you want to see how privitation has destroyed a park look at Stone Mountain State Park in Georgia. All of the natural aspects of the park have been paved over and blocked off in order to make golf courses, hotels and amusement park type areas.

It is the horror that will happen if private firms take over our parks!

Stone Mountain is NOT a state park but is instead a theme park that has not been privatized from governmental status. It has always been a privately held property and has never made a pretense that it is anything other than a popular theme park centered on a sculpted mountain of Confederate heroes.

Get your facts straight Judy.

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