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Congresswoman Wants To Slice Seven Acres, Museum From Fort Vancouver National Historic Site


In Washington state, a dispute over the National Park Service's authority at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site has led a congresswoman to introduce legislation to remove a museum and seven acres of land from the park.

The legislation, introduced February 14 by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, stems from the Park Service's decision not to cede control over how the Pearson Air Museum is managed and what activities are permitted on its grounds. A hearing on the bill before the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands is scheduled for this Thursday.

The dispute at Fort Vancouver NHS, a site established in 1948 to preserve a fur-trapping outpost from the early 1800s and which gained an airfield, Pearson, in 1972 from the City of Vancouver, has been simmering for at least a year. While the Park Service in the past had contracted with the city to operate the facilities at Pearson Museum, the city in turn subcontracted those duties to the Fort Vancouver National Trust, a non-profit organization. At issue has been the Trust's desire to rent out the museum and its grounds for activities, such as a youth soccer fair and a day-long picnic involving dozens of church groups, that conflict with the historic site's mission and Park Service regulations and policies on what activities are appropriate for a unit of the National Park System to host.

"I think we tried diligently to work through a lot of issues. ... The Park Service enters into partnerships, into agreements, with entities that support the mission of the National Park Service, and that feel comfortable. Partnerships are about having shared goals, commonground to work from, and shared missions," Superintendent Tracy Fortmann said Monday during a phone call. “They wanted to see perhaps a committee that would make decisions on national park land, and that was not something that we could comply with. ... They did not support the special use permit process that we go through."

Park Service officials all the way up to the Pacific Region Office have met with city and Trust representatives to negotiate a solution. However, the Trust broke off those talks January 10, saying it was entreprenurial, and program- and community oriented while the Park Service is focused on its core mission.

"The Trust cannot operate effectively as the manager of the Museum for the benefit of the broader community and comply with those rules," wrote Ed Lynch and Bing Sheldon, co-chairs of the Trust. "This is not a match. It will not work."

When park officials gave the Trust 45 days to transition out of the museum, and 180 days to move their exhibits out, they sparked a backlash that included the congresswoman's bill aimed at cleaving the Pearson Air Museum out of the park, and creation of a Facebook page to protest the decision.

On Wednesday, Elson Strahan, the Trust's president and chief executive officer, said key to the dispute was the Trust's view that the museum and surrounding grounds were made possible through community's donations -- the city of Vancouver built the museum -- and should be operated with the community's best interests in mind.

"Our position is that the community in good faith simply asked the Park Service to restore the museum and actually enhance the programming at the museum, and did so through a cooperative agreement and never dreamed that the Park Service ultimately was going to claim that the museum was their's," Mr. Strahan said during a phone call. "Yes, the Park Service owned the seven acres of land for which they had paid the city $7,300 an acre, but the supposition was that since this was a partnership park that this would be a community-based asset. And that it was developed as such.

"... The community really regards this as their backyard, if you will," he continued. "It's a very, very active site from that standpoint. The whole issue of events, seemingly to us, was just an excuse for the Park Service to really appropriate the community-funded museum, is really what it came down to.

U.S. Rep. Herrera Beutler's staff has not returned a phone call seeking comment, but a June 2012 letter she has posted on her website took exception to the park's denial of permission to hold allow the Trust to permit a Youth Soccer Fair and a church picnic involving 100 churches on the museum grounds.

"... the Washington State Youth Soccer Association submitted a timely permit application to hold its Youth Soccer Fair dedicated to involving children in healthy outdoor recreational activities. This application was denied due to the impact vendor booths and planned activities would have on the site, yet the NPS’s own 'Get Outdoors Day,' an event with a similar footprint, was approved for June 9," the Republican wrote. "Your denial of the All Church Picnic -- an annual event at the Pearson Air Museum involving more than 100 churches and organizations that draws thousands of Clark County residents -- was particularly disappointing and seemingly unwarranted."

Park officials wrote a five-page letter in response to the congresswoman to outline the conflicts with some of the programs the Trust wanted to stage on at the national historical site.

In short, wrote Superintendent Tracy Fortmann, "Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is many things, but it is not a special events venue -- it is a national park that may permit special events under special circumstances. ... While many types of special events may have a meaningful association with Fort Vancouver National Historic Site's purpose, many do not require a national park setting, and we look to the many other community resources to accommodate them. In the meantime, the national park remains open and accessible to all, consistent with laws and policy."

Greg Shine, the park's chief ranger, said Monday that, in regard to the soccer fair, the historic site was not an appropriate or safe setting for that event, while the city's soccer complex "not 50 yards" from the park was well-suited for it.

"It was kind of a round peg in a square hole that this organization, the Trust, was trying to force through in an area where they thought they were able to control the activities that went on there, and they wanted that and they wanted the income that that event brought," said Chief Shine. "That wasn’t a fit for (the national park's grounds). It’s not a manicured soccer field. There are gopher holes, there are archaeology digs, there is broken glass. It is an area that is not for kids to be playing soccer, and we’re lucky that there is a place directly adjacent that is.”

The church picnic, meanwhile, would have brought a Jumbotron screen and stage onto the grounds for a day-long amplified concert, he added.

What perplexes Trust officials, however, is that the Park Service seems to make arbitrary decisions on what can and cannot be conducted at the national historic site.

While the Youth Soccer Fair, which Mr. Strahan characterized as merely an event to sign youth up for a soccer program, was denied access to the park, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics held its national cross-country championships at the historic site last November, he said. As for the church picnic, he noted that the Park Service in 2004 allowed "a 150th anniversary church service, full church service and picnic, for the First United Methodist Church that was held in the meadow right next to the parade ground."

"There's just very inconsistent application of standards," said Mr. Strahan.

Frowning on Rep. Herrera Beutler's efforts to wrest the museum and surrounding landscape from the Park Service is the National Parks Conservation Association.

"Basically we believe the park has the authority to permit those activities that they feel are appropriate for the historic nature of the site, and to deny those events that do not fit the character of the site," said David Graves, NPCA's Northwest program manager. "We don’t think it’s appropriate for Congress to step in and take away part of a park to punish them for a decision they made that is their prerogative.”


This is why, thank God, national parklands are controlled by the feds and not states or municipalities. The fact that Herrera Beutler is a Republican might be a coincidence, but considering the party's well-documented desire to sell off our public lands to special interests, I think not.

Yet another complex issue, where both the NPS and the Trust can make some valid arguments for their positions.

At the root of this problem is the attempt for NPS areas to be all things to all people, and that's a role sometimes foisted on the NPS by outside forces. Was preserving an historic airfield and related museum –- and the associated urban open space -- a worthwhile idea? Probably, but was it a good idea to tack it onto an adjoining and existing NPS area that was established to tell the story of a frontier trading post?

Closely related is the question of the old military barracks at Fort Vancouver. Congress claims credit for saving money by closing a base that was no longer needed, but what to do with all those buildings that are over 50 years old, and therefore deemed historic resources worthy of protection?

Once again, the answer was to turn them over to the NPS, and let that agency figure out how to find the money to maintain them. And yes ... there is merit in the idea that adding this acreage, and the old airfield, to the park prevents future development of those areas that would be even less compatible with the old Hudson's Bay trading post.

A popular solution to that funding problem is to lease the buildings and/or convert them to other uses, which usually means getting involved in "partnerships." It's a model that's had mixed success in other parks - and which can lead to disputes such as the one mentioned in this story.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the NPS budget crunch. Perhaps we'll have to admit sooner or later that given the level of funding Congress is willing to provide, the NPS can't save every historic property or piece of urban green space that comes along, no matter how worthy those projects may be.

I had a lot of questions after reading the article, but Jim answered them. Thank you, Jim. Sometimes, NPS winds up entangled in political webs of all kinds. It sounds to me as though Fort Vancouver would be much better off if this Congresslady's actions do remove this cancer from the NPS.

The administrative history of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is a fascinating read, and though the narrative "ends" in 1992 due to the publication date, thus leaving out some of the more recent controversies, it sheds bright light on some of the events and actions leading up to where we are today. Anyone with a knee-jerk opinion to the NPS action in this case should be challenged to retain their opinion after reading the history of how the NPS site came to be and over the years was forced into ill-advised and ill-considered compromise positions time after time by Congresswoman Herrera Beutler's predecessors as well as the state's various US Senators and Congressional committees and subcomittees, usually as the result of active lobbying and even double-dealing from the city or the Chamber of Commerce. Much flip-flopping by many involved has occurred over the decades. Some of the facts in the historical record about the City of Vancouver's actions since the site was established are jaw-dropping in the context of the city's correspondence about the current museum controversy. And then there is the classic and well-known NPS syndrome of can-kicking and cynical expediency with poor thought to the future. in this case it is manifested in previously-lax policies for special events which to her credit the current Superintendent is trying to clean up. That it is human nature to settle into an atmosphere of complacency and even entitlement in the face of lax enforcement, does not excuse the fact that the policy exists, and exists for for a reason.

I will also say that the $7300/acre figure quoted above appears to be taken out of context by the Trust's spokesman. So far as I can determine that is stated in 1972 dollars and was part of a much larger conveyance, the proceeds from which the city was supposed to apply towards - among other things - developing an alternative general aviation airport in order to resolve the question of the future of Pearson Field. If I am correct that this was part of the 1972 land aquisition (and I welcome correction if I'm not), applying the typical historical inflation rate makes that about $41,000 an acre today. And there is still no new airport.

Speaking of the airport - if you think this controversy is hot, just wait until the issue of the future of the active airport portion of Pearson Field (a portion of which is owned by the federal government and managed by the NPS) comes to the forefront again. Some might say that this museum controversy has simply been a dress rehearsal.

The administrative history can be accessed here:

Is owning and managing 7 acres of city airport land and public city park really central to the mission of Fort Vancouver NHS? It appears to be an unnecessary conflict and distraction.

For a much larger examples of what should perhaps be city parks, see Floyd Bennett Field/Gateway NRA and the Presidio of San Francisco, examples of how NPS can successfully manage city parks primarily for recreation, with diverse partnerships.

But should any of these sites be under NPS management? Because Congress decides, NPS' mission is set more by politics than by philosophy. And that shall likely be true here, too.

Nobody is going to sell the museum. It will belong to the people. The City of Vancouver and Fort Vancouver historical Trust will own the land under the building, as they have owned the building for decades already.

Have a look at the facts. They are there for both sides arguments to be heard. The Congressional Hearings on this topic were very interesting, and expose most of the issues in detail. Worth the short time it takes to watch

Here is the video posted of the congressional hearings regarding the NPS takeover of Pearson Air Museum. ALL FACTS HERE- no opinion or misinformation- SWORN CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS- well worth watching

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