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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The most expensive national park in the country, the Presidio has been given the dubious honor of being the first National Park to have to wean itself from government support. Exactly what that means for the Presidio, as well as for all of the National Parks, is explored by Peter Thomson in San Fransisco.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez sailed north from Mexico to California in 1542, he did not see the narrow opening into the vast San Francisco Bay. Then as now, the Golden Gate was often shrouded in dense fog. It will be more than 200 years before another Spanish party would find it and build a small fort, a Presidio. The Presidio first guarded the San Francisco Bay for Spain, then Mexico, then the Republic of California, and finally the United States. When the US Army moved out in 1995, the Presidio joined the US park system as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio is unique within the national parks because it will have to wean itself off government funding. As Living on Earth's Peter Thomson reports, that financial arrangement raises important questions about the future of the Presidio and the park system.

(Wind, sea, and foghorns)

THOMSON: Stop for a minute on the coastal route just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, and you'll understand why the Presidio became a national park when the Army moved out.

(Foghorns continue)

THOMSON: Stand on the bluff high over the Pacific and watch the bank of fog march in off the ocean, envelop the bridge, and then consume it whole.

(Foghorns continue)

THOMSON: Walk inland through the forests of Monterey pine, eucalyptus and redwood. Dip down to the San Francisco Bay, to the last remnants of the area's coastal dunes. Stroll through the parade grounds where soldiers were mustered before shipping off to war; many of them are buried, and you'll understand that this place combines dramas of natural and human history as few others.

VENTRESCA: There's essentially a time capsule for the nation in this national park.

THOMSON: Joel Ventresca is a longtime resident of San Francisco. He comes to the Presidio often to escape the crush of the city.

VENTRESCA: The park is full of wonderful things. You can come here and it's a respite from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It's quiet, it's natural. It's historically significant.

THOMSON: Still, as the Army began to pull out, there were suggestions in Congress that the Presidio shouldn't be transferred to the Park Service. Not because it wasn't worthy of Federal protection, but because it's so expensive to run. The Presidio is almost a city unto itself, with roads, bridges, and 800 buildings, including many historic ones which must be lit, heated, and maintained. In fact, when it joined the park system the Presidio instantly earned a dubious distinction.

PELOSI: The Presidio is the most expensive national park in the country. More than Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite or any other park that you can name. Twenty-five million dollars a year.

THOMSON: It was San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's task to beat back the attempts to remove the Presidio from the Park Service.

PELOSI: It was thought by many of us who treasure the Presidio for its historic and natural resources that we needed to preserve it, but we had to find a way to lower the cost to the taxpayer.

THOMSON: Ultimately, Congresswoman Pelosi helped craft and pass a fiscal plan as unusual as the Presidio itself. It turns the park's liabilities, its buildings, into an asset. Under the management of a new government trust, hundreds of them will be rented to nonprofit groups, professionals, even corporations. In this prime location the buildings will bring premium rents. The income will pay for their upkeep and restoration, and eventually should even cover the cost of running the park's natural areas and interpretive programs. In 15 years the plan calls for the Presidio to be the nation's first self-sustaining national park. If it doesn't pay its own way, the park will be sold off. The trust plan passed its final vote in Congress last fall almost unanimously. Environmental groups and deficit hawks were behind it, and the President liked it so much that when he signed the bill he seemed to ask for more.

CLINTON: By establishing a nonprofit trust to manage the Presidio's property, it gives us a blueprint for national parks that one day will be able to sustain themselves without government funds.

THOMSON: But many supporters of the Presidio plan shiver at the idea of making other parks self supporting.

NOTTHOFF: We disagree strenuously with the President's statement in that regard. In fact, we think that the Presidio is an anomaly in terms of national parks.

THOMSON: Ann Notthoff is a senior planner with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. The NRDC backed the Presidio plan, Ms. Notthoff says, because the Presidio can support itself without sacrificing its essential qualities. But she insists it shouldn't be seen as a precedent for running more traditional parks like Yosemite in California, Big Bend in Texas, or Acadia in Maine.

NOTTHOFF: We would lose the very values of those parks that we treasure so much if we imposed the type of self-sufficiency and expectations that we've imposed on the Presidio on other units of the National Park System.

THOMSON: If they're forced to pay more of their own way, most park units might either have to hike user fees exponentially or bring in more and more commercial enterprises to help pay the bills. And Ann Notthoff believes there's reason to be concerned. In an era of crushing debt in Washington, budget cutting and revenue raising ideas that once seemed beyond the pale are now getting a serious hearing. In the last Congress, for instance, a measure to review park units for possible closure, transfer to states, or even sale to the private sector, received significant support in the House. The effort ultimately failed, but Ms. Notthoff expects more efforts to tinker with the park system.

NOTTHOFF: It's the incremental changes that are harder to fight in the political process. Those same people that came up with the extreme proposals are now, are still in charge of the resource committees in both the House and the Senate, and we fully expect to see more incremental proposals made in this next Congress to whittle away at the integrity of the National Park System.

(Wind and sea, voices)

THOMSON: On the parade grounds of the Presidio, sitting across from a column of trim red brick barracks, Joel Ventresca says he fears too much ground has been given already. He laments that with a mandate established for this one park to pay its own way, the firewall separating national parks from the market has been breached. Mr. Ventresca is haunted by the specter of a Presidio under pressure to pay the bills, filling its buildings with shopping centers and corporate headquarters. He's been leading a lonely battle against the trust plan. He testified against it before Congress 4 times and he's not giving up now. He believes there's a fundamental principle at stake.

VENTRESCA: Park areas are supposed to be outside the private marketplace. They're not supposed to sink or swim based on how much money is made. It's a whole different environmental ethic that a lot of people have lost in the context of this debate. But if you introduce market forces into a park area, you're going to have a very strong shift from preservation to development.

PELOSI: Well, with all due respect to the few people who object to our proposal --

THOMSON: Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi doesn't share Joel Ventresca's dire vision.

PELOSI: Yes, we have to produce revenue; we have to reduce the cost to the taxpayer. That is the reality of life. But all of that has to be in keeping with the vision of the Presidio as a national park.

THOMSON: The people in charge of the park say this new pragmatism won't bring sweeping changes. Whatever the critics say, whatever even the President may say. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says that at least for now, the idea of a self-sustaining park starts and stops at the Presidio.

BABBITT: I think that the existing models for running Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite are important and correct and time-tested. So no, I don't think this is a model that has much application outside the specific circumstances of where I believe it is a really worthwhile and important experiment.

THOMSON: The Presidio is quiet these days. The Army's gone and the flow of new tenants has barely begun. What this place looks, feels, and sounds like in a generation, whether it will be a sanctuary from the clamor of the modern world or one of its latest conquests is up to the new government board that will run the trust, Congress which will oversee it, and ultimately the people who care about it.


THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in San Francisco.



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