If you've ever had to fix up an old house you'll know that they are difficult to manage: wood rots out and needs to be replaced, foundations must be patched, and wires for electricity, cable and internet need to be pulled through a house whose original builders would not have had a clue about these future technologies. It is a pretty expensive process, but when historic buildings are involved, it becomes even more difficult as the historic integrity of the building must be considered at every step of the rehabilitation. This is an issue that National Park Service has to consider with the many historic buildings in its care.
Along with managing wildlife and the rugged outdoors in the famous big parks like Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Denali, the Park Service also manages a lot of American history at places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and smaller venues, like the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in California. Among these historic collections, the buildings may be the most difficult to protect because of the great cost involved.
In 1994, the National Park Service inherited from the US Army an important piece of history in San Francisco called the Presidio. The Presidio, an old fort, is located inside of the 75,000 acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It could hardly be easier to visit if you live in the city, which may explain why the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with 13,486,824 recreation visits last year, was the second most visited National Park Service area in the country (the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited area). This massive park also includes such icons as Alcatraz Island, and the Muir Woods.
But, it is the Presidio that draws a lot of attention for the way it is being managed, and sets it apart from every other National Park unit in the country. The Presidio contains 469 historic buildings. And with so many buildings and associated infrastructure from the old fort, the National Park Service upon inheriting the resources knew that they would not be able to fulfill their mission of preservation within the budget given to them by Congress. It is estimated the cost of maintaining everything in the Presidio comes to $42 million a year.
This leads to a terrible problem, how can the Park Service meet its mission of protection and preservation of these buildings if it doesn't have the money to do so? The solution has come from Congress, but not like you might expect. The government, instead of offering the Park Service the funds necessary to maintain the historic buildings in perpetuity, developed a solution in which the Presidio would pay its own way by renting out its military housing and providing commercial leases of its historic buildings. Having folks live and work in these old buildings means there is someone there to clean-out the cobwebs, and fix the little problems that an unoccupied building would accumulate over time.
The plan gives the Presidio until the year 2013 to operate self-sufficiently, or the entire property could be sold off to developers. Because the Park Service are not in the business of leasing buildings, a new government organization was created, called the Presidio Trust, which manages the old fort like a business, to make money. The leasing model has been working quite well for the Trust, with many high-tech and luxury businesses spending big bucks to renovate their historic offices. The most famous tenant my be Lucasfilm, the makers of the Star Wars series, which spent $350 million to construct a new building at the location of an old hospital on the fort.
This is sounding less and less like a national park, and more and more like an office park. The success or failure of a national park shouldn't measured in dollars and cents, and yet, that is exactly how the Presidio will be evaluated. I recognize that the plan fulfills the need to fix a federal budget problem without adding any extra burden on us, the taxpayers. But, with the area managed for profit, and the buildings renovated to the desires of the leaseholders, the sense of the area as public property gets lost. These aren't public buildings in the same sense a city hall might be, or even like other historic buildings managed by the Park Service might be. Nothing about this feels like a National Park experience, and yet, if it succeeds, it may become the model for other park units across the country. Certainly the Presidio with its history, location, and infrastructure are unique in the system, but considering the Park Service manages historic buildings in many urban areas like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and even Seattle, it isn't a stretch to think that similar models of privatization will be an option considered at other park units in need of additional funding.
The Park Service faces the same problem we do when we try to fix up an old house. When you can't patch the foundation, the house might collapse. And if the house collapses, there is nothing left to preserve for future generations. The money has got to come from somewhere, and if it isn't from the government, another option is private industry. Unfortunately, with this option, the Park Service risks collapse of the public trust they are ultimately working to protect.
Jeremy Sullivan leads the multimedia focus for the blog www.nationalparkstraveler.com, a community driven site with a daily splash of news and notes on our National Parks.
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