Congress Rides to the Presidio's Rescue A San Francisco Landmark, the Nation's Oldest Military Base - Now the Most Expensive National Park - May Be Saved by a Unique Public-Private Survival Plan

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FOR more than two centuries, its fog-shrouded forests and Spanish Colonial walls have been home to the oldest continuously operated military base in the nation. It is the guardian of the Golden Gate, an oasis of cypress and eucalyptus at the northwest corner of urban San Francisco.

But since the closure of the base here in 1989 and the departure last month of its main tenant, the Sixth US Army, the noble Presidio has become a costly albatross around the neck of the National Park Service.

Already strapped for funds, the park service cannot afford the Presidio's yearly budget. At $40 million - the most expensive park in the entire national system - it's more than double that of Yellowstone. The service doesn't have the resources or people to maintain the site's 870 buildings, 510 of which are considered historic treasures.

So the fortress that has flown the flags of three nations and sheltered troops through both world wars, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, is now itself struggling for survival.

The battle over the Presidio is one that has reverberated from San Francisco's city hall to the corridors of Congress.

At one point last spring, the Senate considered hawking the prime real estate to private developers, so the federal government could pocket an estimated half-billion dollars. San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan turned down another proposal that the city take over park ownership. He argues that the Presidio is a national responsibility.

The House of Representatives apparently agrees. It has come up with a novel rescue plan. No one is sure yet that this plan will work, and it has already drawn some criticism from San Franciscans. But if it does work, it may hold lessons for other conservation efforts across the country in a era of dwindling public resources.

Last month, the House passed a bill creating the Presidio Trust, a unique government-corporate partnership plan with strong bipartisan support. A Senate version of the law, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, is expected to come up for a vote later this month and has the backing of the Senate leadership.

To many, the House vote for the Presidio Trust by a 3-to-1 margin is remarkable. The Republican-led Congress approved an innovative spending plan at a time when federal downsizing is a priority and moves are afoot to create a commission to shrink the national park system. And, Presidio supporters note, the GOP House passed an environmental bill sponsored by a liberal congresswoman from a traditionally liberal city.

"The victory for the Presidio can be seen as a model of bipartisan cooperation, of public-private cooperation, a model for the rest of the country on how to create another revenue stream to fund parks," says Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, who authored the House bill and spearheaded the campaign to pass it. "But the Presidio is so exceptional, I hope it doesn't raise expectations for other parks too much."

While some Republicans in Congress continue to push legislation that threatens park funding, advocates note that preserving national parks is not a strictly partisan concern.

"We must remember that the values of national parks don't change very much, the pressures on them change," says Michael Alexander, chairman of the Sierra Club Presidio Task Force. "It's become increasingly difficult to find ways to save the places that are truly part of our national heritage, places we need to set aside for our children and children's children.... The Presidio Trust is a creative way of trying to save one of the most stunning places on earth."

Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the largest urban park in the world, the Presidio is an indisputably magnificent expanse of 1,480 acres.

The park includes 800 acres of open space surrounded by beaches, sand dunes, and coastal bluffs with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, the Marin Headlands, the Bay islands, and the San Francisco skyline. …