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
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
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
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