If you're concerned about the commercialization of national parks, you'll want to watch what's happening with the Presidio of San Francisco, which in the fall of 1994 became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Long a military outpost -- initially for Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States -- this 1,480-acre enclave on California's Monterey Peninsula preserves an eclectic mix of history, architecture, nature....and big business.
Two years after the Presidio's inclusion in the national park system, Congress created the Presidio Trust to run the park, and directed it to turn a profit. That mandate, as Julie Cart points out in an illuminating, if not alarming, story in the Los Angeles Times, created what some fear could serve as a business model that could wash over the rest of the national park system.
Some might argue that over the past decade the Presidio has morphed more into a planned community than a national park property. As Cart points out, it's home to about 2,600 residents, there are banks, cafes, and even a high school within its boundaries, and there's a commercial district with millions of square feet of office space.
And its financials -- which boast $50 million in annual revenues -- show a budget bigger than those of Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks combined. As Congress slowly weans the Presidio from its initial $25 million appropriation, the Presidio Trust is casting about for new revenue streams. According to the Times story, the trust is courting LucasFilm Ltd., among other large corporate entities, to achieve self-sufficiency.
If the Presidio Trust succeeds, how long before Congress realizes it can turn to similar mechanisms to run, and finance, other national park properties? Already the National Park Service is looking to broaden its relationship with corporate givers, as evidenced by Director's Order 21.
If It's seen as reasonable for the Presidio to go after corporate tenants, what's to stop Yellowstone officials from courting those biotech companies that search the park's hot springs for useful thermophiles to take up residence, or for Yosemite to go after climbing gear manufacturers, or for Voyagers National Park to become home base for Cabela's?
Extreme examples? Perhaps. But there are some who fear the outcome of the Presidio Trust's work.
"Our parks represent what's best about this country," Johanna Wald, who works for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, told Cart. "They capture our experience and commemorate important events in our history. If they were to be privatized, it would cheapen the experience of the visitor and it would denigrate the experience the parks were meant to capture and preserve."
Bill Wade, who chairs the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, told Cart that the Presidio Trust "serves as the premonition of what could happen, and is likely to, given what's happened in the last few years -- turning whole parks or parts of parks (over) to 'partners' to be managed."