Recreate-Gate and the public-private failure

03/12/2015

With the stroke of a pen, the National Park Service has set the stage for a sweeping transformation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, despite broad-based opposition by thousands of individuals and numerous public officials. Its new General Management Plan was signed in to the federal registry on Jan. 30, followed by a near-Orwellian press release and record of decision that dismissed the widespread dissent and obscured the plan’s ultimate impact on millions of annual visitors. A couple of things, however, are abundantly clear: recreation is no longer the primary purpose of the G.G.N.R.A., and the plan gives agencies and Congress an avenue to decrease crucial support by emphasizing a reliance on private fundraising.

Recreation advocates joined forces to gather close to 8,000 signatures opposing the plan. The coalition had the support of Congresswoman Jackie Speier; supervisors from Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties; and two state assembly members in Marin and San Francisco. They all asked the park service to consider mounting public concerns. But despite the outcry and a nine-month delay in signing the plan—ostensibly to address community concerns—the plan was approved unchanged. 

The G.G.N.R.A. maintains that the new management plan arose from a vast and collaborative public process, involving “thousands of Bay Area residents” over “close to a decade.” In fact, the agency received a total of 541 public comments during a three-month comment period in 2011. Not a single public hearing was held. In contrast, a similar planning process for Yosemite held dozens of meaningful public meetings and generated almost 30,000 comments. Consequently, the final plan for Yosemite reflects broad public input, while the G.G.N.R.A.’s plan does not. 

In 1972, Congress clearly stated the purpose of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the enabling legislation: “…preserving for public use and enjoyment...to provide for the maintenance of needed recreational open space necessary to urban environment and planning.” The new G.M.P. literally changes that purpose to “…providing a national park experience….” This is an audacious conversion proclaimed without Congressional authority. 

The plan reduces recreation to a “value”—one now subordinate to the highest level of protection typically reserved for traditional national parks like Yellowstone. The plan divides the G.G.N.R.A. into zones with various management objectives; much of the area’s 80,000 acres will now be classified as a “natural zone,” characterized by low-to-moderate use levels, to be “highly managed” with “restrictions in access.” Most of Marin will be classified as a natural zone, including the very popular Muir Beach and most of the heavily visited Marin Headlands. Vast swaths of Fort Funston, Ocean Beach and the beaches and lands of San Mateo County will also carry the natural zone classification.

The National Park Service has successfully balanced recreational access and environmental protection in the recreation area for over four decades. At a celebratory gathering in the Marin Headlands almost three years ago, G.G.N.R.A. visionary Amy Meyer was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying that the area “looks very much like it did 40 years ago….” While environmental impact data to support the dramatic shift in management is sparse, there seems to be an economic driver emerging from the vast pages of the General Management Plan. 

Specifically, the plan highlights and codifies the relationship with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which has been a private nonprofit “park partner” since 1981. The plan explicitly states that its success is predicated on this continued public-private partnership. Unfortunately, the conservancy doesn’t seem happy with the official name of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and has taken license to dub it “The Golden Gate National Parks,” referring to it as such in its annual reports and mailings. When asked about this, both the conservancy and Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office say the moniker is used only to “elevate the status” of the G.G.N.R.A. for fundraising purposes. It doesn’t seem to matter that there is no such place, or that the G.G.N.R.A. has never had a “national park” designation—a designation that can only be set by Congress.

The conservancy’s board of trustees publicly refused to engage in the debate about the G.M.P., asserting that they have no influence over policy. But it’s difficult to accept this deflection, considering the leverage that the almost $400 million they’ve raised for the G.G.N.R.A. might have on budgets, projects and priorities. 

There is undeniable value in the nonprofit sector’s support of parks through volunteerism and advocacy, but the increasing dependence by public agencies on private dollars is treacherous. Private funding can distort real budgets over time, leading to unintended consequences, shifting priorities and even decreased congressional budget appropriations. 

For instance, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy funding pays for restorations and capital improvement projects, but provides no operational support. So despite millions in donated dollars and shiny new projects, in 2013 the G.G.N.R.A. actually reduced its full-time maintenance staff from 11 to just three, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. The ever-dwindling resources that come from congressional appropriations must do more and more with less and less. Inevitably, the G.G.N.R.A. has to prioritize those limited resources. Just some of the immediately visible consequences are poorly maintained restrooms and the removal of trash cans and longstanding beach fire rings. 

The funding shortfalls can also lead to poor environmental stewardship. Despite much public pressure to do so, the G.M.P. fails to establish a clear user carrying capacity for Muir Woods, even though the monument is obviously crushed by high visitation levels. It’s easy to surmise that Muir Woods is being turned into a cash cow to pay for shortages across the wider park system. The math is pretty simple: A highly monetized site like Muir Woods is tasked with attracting and accommodating ever-increasing visitation, while the new management plan seeks to remove people from more remote portions of G.G.N.R.A. that require money to manage but don’t generate revenue. Hence, the creation of the so-called natural zone in the midst of an urban park in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. 

If the G.G.N.R.A. can no longer properly execute its congressionally mandated mission, the answer should not be to change the mission. It should be to prioritize funding for things that maintain critical recreational access. One could argue that recent reductions and restrictions indicate that the reliance on private funding may actually be harming this important resource, creating a situation in which the G.G.N.R.A. can no longer fulfill the recreational needs of the people it was established to serve, or properly care for a delicate treasure like Muir Woods. 

Ronald Reagan and his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, promoted the “public-private partnership” as a way to “shrink government.” This model is now being advanced through legislation authored by Bay Area progressive Rep. Jared Huffman through his Park Partners Enhancement Act, a bipartisan bill that to date includes no meaningful provisions for supplying or ensuring operational funding. 

The G.G.N.R.A. was established to ease crowded urban conditions, essentially as the Bay Area’s backyard. Once the wider restrictions start coming—and people show up at their favorite beach to have a bonfire, or at their favorite trail to ride a mountain bike or walk a dog, only to be met with a “keep out” sign—citizens are going to feel the sting of betrayal, and they will wonder what happened. These lands are held in the public trust, and the public will want to know who was responsible and what led to the failure of the great vision that was the G.G.N.R.A. 

As the Bay Area population continues to grow and diversify, the endowment of some 80,000 acres set aside 43 years ago for “recreational open space” and “public use and enjoyment” gains even more significance. The G.G.N.R.A. should be advancing its foundational ideal by increasing access and operational support, not by entrenching policies that lead to restrictions and reductions. We don’t need more parking lots, fences, visitor centers, cafes and gift shops. We need and deserve a more accountable National Park Service to uphold the original promise of the enabling legislation that established the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the first place.

 

Laura Pandapas, a Muir Beach resident, is an associate campaign director with Defense of Place, which supports nationwide campaigns to protect lands held in the public trust.