Off-Base (Part I)

The most vituperative battle ever fought over the Presidio pits a handful of activists (and a certain weekly newspaper) against a local coalition of environmentalists, business, and the majority of elected officials. Is the congressional compromise to es

This ain't no Yellowstone.
It's not the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Badlands, or Glacier, either. In fact, this national park nee military post boasts more bricks than native trees. But on a balmy December day when the sun frisks the bay, the surf slaps Baker Beach, joggers from afar look like spandex bugs, and Newt and his GOP warriors seem planetary systems away -- well, on a sweet day like this, the Presidio sure looks worth a million bucks to Michael Alexander.

Make that $25 million. Seventy million? Five hundred fifty million?
But Alexander doesn't want to talk numbers just yet. He doesn't want to discuss what the federal government spends here for yearly upkeep, what the Army spent here for yearly upkeep, or what the feds in Washington think the whole place might be worth with a Century 21 sign on the lawn.

Alexander is the Sierra Club's point man on the predicament that is this former-Army-base-turned-political-touchstone: He's a Presidio-lover who wants to build his case step by step, matters of least volatility first. He unloads his bike from his car rack with an ease borne of practice, pulls on his helmet, stretches.

Around him, the outpouring of recreation at Crissy Field ranges from the sublime to the comical -- hundreds of people driving, hiking, Rollerblading, dog-walking, and skateboarding, some simultaneously.

It was in order to preserve their gamboling rights that the National Park Service, a number of citizens, business consultants, environmental groups, and San Francisco's Democrats in Washington -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- began planning ways years ago to convert the 1,480-acre Presidio into an innovative, "21st century" park. (The Park Service has administered 145 acres of the shoreline since 1972.) In the new order, the Park Service would maintain the Presidio's 780 acres of open space, and under its umbrella, an enviro-minded Presidio Trust would defray costs by leasing and managing the 870 buildings on the remaining developed 700 acres.

It was to be a progressive's pipe dream come true: a place, in the words of National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy, where people could "learn how to live more respectfully with each other, and with the other occupants of this magnificent creation -- the Earth."

What San Franciscans would only know in hindsight, unfortunately, is that the window of opportunity for the truly remarkable concept was diminishing daily.

In the past, portions of decommissioned military bases have been set aside as wildlife preserves or transferred to state park systems, but never before had an entire base been transformed into a national park. The city could only really depend on Democrats for such an ambitious project -- one that called for restored wetlands, replanted native flora, enhanced open space, improved recreation, wildlife protection, non-polluting transportation, 4,800 new jobs, a research hub for eco-peaceful-global studies, a "public benefit" Presidio Trust that leased space to do-gooders -- and oh, yes, cash flow.

Prospects for such a transformation looked remarkably good in October 1994, when the entire Presidio was placed under the administrative control of the Park Service and the service's final blueprint for the land was in place. But Congress still needed to approve the Presidio Trust. If the management plan was the ignition, the Trust was the key. Rep. Pelosi eagerly introduced the necessary legislation.

Kabloom.
What park officials hadn't counted on was that small matter of the Republican landslide. A month later, on Election Day, Nov. 8, 1994, the window of opportunity slammed shut with a glass-shattering thud.

"Isn't this place gorgeous?" Alexander asks, squinting at the sky.
Yes, it is. Even the vizsla hound drooling on a Frisbee in front of us seems to know it. Alexander leisurely pedals off toward the Army barracks on the hill, a reporter in tow. "It is always so gorgeous here," he says again.

It is also -- thanks to that shattered window -- the gorgeous staging grounds for one of the nation's most perplexing, far-reaching, and unprecedented battles over a park. Today's fight over the Presidio pits Republicans vs. Democrats, anti-growth San Franciscans vs. the slow-growth mainstream, hyperbole vs. reticence -- and Chicken Little vs. Pollyanna. The fight is also the perfect example of what can happen to Democrats in a Republican Congress.

"The biggest rip-off since Teapot Dome!" and "An event that will live in infamy!" is how a small troop of indefatigable activists describe the latest version of congressional legislation to privatize most of the Presidio -- a bill and a concept that, having been through a GOP wringer, barely resemble the Pelosi or Park Service original. (Approved last fall by the House, the legislation at press time is awaiting a Senate floor vote.)

If signed into law in its current incarnation, the legislation would make the Presidio the only national park in the country not wholly operated by the National Park Service. More than 80 percent of the Presidio would be controlled by a seven-member Trust, appointed by the president. The Trust would not have to answer to the Department of Interior or any other government agency, aside from submitting annual reports to Congress explaining what it did the prior year and what its "general" goals were for the next year.

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