Off-Base (Part II)

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

"I think the amendments imposed on the bill in committee went too far," says Ann Notthoff, a senior planner for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What happened?
Bambi Meets Godzilla, environmentalists say.
"The Republican committee leaders believe in extraction vs. preservation," says Redmond Kernan, co-chair of the Neighborhood Associations for Presidio Planning, a consortium of nine neighborhood groups, most of them initially supportive of the Pelosi legislation but at least two of whom have turned against it. "It's just a totally different mind-set," Kernan says.

First, the bill ran the gauntlet of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Lands, chaired by Rep. James Hansen, the Utah Republican who penned his state's "bad wilderness bill," as it's known in conservation circles. One of the most environmentally odious proposals of 1995, the Hansen legislation calls for opening millions of acres of Utah wilderness to extraction and commercial uses.

Next -- after the Hansen-hammered Presidio bill passed the House -- the companion bill arrived in the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by none other than Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska. Murkowski is perhaps best known for his determination to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies seeking to export most of their crude to Japan.

Attempting to muster strength in the face of such forces, Pelosi, Feinstein, and Boxer asked powerful Republicans to help lobby on the Presidio's behalf. Answering the call Dec. 20 in Murkowski's committee were Donald Fisher, chairman and chief executive officer of The Gap Inc.; James Harvey, chairman of Transamerica Corp.; Toby Rosenblatt, former San Francisco Planning Commission president, current chairman of the Golden Gate National Park Association, and president of the Glen Ellen Co.; and Curtis Feeny, Stanford Management Co. vice president for real estate.

The lobbying worked, or didn't, depending on your point of view.
The Presidio Trust bill crawled out alive, if a mere shadow of its former self. The legislation, after its visits to the Republican-controlled House and Senate, no longer included National Park Service propriety or a 50-50 split between Park Service and Trust. The Presidio no longer reverted to the Interior Department if the Trust experiment failed.

Excised from the legislation were the institutional protections that the Trust members would include the director of the Park Service, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and 10 appointees of the secretary of the Interior (who in an early version was to review all decisions on major tenants).

The Trust no longer had to give priority to tenants who helped preserve "the park's scenic beauty and natural character," and its resources no longer were to be used "in the public interest."

The legislation was even stripped of a conflict-of-interest clause requiring that no Trust member have a financial interest in tenants or properties.

"Some members of Congress, basically, are trying to deauthorize wilderness," sighs Brian Huse, Pacific region director of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), which, like the others, supports "the original intent" of the Pelosi bill, Huse says.

"There's an attempt to shrink Shenandoah National Park [in Virginia], and change the uses allowed in Voyageurs National Park [in Minnesota]," Huse says. "And then Congress tried to virtually shut down the Mojave Desert [park] by giving it no money."

"There has been growing interest," adds Laura Loomis, NPCA national issues director, "in looking to corporate support for public preservation efforts, and we've always been leery of it. Until United Airlines bought the rights to Gershwin's music, you could listen to "Rhapsody in Blue" and just think about how beautiful it was," Loomis says. "And now, how many people listen to it and don't think of a stupid airline?"

What's next, Loomis asks: "Budweiser brings you Yellowstone?"

"Sellout." "Giving Away the Presidio." "Land Grab." "Presidio: The Final Days." "Deathbed Conversion?" "Going, Going ..."

The headlines in the Bay Guardian, under the direction of Editor and Publisher Bruce Brugmann, have proclaimed their disgust for the Trust legislation in language like the steady drip, drip, drip of water on the forehead. And because of the relative silence of the other media in town, the Guardian has helped to frame the debate for a committed minority.

"Under the Republican plan, everything would be up for grabs," the Guardian has written. "Pelosi's puppets" on the Board of Supervisors are "spitting on the spirit of the Sunshine Law" ... Pelosi's "operatives" support a plan created by a "pro-business clique," which convinced "Presidio insiders" that the park could be "transformed into a West Coast version of the United Nations," the paper has declared.

Although the Guardian didn't like the original, warm-and-fuzzy Park Service management plan, it likes the current plan less, concluding that it "would require conversion of many of the Presidio's historic houses, barracks and offices into modern, downtown-style office space."

Why the hysterical language?
"It's all true, and it's been backed up by our staff," says BruR>gR>mR>ann.
Brugmann's interest in the story, he says, harks back to his chief passion: exposing and jousting with PG&E. With tenacity that would make a pit bull weep, Brugmann hasn't let go of the PG&E story -- the tale of a monopolistic utility -- for more than 25 years. And in 1994, the Guardian uncovered a plan by the National Park Service to let PG&E take over the Presidio's electrical distribution system without proper bidding procedures.

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