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Changing of the guard.

FOR MORE than 200 years, the Presidio of San Francisco has guarded the entrance to the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay. No longer needed for military purposes, the Presidio will become a key part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on September 30, 1994, when the historic Army base becomes a national park.

Surrounded by the city of San Francisco, the 1,400-acre Presidio has its own water system, golf course, and more than 800 buildings, half of which are historic. The Presidio offers a wealth of both natural and historic resources. It is home to one of the rarest plants in the world and was the site from which the order to incarcerate more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II was carried out.

The transfer from the Army to the National Park Service will end a process that began in 1972, when surplus military land on the north and south sides of the Golden Gate became available. Today the land encompasses more than 70,000 acres of open space, including Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Fort Mason, Fort Point, Alcatraz Island penitentiary, and San Francisco waterfront areas such as Baker Beach, Land's End, Ocean Beach, and Fort Funston.

At the urging of local conservationists, Congressman Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) sponsored the legislation creating the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and included a clause that the Presidio lands be transferred to the Park Service when the Army relinquished them.

In 1988, the Presidio appeared on a list of military bases to be closed. Soon afterward, the planning process began to turn the former Army post with its rich history, noteworthy architecture, natural treasures, and the only free-flowing stream left in the city--Lobos Creek--into a national park.

Golden Gate Superintendent Brian O'Neill describes the process as "the most massive planning effort in the history, of the National Park Service." The Presidio required the most extensive cultural resources inventory ever done by the Park Service, as well as an in-depth listing of the area's plants and other natural resources.

Today, only about 10 percent of the original natural areas survive. The rest have been covered with buildings, fortifications, an urban forest, and parking lots as well as a national cemetery, a golf course, and an airfield. What does remain are precious remnants of native plant and wildlife communities, which give us tantalizing hints of what San Francisco used to be like.

As Terri Thomas, GGNRA ecologist, points out, the Presidio was chosen as a military outpost because of its strategic location and because of its natural resources, which included a year-round source of water and extensive grassland for grazing cattle, Lobos Creek provides two million gallons of water a day to the Presidio. Coast live oaks grow in its protected watershed, although non-native trees and plants crowd the lower portion, forming a dense jungle.

Among the Presidio's habitats are sand dunes, coastal scrub, and prairie and serpentine grassland. These areas include many rare plants. The Presidio (Raven's) manzanita, on the federal list of endangered species, is one of the rarest shrubs in the world. It was once plentiful in San Francisco, but only. one plant remained in the wild on the Presidio until recently. As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery plan, cuttings from the shrub were planted at the Presidio nd have thrived.

Three plants are listed by California as endangered: Presidio clarkia, a dainty pink wildflower endemic to serpentine grassland; San Francisco popcorn-flower, presumed to be extinct although still listed in case it is found again; and San Francisco lessingia, a tiny composite that grows only on sand dunes. (The Presidio has remnants of what was once the largest dune field in coastal California.) Another rare plant on the Presidio is Marin dwarf flax, listed by California as a threatened species.

About 170 species of birds are found at the Presidio; 50 of them nest there. The endangered peregrine falcon is the only rare bird found on the Presidio, but other rare creatures include the red-legged frog and the tree lupine moth. The extinct Xerxes blue butterfly once lived on the Presidio. Other native wildlife has been depleted over the years as well. Squirrels haven't been seen on the Presidio for years and may have been eliminated by feral cats, which also prey on groun-dwelling birds such as the California quail.

During its 150-year presence, the Army has not always been a careful steward of the Presidio's natural resources. Hiking trails have been cut through the middle of endangered clarkia habitat, groundskeepers at the golf course dug up a sand dune with endangered lessingia on it, and gardeners repeatedly mowed a hillside covered with wildflowers, such as tidy tips and California poppies, in an effort to reduce the danger of fire. Not surprisingly, the flowers no longer bloom there. But the most devastating and far-reaching effect on the natural resources began in the 1880s with the creation of the Presidio Forest.

The Presidio had long been known as a hardship post: desolate, foggy, and constantly blasted by wind-driven sand. Transplanted Easterners stationed at the Presidio were accustomed to forested landscapes, so Major W.A. Jones drew up a plan to plant eucalyptus, Monterey cypress, and Monterey pine trees. Over the years, the Presidio went from a hardship post to a country-club setting with stately trees, lush lawns, and exotic landscaping. It became known as the most beautiful military base in the United States.

This artificial forest has usurped hundreds of acres of native plant and wildlife habitat by shading previously open space and causing sun-loving natives such as California poppies and other serpentine grassland plants to disappear. The trees also trapped fog and mist coming off the ocean, allowing shade- and moisture-loving exotics to flourish. Today, dense thickets of English and German ivies, mattress vine, and nasturtiums cover the Presidio.

As the forest has matured, it has blocked out many of the stunning vistas. Although some of the trees will be removed to restore these views, much of the original Jones forest plan is considered a cultural resource and must be preserved. This conflict presents a challenge for park planners, says Brian O'Neill. "The question is how can we restore the natural areas and still preserve the historic areas?"

Although the forest dominates much of the land, the Presidio's role in military history is its most significant cultural resource. The Presidio has been a military base for more than two centuries and has flown Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. flags. Established in 1776 by a party of 240 Spanish soldiers and civilians, including women and children, the Presidio was the first settlement in San Francisco, predating the Franciscan Mission Dolores.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1821, all former Spanish land became Mexican territory. When war erupted between Mexico and the United States in 1846, U.S. soldiers seized the Presidio, and two years later all Mexican property in the Southwest became U.S. territory. California was admitted to the Union in 1850.

Several expansion periods at the Presidio produced an eclectic architectural mix. Only a fragment of Spanish adobe construction remains, now incorporated into a wall of the Officers' Club. A massive brick fortress bristling with cannons was built at Fort Point in the 1850s, and a decade later during the Civil War, buildings were constructed to house Union soldiers bracing for a possible Confederate invasion by sea. Most of these buildings are of Victorian-influenced architecture. Another expansion at the Presidio came in the 1890s just before the Spanish-American War as the United States' interests turned toward the Orient. Sturdy red-brick construction characterizes the buildings of this period.

The final expansion took place between 1910 and 1912 with the creation on the high bluffs of Fort Winfield Scott, whose Spanish Revival-style buildings overlook the Golden Gate and are considered by many to be the architectural gems of the Presidio. The fort was the headquarters of the Coastal Artillery Corps, which was responsible for a string of reinforced concrete coastal defense batteries built along the bluffs of San Francisco and Marin Headlands.

Other significant points in the Presidio's history include its role as a tent-city encampment following the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. General Frederick Funston, commandant of the Presidio, established martial law when fire began to consume the devastated city. Funston and his soldiers are generally credited with halting further damage from the blaze by dynamiting houses in the path of the fire.

And in the 1920s, Crissy Field, one of the first Army airfields, was built on a filled lagoon and marsh. The first round-the-world flight, lasting 176 days, passed through the airfield, and the first "dawn to dusk" transcontinental flight ended there. Both elements took place in 1924.

In this century, the Presidio has dispatched soldiers to every war, including nearly two million military personnel on the way to the Pacific during World War II. Eventually, the Presidio became obsolete as a strategic military holding.

As many as 400 of the buildings at the site are historic and must be preserved, although some 250 surplus structures may be removed. There are 26 miles of roads and a water system to maintain. The park's roads and utilities require extensive improvements, and toxic materials, such as spilled fuel or leakage from underground fuel tanks, must be cleaned up before the transition takes place.

In addition to the cost of the initial improvements, the Park Service estimates the Presidio's upkeep will cost between $40 million and $60 million each year. Last year Congress passed a $65.8-million appropriation to be used toward maintenance for the next two years, an impressive chunk of funding in budget-cutting times. Included in that sum is $500,000 for the California Conservation Corps to remove alien plants from the Presidio's natural areas.

Despite the federal allocation, additional money will be needed to improve and maintain the park, and the Presidio, like the rest of the GCNRA, will be open free to the public. As a result, the cash-strapped Park Service has had to consider creative funding methods. Money, will come through a package that could include private and foundation grants, government allocations, and, possibly, local bond initiatives.

Other funds will come from "Park Partners"--institutions, nonprofit organizations, and commercial ventures that will occupy and maintain facilities, provide visitor programs and services, and help preserve resources in cooperation with the GGNRA. The Park Service is seeking tenants whose uses will be appropriate to a historic park.

The planning process now under way is being done with the assistance of the Presidio Council, which is headed by Transamerica Chairman Jim Harvey and includes distinguished Americans such as filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, architect Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial, and Yale professor Robin Winks, an NCPA trustee. Council members have generated offers of pro bono work for everything from architectural and environmental design to legal assistance.

From the start, planners have sought public comment on ideas and concerns for the Presidio's future. From this process, a single unifying theme emerged--to establish an international environmental research center. Next the council sent out a "Call for Interest" to hundreds of organizations asking for proposals to locate appropriate programs at the Presidio. This public solicitation garnered more than 400 proposals. "Some are pretty flaky [a bungee jumping tower tops the list], but others are visionary, exciting, and in keeping with the environmental theme," O'Neill said.

Most prominent among the proposals is the Gorbachev Foundation, U.S.A., headed by former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The foundation's goal is to strengthen democracy in the former Soviet Union and address environmental needs in the world. Other ideas include establishing a western outpost for the Smithsonian Institution, and groups such as the California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium (a science museum for young people) propose creating a science education center "second to none in the United States," O'Neill says. "It could change the way science is taught in this country for the coming decades."

Another theme addresses the issue of youth at risk, along the idea of a National Academy for Youth Service, to help troubled young people learn environmental science, construction, and other valuable skills. The program would be patterned after the successful California Conservation Corps, which teaches skills and gives direction to young people with troubled backgrounds.

O'Neill plans to market the Presidio like a shopping mall. "With some of these |anchor tenants' in place, other high-quality tenants will follow," he said.

Dale Crane, NPCA's Pacific Northwest regional director, emphasized that tenants capable of paying for space will be vital to the success of the park. "The Presidio's structures need to be leased out for an income that will pay for the operations of the park, simply because there are insufficient funds for the Park Service to do it. And if they don't raise the money, the federal government certainly will not provide it."

Evaluating the proposals is an enormously complex task, with Park Service planners aided by outside consultants. "The key to evaluating the proposals is finding tenants who are capable of funding and sustaining appropriate programs at the Presidio," says Michael Alexander, head of the Sierra Club Presidio Task Force, a watchdog group monitoring the future of the Presidio. "... We want to make sure [the Presidio] becomes a great national park."

Plans for the park include provisions for what park officials project will be an annual pilgrimage of more than 20 million visitors. The Presidio will have visitor center, food service, rest rooms, law enforcement and emergency medical services, trails, and public transportation within the park, including more access for bicycles. The Presidio will feature historical programs and traditional military ceremonies, such as the firing of a cannon at the end of the day, and a civilian replacement for the famous Sixth Army Band. Victorian-influenced officers' cottages on the Main Post will be restored and filled with period furnishings.

The Park Service plans to restore as much as possible a portion of the wetlands filled to create Crissy Field. Three drainages that once emptied into the marsh still exist, and a flow of seasonal fresh water could be redirected to the proposed wetland. This restoration project will not affect the historic aspects of the airfield. Another project calls for removing Golden Gate Bridge maintenance facilities from the western side of the bridge, opening up this view to the public. Extensive native plant and wildlife habitat restoration also is planned.

Understanding that it lacks the expertise to manage such a large physical plant, the Park Service expects that maintenance and leasing will be turned over to an independent entity--either a real estate management firm or a nonprofit group created for this purpose. San Franciscans are concerned that the Presidio will deteriorate during the transition from military to Park Service ownership; however, the Army has promised that security will be provided and everything maintained until the Park Service takes over.

Although it may take 30 years or more to complete, everyone involved is excited by the new park. It is a place that will contribute to humankind through education and research while welcoming visitors from all over the world. The park will provide a soothing respite from urban life and sustain the Presidio's unique history, character, and natural features for generations to come.

Perhaps Howard Levitt, information chief for the GGNRA, sums it up best: "There's no question the Presidio of San Francisco can become the most exciting national park in the country, dedicated to resolving problems of the human and natural environment and improving the quality of life on the planet."
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Title Annotation:Presidio military base, San Francisco, California
Author:Ordano, Jo-Ann
Publication:National Parks
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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