Park History of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area


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By Hal K. Rothman, Principal Investigator &
Daniel J. Holder Senior Research Historian

Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers one of the most complicated management challenges in the entire national park system. A compilation of urban greenspace and rural lands surrounding San Francisco's Bay Area, it reflects the growing tensions in the National Park Service about the purpose of a national park designation. Labeled a "national recreation area," the lands included in the park offer scenic vistas, nationally significant cultural resources, and belts of vegetation scattered across the urban landscape. Balancing the competing needs of these lands and their many constituencies is the dominant feature of park management.

Since its inception in 1972, management at Golden Gate National Recreation Area has evolved through three stages. During the first decade, the Park Service's management strategy was simply reactive. Managers sought to find their place in the region and they responded to the needs of constituencies. With the implementation first of the General Management Plan in 1980 and the ancillary plans in cultural resources management and natural resources management shortly after, the park was able to develop clear and distinct plans and ambitions. In most circumstances, such goals would have been easy to implement. At this park, the plans showed both the limits of their process and the way in which the planning deflected unwanted park uses. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Park Service sought to implement its plans; it often revised them in response to the specific needs of constituencies and the Bay Area's political situation.

In this sense, the Park Service revised its modes of operation at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Typically the federal agency dictated terms to surrounding communities; in urban areas, the park was only one of a large number of sources of revenue and jobs for the region. The result was a more interactive, more flexible form of management, guided by the post-National Environmental Policy Act processes of public access. It also created a context in which the Park Service responded to outside demands, preparing the agency for multidimensional management within a major metropolitan area.

The Presidio addition complicated this clear articulation of management phases at the park. As a result of congressional action, the Presidio evolved into a federal/nonprofit partnership, and the Park Service became skilled in negotiating not only with the public but with its twinned management entity, now called the Presidio Trust. As Golden Gate National Recreation Area learned to negotiate with groups around the Bay Area, it learned to work with the Presidio and its powerful array of board members. The result was a hybrid, a national park area that was run by national park standards, but equally administered by a congressionally created entity.

The factors combine to make Golden Gate National Recreation Area the archetype for national park areas in the twenty-first century. In its urban location, its close relationship with many communities, its ability to involve the public and at the same time adhere to agency and other federal standards, and finally in its participation in joint management of the Presidio, Golden Gate National Recreation Area has the look of the national parks of the new century. Its issues are different from those of the traditional national parks, remote from population centers. Instead, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is part and parcel of a major urban area and all its turmoil, offering the Park Service access to previously unreachable constituencies. In this Golden Gate National Recreation Area leads; whether the Park Service will follow and to what end remains an open question.

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Last updated on August 27, 2001

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