Investigate the Presidio's money

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EDITORIAL National parks are places where wildlife is preserved, saved, encouraged. The trend in parks these days is to expand the ecological mix; the National Park Service is actually trying to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. But as Amanda Witherell reported Jan. 17 ("Where Are the Chicks?"), that's not the case in San Francisco's Presidio National Park. At the Presidio a native species that was thriving not long ago — the California quail — is almost entirely gone. That's a sign that the ecological management of the park is a mess — which is no surprise. The park is run by a semiprivate trust that's driven by real estate development and moneymaking. If new condos conflict with quail habitat, guess who has to go?

Then there's the Presidio's balance sheet. As we reported Jan. 24 ("The Presidio Trust's Mystery Millions"), the park is sitting on $105 million — a huge chunk of cash — yet has asked Congress for a $20 million loan. What's all that money for? The trust won't tell us — it's a secret.

This is exactly what we feared would happen when Rep. Nancy Pelosi created the first privatized national park 10 years ago: environmental damage, financial unaccountability, and intolerable secrecy. The trust board (appointed by President George W. Bush) meets in public only once a year. Its press office is openly hostile to reporters and makes it exceptionally difficult for the public to get even basic information about park activities.

This is Pelosi's pet project, and she's now the most powerful person in Congress, but that doesn't mean the Presidio should be able to continue operating in this fashion. The House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall (D–W.Va.), ought to hold hearings on the Presidio and examine how the trust is operating, whether it's fulfilling its mission, and how its enabling legislation should be changed. A growing number of environmentalists are now calling for Pelosi to repeal the original bill and turn the Presidio over to the National Park Service, which runs parks as public treasures, not as potential real estate developments.

At the very least, Congress should refuse to provide any more loans to the Presidio Trust until an outside auditor conducts a public review of the books — and explains why a national park is holding $105 million in taxpayer money in the bank for secret projects, then demanding even more public money. *