SI Vault
Donald Dale Jackson
August 25, 1975
Now that the Park Service has opened up vast and dramatic spaces rimming the city, San Franciscans can take flight and have a wingding time in a 34,000-acre paradise
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August 25, 1975

Gateway To Heaven

Now that the Park Service has opened up vast and dramatic spaces rimming the city, San Franciscans can take flight and have a wingding time in a 34,000-acre paradise

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Wayburn and Ansel Adams, the noted nature photographer, began pressing the National Park Service to take over the Golden Gate headlands in the mid-1950s. "I could see the dangers with the spread of housing developments close to the area," Wayburn says. Washington remained indifferent. The feds struck Wayburn as the logical landlords because of the multiple jurisdictions involved: the Army, the state and Marin County all held pieces of the prize. Luck was with him, since lawsuits prevented housing developers who owned some of the land from building.

A breakthrough didn't occur until Walter Hickel came to Washington and immediately began carrying on about "parks to the people." The political profit in federally protected open space near large cities was instantly apparent to Nixon's men, particularly John Ehrlichman, as well as to the urban Congressmen who were finally gaining the whip hand on important committees. Politicians had been increasingly nervous about the cities since the riots of the mid-'60s culminating in the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination, and a federal commitment to urban greenery looked like a splendid way to solve many problems at once.

The final pieces were jiggled into place by two unrelated events. The first was the Indian seizure of Alcatraz in 1969, which goaded the great bureaucratic beast into a belated decision on what to do with the place. The second was a reasonably innocuous federal plan to construct a records storage center at Fort Miley, an abandoned outpost not far from the Cliff House. This ignited a fire in the breast of Amy Meyer, who lives four blocks from Fort Miley.

"We didn't want a big institutional building there when what the city needed was a green belt," she recalls. She organized a neighborhood group and recruited Wayburn, who contributed the long view. Within a year they built a coalition of 65 separate groups and found a focus—the creation of a federal playground to combine the remnant greenery in San Francisco, Alcatraz, the now-surplus Army land and the Marin hills that had beguiled Wayburn for so long. In the fashion of the times they chose an acronym—PFGGNRA ("Piffginura"), which unreels to People For a Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The time was now ripe for attack, and Wayburn knew it. At Hickel's instigation the government had already begun a study of possible national park land in the Bay Area. When the Indians were finally dislodged from Alcatraz in 1971, the administration and Piffginura were both ready with park proposals.

The major difference between their plans was the Olema Valley, which the government neglected to include. This oversight was corrected through an adroitly orchestrated low-pressure campaign, and Nixon signed the GGNRA into law 11 days before the 1972 Presidential election. "I was amazed," says Assistant Interior Secretary Nathaniel Reed. "I wouldn't have given Wayburn and company a chance in Hades with the obstacles they had, especially after Hickel's fall from favor."

The advent of urban national parks—Gateway in New York also arrived in 1972, Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area near Cleveland came into being last year and half a dozen other cities are standing in line with similar proposals—planted the National Park Service on unfamiliar terrain. Smokey Bear's preserve has traditionally been Way Out There somewhere, four days from the nearest delicatessen, in Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, not on the streets of San Francisco or the sidewalks of New York.

Many veteran rangers are uneasy in their new roles. "This idea is extremely radical within the service," says GGNRA Superintendent Bill Whalen. "A lot of Park Service people believe that our job is protecting the crown jewels like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. But I think we realize now that those parks are used almost exclusively by the middle class. How many ghetto kids get a chance to see them? I think the idea of urban parks is slowly being accepted, and even the oldtimers can't deny the political realities."

Running an urban park is a much trickier assignment than clocking Old Faithful or describing Yosemite Falls. The responsibility to protect the land is still present, but it is coupled with an obligation to reach the city dweller. "We took a bunch of inner city kids to the headlands last year," says Ann Belkov of GGNRA. "They just wanted to run around in the grass and scream. We're trying to get them into nature through games."

"We have to make an effort to touch these people," Whalen says. "I tell the rangers not to make a father look bad in front of his kids, and to offer to take photographs if a family has a camera. The point is that we have all this space for people to enjoy so close to the city. I don't think anyone will know the significance of this place until years from now, and then it will be recognized as a pioneer like Yellowstone."

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