Fort Hancock is heating up again with, perhaps, a hotel its future. For 10 years, a battle centered on whether Fort buildings should be rehabilitated to attract for-profit commercial tenants – in a National Park, of all places. Fortunately, the Park Service’s bungling attempt to be wannabe entrepreneurs fell flat on its face. Unfortunately, 36 years of National Park neglect have left the Army buildings in ruins.
Recently, a Sandy Hook Foundation press release waxed poetic about the future rehabilitation of Fort Hancock. It noted that the purpose of the Park Service is “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” True.
Then the Foundation, which has rehabilitated several Fort buildings open to public use, said, “Federal courts have ruled more than once that preservation rather than recreational use is the prime directive for the National Park Service.” Half true.
The Foundation continued “…in the case of Sandy Hook, complying with the primary mandate of preservation can be met without impairing its wonderful recreational opportunities.” Then the Foundation’s cat escaped the bag: “The federally designated National Historic Landmark area of Fort Hancock… comprises just 12.5% of all Sandy Hook acreage. Preservation would be limited to the buildings within this 12.5%.” Less true.
The Foundation misinterprets the courts. They were talking about preserving the land and natural habitat against the destruction from such kamikaze recreation as all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, and even from benign pastimes such as swimming, hiking and fishing in environmentally sensitive areas. The court decisions dealt with preserving the land -- and not buildings -- from recreational mayhem.
In fact, there is no mandate to preserve or rehabilitate any buildings, a point once explained by one of Rep. Frank Pallone’s D.C. staff experts on National Park issues.
So what’s going on?
- At a January public meeting on Gateway, Foundation President Betsy Barrett told a few National Park officials that “we” should hold public hearings to get “our” views known to offset the negative publicity engendered by the Park Service’s previous attempt at commercialization.
- Then the Park Service bizarrely announced that before it held two public meetings specifically about Fort Hancock, it would hold private planning meetings, but refused to reveal who was invited – perhaps part of Mrs. Barrett’s “our” crowd? –or their recommendations.
- Both sets of meetings were announced by the Park Service, which is ostensibly in charge, and oddly by Mrs. Barrett, who isn’t.
- Foundation claims that recreation won’t be affected by any Fort development ignore the several hundred parking spaces already closed at North Beach that presumably were to be reassigned to the now-defunct commercialization plan.
- Ignoring its mission and court mandates on preserving the land – concepts clearly understood by most people -- the Park Service refused to conduct an environmental impact statement on its commercialization plan.
Apparently the Foundation is now pressing for another commercial drive-by, as it applauded the “…Park Service’s efforts in exploring models used elsewhere in the National Park system…” Since a video at the Fort Hancock public meetings touting both The Presidio and Fort Baker as successful models influenced the discussions, the message is clear. Both organizations want a similar privatization plan for Fort Hancock. But isn’t a monster hotel/conference center proposed on the parade grounds being fought by conservationists, and doesn’t The Presidio require about $20 million yearly in federal subsidies? And isn’t public access severely limited at Fort Baker, Marin County, because few can afford the expensive hotel/conference center/spa – also originally planned on the parade grounds -- which was challenged in court by Sausalito?
Like Fort Hancock, these commercial ventures commandeering public lands have triggered public objections. But I fear the Park Service and, regrettably, the Foundation yearn for hotels.
Instead, Fort Hancock’s future should focus on non-profit organizations.