Nation's Newest Park Is Island Unto Itself

As the ferry putters its last few feet to the pier at Georges Island, the Boston skyline fades from view.

The neck-craning steel and glass of downtown - only four miles distant - is replaced by a rocky coast and the expanse of cobalt-blue sea stretching to the horizon.

Strewn with moss-covered Civil War fortresses, derelict estates, and the oldest lighthouse in America, the 31 Boston Harbor Islands have offered locals protection and recreation for more than 200 years. And now they are attracting national attention - for more than just their history or beauty.

The Boston Harbor Islands were officially celebrated as one of the nation's newest national parks yesterday, an event that showcased their controversial new ownership and management plan. The plan divides responsibility for the park among the city, the state, and local nonprofit groups, and it is being held up as a model for the future. Many see it as the answer to national parks' problems in an era of shrinking budgets and rising costs.

"This is a great example of reinventing government," says George Price, project manager of the Boston Harbor Islands. "We've come together as a partnership because a number of people were able to put aside individual needs to focus on the greater good."

The park comprises 13 state-owned islands and 18 islands owned by Boston and an assortment of private organizations. Also, for the first time in history, the National Park Service has promised to spend government money on land it doesn't own.

Overall, the National Park Service will contribute only a quarter of the park's operating funds, with the remaining 75 percent coming from general sales and local donations - a process that should save the park service millions of dollars.

The functions and finances of the park are managed by an 18-member Advisory Council and a 13-member governing board. These groups include federal appointees, local advocacy groups, and even a native American heritage organization.

Although the National Park Service has never before given national park status to land not owned by the federal government, experts predict that the number of these partnerships will increase.

Because of the lack of large tracts of publicly owned land, the East Coast has been the primary sight of land management experimentation. Fragmented land ownership has forced Eastern states into partnerships, says Lawrence Gall of the National Park Service's New England office. "This part of the country will have to show cooperation between land owners and government agencies," he says. "The Harbor Islands are the manifestation of this necessity."

But some groups are hesitant to stamp the new Harbor Islands management plan with their seal of approval.

Although Island Alliance, the present fund-raising organization for the Boston Harbor Islands, has already collected more than half of the $400,000 needed for next year's budget, some advocates argue it will take time to see if this level of support will last.

"It would be a mistake to trumpet the Islands as a national model. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly; we need to take a year or two to decide if the partnership will work," says Suzanne Gall Marsh, founder of Friends of Boston Harbor, an advocacy and volunteer group.

The Advisory Council has met only once, and many of the islands' past problems show little hint of getting fixed in the near future, says Ms. Marsh. "You can't wave a magic wand, make this a national park, and solve everything. The islands are woefully understaffed, they need piers fixed, and we need more ferries available. There are still problems to be solved," she adds.

WHILE Marsh questions the future of this particular park experiment, she and others are also keeping a close eye on San Francisco, the site of a similar National Park Service attempt at cooperation and self-sustainability.

In the same piece of legislation that created Boston's national park, Congress allowed the Presidio Trust - the longest operating military post in the continental United States - to be managed by the National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

To remain a subsidiary of the park service, however, the Presidio must become self-sustaining in only 16 years. In this way, the park service hopes to make a short-term commitment for the long-term benefit of its visitors. A belt-tightening measure that will, they hope, further strengthen the historical heritage of the country without costing the National Park Service millions more.

But before more new ventures are undertaken, some observers say that reasonable questions need to be asked.

"Both the park service and private organizations need to evaluate whether a partnership is feasible," says Eileen Woodford of the New England office of the National Park Conservation Association, a national park watchdog organization. "The long-haul means perpetuity for national parks. The most important question is whether funding can be sustained, not for 10 years, but forever."

"Our country's population is growing and our demographics are changing," she says. "National parks need to teach Americans, be they Puerto Rican or Irish, that we have a common heritage. Otherwise, we risk becoming fragmented."

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