The Creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)


San Francisco and the Bay Area are densely packed urban areas. For decades, there has been a critical shortage of recreational open space in the area. This is one reason San Francisco took control of Fort Funston from the US Army in 1962. In a document entitled “The Proposal to Acquire Fort Funston As A Recreation Area,” it was noted that San Francisco had about one-half of the minimum open space recommended by the National Recreation Association.

When other coastal open space once owned by the Army was threatened with development, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 to “preserve for public use and enjoyment” those areas. The first mandate in the statute that created the GGNRA was to “provide for the maintenance of needed recreational open space.” Click here to read the legislation that created the GGNRA

A report issued by the US House of Representatives when the GGNRA was created noted that the population density of San Francisco was 16,500 per square mile, compared with 5,000 per square mile for Los Angeles. The House Report added, “While it is some comfort and compensation to live in a city as interesting, clean, and attractive as San Francisco, it must be noted that the opportunities for outdoor recreation in broad open spaces are severely limited.” The new legislation “will not add significantly to the open lands in the city, but it will ensure its continuity as open space for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations of city dwellers.” [H.R. Rep. No. 1391, 92nd Congress, 2nd Session, 1972]

The report contains clear evidence the GGNRA was created to provide recreational open space:

• “This legislation will … [establish] a new national urban recreational area which will concentrate on serving the outdoor recreational needs of the people of the metropolitan area.” • “Action is required if … the relatively natural areas within the city are to be available to satisfy the growing need for outdoor recreational opportunities.”

• “The objective of H.R. 16444 is to assure the preservation of open spaces presently prevailing within the proposed recreation area, to provide public access along the waterfront, and to expand to the maximum extent possible the outdoor recreation opportunities available to the region.”

During the hearings into the creation of the GGNRA, various recreational activities historically taking place on land within the proposed GGNRA boundaries were listed, including sunbathing, picnicking, horseback riding, swimming, hiking, fishing, and off-leash dog walking.

Transfer of San Francisco Park Land to the GGNRA

Nearly all of the GGNRA land in San Francisco was once city parkland. In November 1973, San Franciscans voted on whether to turn over 500 acres of city parkland – Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, Lands End – to the GGNRA.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 25th, a few weeks before the election, William J. Whalen, superintendent of the national recreation area, said the GGNRA “intends to preserve the general character and present use of the various parks that could be affected by passage of Proposition F.” Residents were assured there would be no change in allowed recreational usage just because the land would be in the GGNRA. Proposition F passed.

Still, City officials worried about the loss of local control of the parklands. A Memorandum of Understanding between the City and County of San Francisco and the United States dated April 29, 1975 requires the General Superintendent of the GGNRA to “formally notify and consult with the Department of City Planning on all proposed construction plans… or substantial alteration of the natural environment” of the City’s parklands that were being transferred to the GGNRA. The MOU set forth a process for San Francisco to convey its “agreement, disagreement or suggested modification of the proposed construction plans”. The MOU adds that the “General Superintendent [of the GGNRA] shall make every effort to accommodate the City’s recommendations.” Click here to read the April 29, 1975 MOU between San Francisco and the GGNRA

San Franciscans deeded their beachfront park lands to the GGNRA because they believed that, as promised by GGNRA officials at the time, recreational uses would be continued and the City would be consulted on future changes within the GGNRA. Unfortunately, the GGNRA has not lived up to its promises, and has made major changes in park usage over the years, all without following up on its promised pledge to consult with the City.

Reflecting a citywide desire to maintain recreational uses of land in the GGNRA, the San Francisco City Charter amendment passed by the voters in 1973 (former section 7.403-1(a)) included a provision that required that the deed transferring City-owned park lands to the National Park Service have the restriction that those lands were to be reserved by the NPS “in perpetuity for recreation or park purposes with a right of reversion upon breach of said restriction.” In other words, if the GGNRA should ever change recreational access to the lands once owned by San Francisco, the City reserved the right to take back the land. The deed that transferred Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, and other City-owned park land to the GGNRA does indeed contain the following clause: “to hold only for so long as said real property is reserved and used for recreation and park purposes.”

Why is the legislation that created the GGNRA so important?

When the GGNRA was created in 1972, National Recreation Areas, along with National Seashores, and National Monuments could be managed to different standards than National Parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone. However, in 1978, the laws governing the National Park Service were rewritten to require that all national park units be governed by the same mission statement, i.e., “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” [16 U.S.C. Section 1] Note that recreational uses are not specifically mentioned in this mission statement.

This change in mandate has been used by opponents of off-leash and other recreational uses to claim that the GGNRA, a highly modified urban recreational area, must be managed in the same way as a pristine wilderness like Yosemite. In particular, they claim that since dogs are not allowed off-leash in Yosemite, they should not be allowed off-leash anywhere in the GGNRA’s urban recreational area.

However, when Congress made the management change in 1978, it was concerned that the unique purposes of each park would be overlooked in the change. Therefore, the following language was added to the change [16 U.S.C. Section 1a-1]: “The authorization of activities shall be construed and the protection, management, and administration of these areas … shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established, except as may have been or shall be directly and specifically provided by Congress.”

Indeed, courts routinely look to the “enabling legislation” (the legislation that created the park) and the “legislative history” (the report issued by Congress at the time of the legislation) when asked to determine the scope of activities permitted in a park.

The GGNRA’s enabling legislation and its legislative history are very clear that its purpose was to “maintain needed recreational open space”. Thus management polices that severely restrict recreational access in the GGNRA violate 16 U.S.C. Section 1a-1, and should not be allowed.