John Laird: It's a shame when 'BFF' turns into 'Bitterly Fought Feud'

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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For years, most of us thought the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and Pearson Air Museum were friends, partners in promoting two things everyone loves: history and aviation.

But a long-simmering turf war has turned them into bitter enemies: the Historic Site (part of the vast National Park Service) vs. the museum leaders (the Fort Vancouver National Trust and the city of Vancouver). It's a most improbable feud, kind of like the St. Louis Cardinals fighting with folks at the Gateway Arch.

Pearson Air Museum leaders have left the building, taking their toys. The trust and the city couldn't abide by new management and operational demands of the NPS. Historic Site officials say they're surprised, as if the Pearson people evicted themselves.

The partnership that began in 1995 now means nothing. The NPS has imposed its bureaucratic silo management style, preferring that over any fostering of community alliances.

Inveterate underdog fans have no difficulty picking a favorite in this epic struggle, which is easily cast in biblical terms. In the role of David, you've got the Pearson Air Museum site, with its seven acres and 37,000 annual visitors. For the federal Goliath, you've got the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, with its 366 acres and 710,000 annual visitors, backed up by the National Park Service, with its 84 million acres, 280 million annual visitors, 21,000 employees and 59 national parks.

I'll put my money on David. He's got this buddy called Congress. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has introduced a bill that would turn over the 7 acres at Pearson to the trust and the city. The bill allows the monolithic federal agency some time to come up with its own solution. But the NPS-Pearson partnership is so frayed, the best solution -- probably the only one -- is to convey the land from the federal agency to local officials.

David also has considerable local support, starting at the grass-roots level with picketing protesters, plus supportive messages on the Kiggins Theatre marquee and the Beaches Restaurant community billboard near the air museum. This underdog also has local, state and federal politicians firing off letters demanding respect for the museum.

Goliath, by contrast, must deal with a couple of distinct image problems. First is the possible public perception of the NPS as uppity. It's no secret that Pearson people were told by NPS officials that the local leaders -- despite years of fruitful fundraising and effective museum management -- are not "partners." No, they're "vendors," worthy of no more esteem than some bauble peddler at a national park curio shop.

Does local support matter?

Second is the image of the NPS as uncaring about what this community thinks. By trashing the long partnership, NPS pooh-bahs seem more devoted to "National" than to "Service."

Such an attitude by the big boys could prove costly. The anger that the Historic Site and the NPS have curried throughout Clark County could lead to withering attendance. Before long, when we locals have friends or relatives visit, we might not be so inclined to take them to old Fort Vancouver. We might be more inclined to take them to Pearson Air Museum, if and wherever it re-opens.

This NPS problem could spread. Between Vancouver, B.C., and McMinnville, Ore., there are 18 aviation museums, including Pearson. They all feed each other with patrons who love to complete the circuit. It wouldn't do the NPS much good to anger those folks, who are looking for other venues to visit while in town.

Granted, the feds might consider themselves insulated against these problems. Those federal silos are heavily fortified, don't you know.

That's why the land transfer makes sense. It's not like they're losing 7 acres of Yellowstone National Park. They'd lose 7 acres that local leaders have been managing for years anyway. And here's the big payoff for the NPS: Don't you folks, really, want to get this pesky Pearson problem into your rearview mirror?