The National Park Service will continue operating the Pearson Air Museum — as it has since terminating an operating agreement with the Fort Vancouver National Trust in February 2013 — after the trust decided it wasn’t financially viable to resume museum operations.
The initial split stemmed from a difference of opinion on a number of issues, including what activities and exhibits should be allowed at the museum.
Six months of mediation came to a close this week, yielding nothing but regret as the Park Service, trust and Vancouver issued statements Friday that were so carefully worded they could have been from a celebrity couple announcing their marriage has ended but they’ll remain committed partners for the sake of the children.
“The National Park Service, the city and the Trust worked in good faith throughout this process, but agreed that, no matter the outcome, all parties, would, going forward, be supportive of each other and work together for the greater good of our community and the American people,” read the news release from the Park Service.
“All three organizations worked cooperatively through the mediation process for a number of months toward the goal of having the Trust resume management responsibilities for the museum,” read Vancouver’s release. “The city remains committed to ensuring that aviation artifacts and collection items are appropriately managed and preserved for the community’s benefit.”
And from the trust: “We are profoundly disappointed that we have failed to reach agreement with the National Park Service.” The only explanation was vague: “Despite our Board of Trustees’ strong desire to return to the museum, certain provisions that affect the financial viability of the museum remain unresolved, as did some remaining operational considerations. Because of a confidentiality agreement that precludes disclosure of contract discussions, we cannot discuss the details of those provisions.”
Jan Bader, the city’s program and policy development manager, said that from the city’s perspective, there had been “substantial agreement on the operational and policy issues.”
The free museum will remain open, according to the Park Service’s news release, and all scheduled events will go on.
It’s not clear whether the antique aircraft that had been on display will return to the museum. Bader said those details need to be reworked now that the Trust has said it can’t operate the museum. The Park Service allows items with direct ties to Pearson Field and the 1937 Chkalov landing — the world’s first transpolar flight — but didn’t want general aviation items the Trust had on display.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, wrote a bill to transfer the museum and surrounding seven acres from the Park Service to the city of Vancouver but pressed pause to allow the mediation. She issued her own statement of regret Friday.
“I am very disappointed to learn that the three parties were not able to come to a cooperative resolution,” she said. “I’m most disappointed on behalf of the thousands of residents who have contacted me in hopes of restoring the Pearson Air Museum to the wonderful asset it was before this conflict all began nearly two years ago.
“My preference all along has been for a cooperative solution that fully restores the museum, but I have not withdrawn my bill to transfer the land to the City of Vancouver, and I still believe the Fort Vancouver National Trust would be the best steward of this public asset. If the Trust and the city tell me they want me to move my bill forward, then I will resume my legislative efforts,” she said.
How tensions built
The Park Service terminated the operating agreement in February 2013, but tensions had been building for months over a difference of opinion about what events are suitable for the site. In June 2012, Herrera Beutler wrote a letter to Superintendent Tracy Fortmann, accusing park officials of restricting public access.
The letter was prompted by park officials’ decisions to deny permits for two events at Pearson Air Museum: a youth soccer festival and a county all-church picnic. Those denials “suggest a desire to severely restrict public access to this valued community treasure,” Herrera Beutler wrote. “This is unacceptable.”
At the time, Fortmann said she disagreed with the premise of the congresswoman’s letter.
In her tenure as superintendent, Fortmann said, the annual visitor count had climbed from 345,000 a year to more than 1 million, so to say she was choking off public access was inaccurate.
In a letter issued Friday following the Park Service’s press release, Fortmann reiterated that the museum remains open and free to the public and she welcomes the public to visit the museum and the entire Fort Vancouver National Site.
“We will continue to work with the community to ensure that Pearson Air Museum and the history it speaks to is here for future generations to enjoy and learn from,” she wrote.
Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association, issued a statement Friday as well.
“While we regret that an agreement could not be reached, the National Parks Conservation Association appreciates the good faith efforts made by the National Park Service, Fort Vancouver National Trust, and the city of Vancouver,” he said. “We are pleased that the Pearson Air Museum remains open in the national park and free for the public to enjoy. We encourage Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Congress to support more robust national parks funding, to help keep Fort Vancouver and our 401 most special places open and welcoming to millions of visitors each year.”
The Park Service operates the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, which includes one of the nation’s oldest operating airfields. While the Park Service owns the land that the air museum sits on and the building, the Fort Vancouver National Trust controls or owns most of the historic airplanes and exhibits that had been used in the museum. The city of Vancouver, which worked with the Park Service to develop the reserve, also contracts with the trust to manage a portion of the city’s property, including Officers Row and the West Barracks.
Vancouver attorney Steve Horenstein, chairman of the trust’s Board of Trustees, said Friday that the trust will be looking at expanding its educational programs and continue offering aviation summer camps at the Pearson Field Education Center. Outreach activities and partnerships will continue as well, he said.