Vancouver says no to air museum ownership

Decision to not support for Herrera Beutler's measure effectively ends effort to take it from Park Service

By Lauren Dake and Sue Vorenberg

Published:

 

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, will not pursue federal legislation to transfer the Pearson Air Museum from the U.S. Park Service to the city of Vancouver.

On Tuesday morning, the Congresswoman learned the Vancouver City Council no longer supported the measure.

Casey Bowman, Herrera Beutler's spokeswoman, said she is "extremely disappointed with the current situation."

"Because the success of this bill hinges largely on the city's willingness to assume ownership of the property, pursuing HR 716 without the City's support makes no sense at this time," Bowman wrote in an email.

The Fort Vancouver National Trust, which previously operated the museum, can't go forward with plans to return to the site if the city decides it doesn't want to own the property, said Steve Horenstein, chairman of the trust's board.

"The property can't be transferred to a private nonprofit like the trust," Horenstein said. "It can only be transferred to the city or another government agency. So there's nothing else the trust can do."

The city's decision means the National Park Service will continue to operate the Pearson Air Museum, which it has done since parting ways with the Fort Vancouver National Trust in February 2013 after the two were unable to agree on a range of issues, including what activities and exhibits should be allowed at the museum.

Herrera Beutler proposed the legislation, which would have transferred the museum and surrounding 7 acres from the Park Service to the city, with the hopes it would restore the museum to the "wonderful asset it was before this conflict all began nearly two years ago."

Proposal questioned

At a meeting Monday evening, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes urged councilors to rescind their support for the federal measure.

Holmes cited numerous concerns with the idea of the city assuming responsibility for the museum, including the financial burden. The costs and risk, he said, would compete for limited city resources. He also noted that other members of the federal delegation, namely Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats from the state, have expressed reservations about the idea.

And there is also the issue of precedent, the city manager told councilors.

"There is the consideration of this approach being a precedent to use legislation to divide National Park Service assets perhaps elsewhere in the country as a way to address a dispute or an operational issue between an operator and the park service," Holmes said.

In a memo, he wrote, "Pursuit of this legislation prolongs uncertainty surrounding facility operations and stewardship that interferes with the development of robust exhibit and programming."

Several councilors and the mayor noted it wasn't an easy decision. They said the trust had done a nice job managing the property.

"I wish that, frankly, our congresswoman had come up with something else in the way of a solution," Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said at the Monday evening meeting. He said federal legislation allowing a piece of a national park to be transferred to a local municipality was going to go "virtually nowhere" in Congress.

Fate of collection

Items that once were in the museum, including several historic airplanes, belong to or are on loan to the trust, and the trust will continue to use them for its aviation education programs, said Elson Strahan, the trust's president and CEO.

"The collections, other than what was on loan, belong to the trust, and we will continue to utilize those," Strahan said.

The trust would like to display all the planes again at some point, but for now space is limited to hangars at Pearson Field.

The board is discussing options for new facilities and working on strategic planning right now, Horenstein said.

"It's just too soon to say more than that," he said.

The National Park Service asked for about 10 items from the trust that specifically belonged to Lt. Alexander Pearson, the early Army test pilot that the field is named after.

"They're small items, like letters and things," Horenstein said. "We will return those to the park service. They're not big items like airplanes."

Horenstein said he was extremely grateful for Herrera Beutler's efforts to intervene in the dispute over management of the site.

"The trust is profoundly disappointed at how this has ended, but we can't thank Rep. Herrera Beutler enough for her efforts," Horenstein said.

Bowman, with Herrera Beutler's office, said "Jaime remains ready and willing to help."