Air museum closed, emptied in ownership spat

February 20, 2013

pearson Photo courtesy of Pearson Air Museum.

When a dispute between the National Park Service and a Vancouver, Wash., aviation museum located on park property boiled over, the museum operators walked—taking 15 vintage airplanes and other displays including a 3,350-pound R-4360 radial engine with them.

Caught off guard by the maneuver, the park service is “now assessing next steps” in its clash with the Pearson Air Museum at Vancouver’s Pearson Field that seems to turn on regulations about the use of museum property for outside events.

Meanwhile, a member of Congress from Washington is drafting a law that would take the land on which the museum sits out of the National Park Service’s jurisdiction. The disagreement also grabbed the attention of both U.S. senators from the state—and now, inquiries have been lodged with National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

For the moment, however, if you want to view the T-6, the Stearman, the gigantic R-4360 radial engine, or the Rolls-Royce Griffon, you will need to gain access to a number of “secure locations” to which the items were abruptly moved.

“We opted not to leave them behind,” said Elson Strahan, president of the Fort Vancouver Historic Trust, the group that has run the museum under an agreement with the city of Vancouver.

Strahan added that the museum depends on outside events to fund 30 percent of its operating budget, making it crucial that event permitting doesn’t get too complicated and is handled expeditiously. The museum is well-regarded for innovative education programs operated in partnership with aviation-industry partners, as Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) noted in an October 2011 appearance at the museum.

But isn’t the museum under the National Park Service, not the city?

The short answer is that the Pearson Air Museum sits on a 7-acre tract of National Park Service land within the Fort Vancouver National Site. A “cooperative agreement” was forged between the National Park Service and the city of Vancouver for the city to run the museum complex in 1995. In February 2005, the city designated the Fort Vancouver Historic Trust to run the museum under a sub-agreement. The overall pact between the city and the National Park Service runs until 2025.

But it isn’t 2025 yet. Why was the museum emptied?

The National Park Service had authority to terminate the agreement without cause, and the department’s local superintendent, Tracy Fortmann, did so on Feb. 13.

No picnic

According to the Fort Vancouver Historic Trust, the National Park Service recently posed new conditions for the trust’s continued operation of the museum that would yield to park officials extensive authority to approve events and educational programs, and transfer of ownership of the exhibits to the government agency, said the trust in a stakeholder briefing on the dispute.

There was even a hint of a church-and-state controversy, with the trust asserting that the National Park Service had so saddled an all-church picnic to be held at the museum with permitting requirements as to render the event almost unmanageable—despite the picnic having taken place there previously (and despite a historical connection between some area churches and the site).

The National Park Service, in a Feb. 4 letter conveying a termination notice, cited past negotiations over the need to have an agreement in place with the “primary entity” running the museum. “However the incongruence of Trust and Service visions soon became apparent in several fundamental areas,” wrote Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. A link to the letter and other correspondence on the matter appears on a National Park Service website that also announced its direct operational responsibility for the museum.

There it also noted that “the National Park Service has extensive experience managing special events at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, permitting 90 events in 2012 that had a meaningful connection to the park's purpose and complied with applicable laws, regulation, and policy.”

Now, a bid to resolve the dispute in Washington is headed for Washington, D.C.

On Feb. 14, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) announced her introduction of a bill to transfer Pearson Air Museum and surrounding land from National Park Service control to the city of Vancouver. 

“The bill would allow the City of Vancouver to restore its partnership with the Ft. Vancouver National Trust, and once again make Pearson Air Museum fully accessible and open to the local community,” she said in a news release.

“Forcing this change through congressional action was not my first choice. I am still hopeful that the National Park Service will work out a solution with the City and the Trust, and I will continue to do whatever I can to facilitate a compromise,” she added.

‘A precision operation’

Strahan, in an AOPA interview, said museum officials feared that unless they removed the displays from the museum, the National Park Service’s order to vacate within 45 days, and turn over “keys and codes” would be tantamount to confiscation of property. Museum Director Laureano Mier said that his experienced moving crew “and a few pilots” acting as spotters on every wing, working between rain showers, moved the aircraft—some on loan from aviation-community members—and engines using a tug and special towbars capable of handling the period aircraft safely.

“It was a precision operation,” he said.

The National Park Service concedes the point.

“The Trust's decision to remove exhibits and collection items—many understood to be City of Vancouver assets—and close the museum was a surprise, and the National Park Service is now assessing next steps and working to chart a course for this future,” the agency said after the museum had been emptied.

Herrera was not amused that it has come to this, and pointed out her past efforts to “cultivate a cooperative, local solution,” despite which, she said, “the Park Service terminated the cooperative management agreement—resulting in an empty Pearson Air Museum and strong community opposition.”