Parks Service to operate Pearson Air Museum

Despite attempts at mediation, the Pearson Air Museum near Portland, Ore., will remain under the control of the National Park Service.

In February 2013 the NPS, citing concerns about operations at the museum,  which is on NPS property, ordered the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which operated the museum, to turn over the keys to the building.

The NPS, the trust, and City of Vancouver have been in mediation since then. Negotiations were suspended the second week of April.

Mediation came to an end when officials for the trust realized that it was financially impossible for it to operate the museum.

Steve Horenstein, board chair of the Fort Vancouver National Trust, explained,  “The more than year-long lapse in museum operations has significantly damaged the sustainable operations plan that had been successfully implemented by the trust over an eight-year period. Returning to the museum is not as simple as just resuming operations. Having been out of the facilities for more than a year means that we essentially would have to start from the beginning, developing new funding and establishing the revenue streams necessary to again become sustainable.”

The Park Service operates the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, which sits on six acres of land some three miles from Portland. The land includes Pearson Field Airport (KVUO), one of the nation’s oldest operating airfields. The museum is on the airport.

While the NPS owns the land and the museum building, the Fort Vancouver National Trust controlled or owned most of the historic airplanes and exhibits used in the museum. The city of Vancouver, which worked with the Park Service to develop the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, also contracts with the Fort Vancouver National Trust to manage a portion of the city’s property, including Officers Row and the West Barracks.

When the trust was operating the museum, the facility was often used as a public space for events for non-profit organizations, including fundraising concerts and picnics. These events, plus donations, helped keep the museum doors open.

However, according to NPS officials, the large public events are contrary to the NPS policy, which dictate that national parks are supposed to preserve tranquility.

Trust and museum officials argued that the proximity of Pearson Field to a railroad line, freeway and under the approach path of Portland International Airport (KPDX) make it impossible to achieve a tranquil setting.

Citing the tranquility clause, the NPS either delayed or denied event permits for events, which created friction between the two entities.

Last February, NPS officials announced their intentions to take the keys and security codes for the museum. Museum volunteers noted that they had just a few days to pack up the trust’s property, including aircraft, and relocate it. Many of the aircraft were on loan to the museum. Others are fabric covered so they could not be left outside.

Pearson-Air-Museim-Historic-Hanger-with-Large-hanger-viewElson Strahan, president and CEO of the Fort Vancouver National Trust, said many of the artifacts were moved to hangars on the airport while mediation with the NPS began.

“Aircraft owners moved their airworthy airplanes to other airports so that their hangars could be used by the museum,” he said. “While mediation continued with the National Park Service, we consolidated the artifacts into one hangar that became the Pearson Field Education Center.”

Not all of the trust’s aircraft made the move, said Strahan, explaining that two full-sized airplanes — including one still hanging from the ceiling — are still in the museum.

“We were waiting to see what happened with mediation before undertaking that moving project,”  he said.

During the mediation, the Pearson Field Education Center, which is an offshoot of the museum, continued with its aviation outreach programs, holding events such as Open Cockpit Day, aviation summer camps, and operating a simulator lab.

“Now that mediation has come to an end, we will go ahead and make more definite arrangements to enhance the facilities on the field and expand programs there,” said Strahan.

He noted that the Pearson Field Education Center has grown into an award-winning educational dynamo in the community. The programs run the gamut from exploring the history of Pearson Field and its role in the development of aviation to introducing young people to aviation and encouraging them to pursue careers in the field.

Meanwhile, the museum stays open, said NPS spokesperson Tracy Fortmann.

“The National Park Service will continue to operate the museum, which is free to visit, as we have done for over a year,” she said.

The museum will continue to offer programs, such as the live-action radio drama “Captain Midnight Flies Again,” as well as “host permitted special events for the community, develop new exhibits, and serve many new visitors kept away by the significant entrance fee in the past,” she said.

Now open to the public with no admission charge, the museum reached 15,006 visitors as of Feb. 11, 2014, she reported.

She acknowledged that much of the museum’s contents were removed prior to the National Park Service taking over the museum’s operations at the end of February 2013.

“The National Park Service reached out to the City of Vancouver and the Trust and invited both parties to enter into formal mediation with regard to the future operation of Pearson Air Museum,” she said. “With respect to the mediation process, during this time, the National Park Service installed only short-term exhibits, in order to reopen the museum and continue to welcome visitors but not preclude the original contents returning to the building in the future.”

The original fixed interpretive panels remain in the museum, filling the entire perimeter of the main hangar building, sharing the history of Pearson Field from 1905 to the present, she noted.

“Temporary, three-dimensional exhibits developed this past year include Army Boots & Army Wing, which tells the story of Vancouver Barracks and the birth of Pearson Field as an army airfield, Straight-Grained Soldiers, focusing on the history of the site’s Spruce Mill, which produced aviation-grade lumber for the World War I war effort, and exhibits on DH-4 Liberty Planes, the Douglas World Cruisers’ visit to Vancouver Barracks, the Army Air Corps, and the Curtiss JN-4 aircraft,” she said, noting the exhibits “help to interpret the history of the airfield and its importance to Northwest history.”

“The National Park Service will begin to look for opportunities with the community, partners, and others in which we can bring vibrancy to the Air Museum in creative, innovative and lasting ways,” she concluded.

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  1. says

    Even the tools at the NPS seem to forget who the customers are. The museum was in concert with the surroundings, provides superlative opportunities for public enjoyment, did an excellent job in interpreting a theme appropriate to the local and filled a need.

    It appears that the Park Service interpreted the rules to conform with their interpretation of their management policies and set aside the concerns of the local experts. There doing a helluva job averaging about 40 visitor a day. I’ve yet to see a bureaucrat manage a business well.

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