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Pearson Airfield Museum Packing Up Planes

Staff and volunteers from Vancouver’s Pearson Air Museum spent Tuesday boxing up exhibits and hauling small planes with tractors. The museum is closed for the immediate future.

April Baer reports on the administrative standoff that has left the non-profit Fort Vancouver National Trust at odds with the National Park Service.

Moving Pearson Air Museum exhibits and aircraft.

Moving Pearson Air Museum exhibits and aircraft.

Sloan Chambers/OPB

Fort Vancouver is an unusual collection of historic archeological sites, private real-estate, and publicly-funded facilities, all sited on a lushly-landscaped patchwork of public and private land. The Fort’s National Park Superintendent, Tracy Fortmann points to a rainbow-colored map showing the diverse stakeholders. 

“We are all right next to each other. You could throw a rock and hit the other land.”

In 2005, officials in Vancouver, Washington completed  multi-party negotiations that formed the Fort Vancouver National Trust, a non-profit to manage prime real estate and important historic areas around the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

But the Trust and the Park administration have been in dispute since last summer  when Fortmann’s staff denied permits to several events that had been held in years past on the Pearson Air Museum’s grounds.

Park administrator Fortmann says the trust was scheduling events that didn’t conform to Park Service policies. Documents obtained by OPB refer to problems with noise and crowds. Fortmann says her staff was willing to work with organizers.

Fort Vancouver Park Rangers Tracy Fortmann (Superintendent) and Greg Shine (Chief Ranger & Historian).

Fort Vancouver Park Rangers Tracy Fortmann (Superintendent) and Greg Shine (Chief Ranger & Historian).

Sloan Chambers/OPB

“It’s federal property, part of the national park. We were looking for them to agree that they could adhere to that law and those regulations.”

Elson Strahan is the executive director of the Fort Vancouver National Trust. He says it wasn’t right for the Park Service to keep such tight control of events.

“We abide by the Park Service regulations. There is an inconsistency and clear subjectivity in regard to what the Park Service will allow or not allow.”

Sloan Chambers/OPB

The Air Museum is on Park Service land. But  - and here it gets complicated - for years the Park Service paid the city of Vancouver, that  in turn contracted the Fort Vancouver Trust to manage the museum. For seven years, the agreement worked. The trust raised several million dollars in public and philanthropic money that poured into improvements for the museum. But Fortmann said the events dispute revealed faults in the system. 

“The Park Service felt strongly that the National Park Service have a relationship, that the agreement be between two parties, and the agreement be directly between two parties.”

Pearson Air Museum Trust President Elson Strahan in bookstore.

Pearson Air Museum Trust President Elson Strahan in bookstore.

Sloan Chambers/OPB

But instead of simplifying the agreement, talks between the trust and the Park Service dragged out for months. Fortmann set a January 11th deadline for the trust to indicate whether it would work within park parameters. A trust board member responded saying that to stay successful and financially sustainable, the Trust would need a different set of key provisions. Again, Elson Strahan, of the trust.

“It really forces us out of a position where we cant un a sustainable operation.”

Fortmann issued a letter Monday ending the cooperative agreement between the three parties. The result? Today’s
relocation of museum airplanes, books and souvenirs.

Fortmann asked the trust to turn over keys and alarm codes by Wednesday, and transition out of the museum within 45 days.  Fortmann said the Park Service will staff the museum going forward, and would not retain three trust employees.

A spokeswoman for the city of Vancouver, Barbara Ayers, says the city has no quarrel with either party, and will continue to work with both.

“At heart of the change here is the Trust and the Fort don’t necessarily see eye to eye in the way they manage and see how things should work might be different. There might not be the best cultural fit between the two of them.”

Sloan Chambers/OPB

Ayers says the city is allowing the Trust to move Pearson exhibits into an city-owned hangar across the airfield from the Museum. Fortmann says the Park Service is committed to maintaining Pearson as a vibrant air museum.

So will Vancouver be left with two museums on either end of Pearson Field? Elson Strahan says he doesn’t think so.

“When we vacate, there will be nothing in the museum.”

Strahan  says the Trust will try to retain the air museum’s three employees, and its education programs for students.

The Trust has no plans to challenge the Park Service termination.

The Trust and the parks administration are still partners in many other spots around Fort Vancouver Reserve, including the Fort Vancouver book store. It remains to be seen how they will work together in the future.

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