The Golden Gate National Parks are one of our country’s boldest conservation experiments. Congress squeezed the nation’s largest urban park between some of the most expensive real estate in the country, a refuge for wildlife and city dwellers alike.
The experiment has largely worked. The GGNP has become synonymous with the high quality of life Bay Area residents hold dear, intertwined with our identity as much as the Golden Gate Bridge and the 49ers. It props-up property values, provides recreational opportunities for thousands of visitors, and creates an oasis for a variety of wildlife species.
The boldness of Congress’ urban national park experiment was evident from the inception of the GGNP. Congress noted that, although regional and local parks such as Golden Gate Park and the Berkeley Hills provide much needed recreation space for the Bay Area, there was still a need to bring the values preserved in the National Park System closer to people. Congress found that “many families in this urban impacted area do not enjoy the affluence which would enable them to take advantage of the outdoor recreation areas located even as close as the Point Reyes National Seashore,” and that while the GGNP “will not add significantly to the open lands in the city,  it will ensure its continuity as open space for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations of city-dwellers.”
The cornerstone of Congress’ national urban park experiment was to ensure that the GGNP was not managed as if it were another city playground or ball field. Instead, Congress commanded that the GGNP be preserved “as far as possible, in its natural setting, and protect it from development and uses which would destroy the scenic beauty and natural character of the area.” As such, Congress further commanded that recreational and educational uses “shall” only occur if they are “consistent with sound principles of land use planning and management.”
The essential purpose of Congress’ urban national park experiment at the GGNP is to bring wildness closer to people. The GGNP gives people who otherwise cannot or will not drive to Death Valley or Yosemite an opportunity to be exposed to things more than human. This of course applies to those without the fiscal resources to travel to our distant National Parks, but it also provides opportunities for the over-worked and time-stressed individuals who, because of life’s daily grind, cannot scrape the time together to visit far-away places. For these individuals and the rest of us living in civilization, urban national parks such as the GGNP provide an oasis of hope for a sustainable society. As Congress recognized, National Parks, as opposed to city, county, regional, or even state parks, are uniquely positioned to make this vision become reality because of their greater resources, their relative insulation from political whims, and their less-parochial outlook.
National Parks such as the GGNP cannot accomplish this purpose while simultaneously accommodating all forms of recreation enjoyed by the public without restriction. The National Park Service has thus recognized that the role of the National Park System is to “provide opportunities for forms of enjoyment that are uniquely suited and appropriate for the superlative natural and cultural resources found in the parks” and that the park service will “defer to local, state, and other . . . organizations to meet the broader spectrum of recreational needs and demands.”