Golden Gate National Recreation Area, home to such California icons as Alcatraz, Muir Woods and the Presidio, enjoys a reputation for natural beauty in a city that prides itself on its charm.
But the 75,000-acre park, which sprawls across three Bay Area counties, is being hailed by the Bush administration for another reason: as a model of private money used for public good.
A local nonprofit group has raised more than $70 million to repair, renovate and otherwise aid the park, which receives 20 million visitors a year. Officials say it is the most successful private fund-raising program affiliated with the National Park Service.
The nonprofit Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, formed in 1981, has created visitor centers at Marin Headlands and Muir Woods, fixed a collapsed bridge to the Point Bonita Lighthouse and, in a $34-million project, restored historic Crissy Field near the Presidio. The Crissy Field project included a new community center that teaches children about the environment.
Although national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite also have foundations that help support them, no other group in the country has raised money for a single park like the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, officials said.
The Department of the Interior, of which the National Park Service is a part, is hoping to duplicate Golden Gate's program nationwide with what it calls "corporate stewardship" of the cash-strapped parks system.
Although the push to attract corporate donors is viewed by some as a novel solution to chronic under-funding, others see a crass sellout of America's most precious places.
"I can see it now: 'The Grand Canyon ... brought to you by General Electric,' " said one park service employee who asked not to be named.
Officials say that the sanctity of the parks will be respected, and that although the identities of corporate benefactors won't be concealed, they won't be conspicuous either.
"We feel very comfortable that we are not going to commercialize our parks," said National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, attending a conference last week in Los Angeles to explore the potential of private-sector "partners" for the parks and other public land management agencies.
The new era in parks funding is being ushered in by two dapper Bay Area residents: Brian O'Neill, superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area; and Greg Moore, executive director of the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy.
Their partnership was at first frowned upon by the National Park Service, one of the most tradition-bound of the federal land management agencies. The alliance employs focus groups and polling to determine potential projects and gauge community interest in park issues.
But the conservancy's work has made believers out of many, especially officials at the Interior Department.
"What they are doing at Golden Gate ... preceded our efforts, but it's the way we want to go; they are the most evolved," said Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary of the Interior. "You'd be surprised how willing corporate America is to [help] without putting the golden arches up on something."
Moore, a former National Park Service employee, acknowledged that "at one point we were considered an out-of-control maverick."
Now, he said, "We're considered a role model. It took a number of years to move from one to another."
The National Park Service is in the grip of a fiscal squeeze and a $4-billion to $6-billion maintenance backlog, according to the General Accounting Office.
Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonprofit advocacy group that supports the park system, said private funding is needed to pick up where federal funding stops.
He said recognition for private gifts should be minimal; he does not want to see buildings named after donors, for example.
"The public doesn't want to see the national parks treated like theme parks," Tipton said. "You've really got to draw some lines."
What's been done in San Francisco may not be easily replicated elsewhere.
The Golden Gate Parks Conservancy trolls for donors in a region flush with discretionary incomes and a long history of philanthropy. Its board of directors includes the chief executive of Gap, members of the Levi Strauss empire and ad man Rich Silverstein, whose agency created the "Got Milk?" campaign.
With half a dozen full-time fund-raisers, the conservancy seeks corporate grants, individual gifts, in-kind donations and money from an array of foundations.
And the park has made friends with celebrities. Robert Redford presided over a recent fund-raising gala, and the conservancy auctioned a bike ride in the park with Robin Williams.
Another fund-raiser was a children's slumber party at Alcatraz that netted $250,000.
The group's first order of business after it was created was to give the 25 disparate parks in the recreation area a single identity. The conservancy dropped the official National Recreational Area designation in favor of a new name that has sprouted on signs and banners: Golden Gate National Parks.
"No one knows what a recreational area is; is it a volleyball court?" Silverstein said. "We struggled with it."
The park service cooperated by looking the other way.
The conservancy hired a graphic artist to create a distinctive look for park signs and banners. Golden Gate's new look was not just bold, but also a little outside the rules: The park service requires uniformity in signs and pamphlets across the national system.
In June, the conservancy launched an Alcatraz preservation project called Save the Rock, in which small pieces of construction rubble from the famed prison were auctioned off.
T-shirts and other items with the park's logo are bestsellers in park shops, local airports and three Golden Gate stores in tourist areas around the city. Posters featuring WPA-era-style graphic images of the parks are so sought after that they are routinely stolen from bus shelters.
The group says it will not allow donor recognition to overwhelm the park.
At Crissy Field, contributors are acknowledged with discreet signs. One family that donated $18 million is honored with a desktop-sized granite plaque.
"They are the best; they are the model," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which raises private funds to buy and maintain historic structures.
"The parks need private funds, there's no question about that," he said. "We should have a Golden Gate Conservancy at every major park in the country."
Legislation that would have made it easier for businesses to become involved with the parks was proposed during the Clinton administration, but failed.
Roger Kennedy, who directed the National Park Service from 1993 to 1997, said he was called before Congress back then to assign a value to park structures and landmarks for corporate bidders.
He disapproved of such ideas then and disapproves of corporate involvement now.
"They wanted to rent out the parks," Kennedy said. "That's what you do with parking lots; that's not what you do with Independence Hall."
Parks have long accepted corporate largess. Interior Secretary Gale Norton noted in an interview in Los Angeles last week that Ford Motor Co. donates low-emission vehicles to various parks and said Sylvania just completed a project to light the Jefferson Memorial.
Scarlett of the Interior Department said small signs in parks to recognize benefactors do not imply endorsement of corporate products.
"There are limitations on somehow turning a park into a place ... emblazoned with XYZ logos," she said. "You face careful decisions to make sure you stay on the side of maintaining that national park ambience."