Gay park superintendent returns to Bay Area

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday February 22, 2017
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Looking over a large-scale model of the Presidio near the entrance to the new visitor center for the former army base turned national park, Craig Kenkel pointed to the Batteries-to-Bluffs trail as one of his favorite places in the park.

"It is a fairly recent trail, and we have created new lookouts as well," said Kenkel, 57, a gay man who in December became the interim superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "If you look at the map, everything west of Lincoln Boulevard, the park service manages."

The trail offers bird's-eye views of the Pacific Ocean and leads down to both Baker Beach and Marshall's Beach, which for decades has been a popular nude sunbathing spot for gay men. When a reporter pointed out that fact, Kenkel merely smiled.

Asked about the vote last fall to legalize recreational adult use of marijuana in California, Kenkel said it hasn't caused much concern among local national park staff. But he emphasized that, despite the state action, possessing marijuana on federal lands such as the GGNRA is still against the law.

"If you are caught using marijuana on federal property, most likely you will be cited," he warned.

Hale Nathan Sargent, a gay man who is the spokesman for the GGNRA, suggested park users download the NPS GGNRA App �" new versions of the iOS and Android app were released in October �" so they know when the trails they are on cross between federal and state or local parklands.

Park staff is more concerned about people bringing drones into the federal parks, said Kenkel, as their usage is not allowed in the GGNRA, a sprawling parkland that includes numerous properties in San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin counties and is one of the most visited urban parks in the national park system.

"The park is a no drone zone," he said.


Craig Kenkel, the interim superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, stands next to the new interactive information table at the new Presidio visitor center. Photo: Rick Gerharter 


New visitor center is state-of-the-art

The majority of the Presidio is overseen by the Presidio Trust, which has been working closely with both the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy on upgraded offerings for visitors since the decommissioning of the military installation in 1994. The trio of agencies will officially unveil on Thursday (February 23) the $5 million William Penn Mott Jr.
Presidio Visitor Center at 210 Lincoln Boulevard, located in a former guardhouse in the park's Main Post area.

"We are delighted to launch this new gateway to the Presidio, which serves to welcome the broader public to the park," stated Presidio Trust Chief Executive Officer Jean S. Fraser. "Now everyone from the Bay Area and beyond can easily discover the Presidio's free resources �" history, spectacular vistas, wild open spaces, trails, and opportunities for play."

With the state-of-the-art facility having soft opened earlier this month, Kenkel recently met there with the Bay Area Reporter to offer a sneak peak and to discuss his working again in the Bay Area, where he has spent the bulk of his career with the Park Service.

Lines embedded in the floor of the visitor center's rear room outline where the jails used to be in the guardhouse. An interactive multi-media table activated by touch brings up various historical events, people, and places associated with the park.

(Included is a photo of Kenkel, though he is not identified, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who advocated for the transformation of the Presidio into parkland and is scheduled to speak at the 10:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.)

The building represents both the past and the future for the Presidio, noted Kenkel, who encouraged people to begin their day at the center to find out about special events taking place in the park and other activities offered.

"First and foremost the visitor center celebrates the past by rehabbing this building. And it is also a way for us to connect with the next generation of park visitors," said Kenkel. "People can plan their day in both the Presidio and the GGNRA. This is one of the park system's best designed and technologically advanced visitor centers today."

An enclosed observation area in the rear of the center provides views onto the under-construction Presidio Tunnel Tops project, which will result in 14 acres of new parkland built over the freeway entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. It is expected to open in 2019 in time to mark the Presidio's 25th anniversary as a national park.

"The entire area from here to the bay is going to be really improved. It will be a great resource for the city and for visitors," said Kenkel. "We are expanding this area of the Presidio in a way I think will be very exciting."


Long history with the parks

Kenkel began working for the national parks in 1983 while an architectural student at Iowa State University and was assigned in 1988 to the Park Service's Western Regional Office in San Francisco.

Sent in 1992 to the Park Service's Midwest Regional Office, Kenkel in 2005 transferred to the GGNRA as chief of its cultural resources division and was then named in 2009 as its deputy superintendent. A year later he was promoted to superintendent of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, where he remained until 2014, when he became the superintendent of Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeast Ohio along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron.

Referring to the 33,000-acre park, founded in 1974, as the "Golden Gate of the Midwest," Kenkel noted that it is one of the oldest recreation areas operated by the park system. It is gearing up to mark the 50th anniversary, in 2019, of the Cuyahoga River's polluted waters catching fire and igniting the modern environmental movement. By then the park hopes to have completely rehabilitated the waterway.

"It is pastoral, very beautiful countryside," Kenkel said of Cuyahoga's location. "It was formerly agricultural land, and 10 years ago, the park brought organic farms back. It was the catalyst for the farm-to-table movement in northeast Ohio."

His assignment there, added Kenkel, has been "very delightful," with one highlight his arriving in time to work with the host committee for the 2014 Gay Games on providing sites for competitions and recreational opportunities for the athletes, their families, and friends.

Last August Christine S. Lehnertz, a lesbian, was reassigned from her job as the GGNRA superintendent to oversee the Grand Canyon due to the early retirement of the former jobholder following reports of rampant sexual harassment among its staff. When Kenkel saw an internal advertisement for someone to oversee the GGNRA for roughly the first 100 days of 2017 until Lehnertz's successor was named, he jumped at the chance to come back and see old friends and be closer to his partner, who did not move with him to Ohio. (He asked that his partner's name not be published.)

"I get to escape the Ohio winter," he noted.

He may not be returning to the Midwest if he is hired for the GGNRA superintendent position. With his partner opting to remain in San Francisco, Kenkel is among those who applied for the job on a permanent basis, and an announcement could be made any day.

He would be one of two out permanent superintendents of a local park. Since 2009 Naomi Torres, a lesbian, has been the superintendent of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

Whoever is hired for the job faces a looming fight over restricting off-leash dog access to numerous GGNRA sites. A proposal released in January was put on hold due to dog advocate groups releasing thousands of internal emails sent by park staff that raised questions about the planning process for the new dog access rules. Citing the ongoing investigation into the emails, and pending litigation over the plan, Kenkel declined to comment about the issue.

No matter if he remains in the Bay Area or returns to Cuyahoga, Kenkel is a rising star in the Park Service's senior ranks. He was given a work assignment for the last half of 2016 at the Department of the Interior, gaining insight into the internal workings of the federal agency, and by the beginning of March expects to complete a special training for Park Service executive position candidates.

His being selected for the GGNRA position "is not so important," said Kenkel, adding that his "primary goal" is to identify what are the top priorities the next superintendent will need to address and to ensure the transition goes smoothly. "If I am selected or not, I am glad I was able to come here and help."

A community day grand-opening celebration, with special events and tours, will be held at the Presidio visitor center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, February 25.

For a full schedule, visit The Presidio webpage