THE INTERIOR DEPARTMENT under Secretary James Watt has not simply been interested in disposing of vast areas of public lands out West. Its Park Service has spent lots of time and energy on getting rid of a little nine-hole public golf course in Washington. Right here in Potomac River City we've got trouble.
For many years the itchy planners of Interior's National Capital Park Service have viewed with envy and displeasure F Course at East Potomac Park, which has been the most popular in the city. It was easy for them to view it because some years earlier they chose to occupy a good chunk of the otherwise unspoiled Potomac park recreation area by placing their headquarters complex directly next to this course. Here, incidentally, the Park Service headquarters occupies more than twice as much space as it allots for public tennis at East Potomac.
The existence of the golf course with its extensive green space and constant recreational activity has been an obstacle to the onward push of the paving machines -- and to the possible eastward expansion of the Park Service headquarters itself.
In 1964, when a congressional committee chairman wanted an aquarium built, the Park Service eagerly came up with a plan to locate it on this same golf course. That plan was knocked down by then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He decided that the widely used intermediate F Course should remain intact, along with the short "beginner's course," the larger and more difficult 18-hole course, the tennis courts, the baseball fields and the miles of picnic area along the East Potomac Park shore lines.
But in Secretary of the Interior James Watt, the anti-golf course people in the Park Service found their man and their method.
They put forth in August 1982 what purported to be a tentative plan, called in bureaucratese a "Draft Development Concept/Environmental Assessment." This plan would eliminate F Course and much of the green space it occupied. Part of this could then be paved over.
Opposition to the "draft plan" was overwhelming. Hundreds of people petitioned to save the course; and at hearings on the plan, many spoke against the Park Service proposal, but not a single voice was raised in favor of it. But now the Park Service could say that it had held public hearings. Those who later requested transcripts of the hearings were told that these were informal meetings and no formal record of them had been kept. This was in December 1982.
In January 1983, 2,600 rounds of golf were played on the East Potomac course, an indication of their constant use even during the least inviting months. As usual, a good share of these rounds was played on the popular F Course.
Early in the morning of Jan. 21, 1983, the Interior Department's Park Service in a surprise attack invaded the golf course. It dispatched demolition teams across Buckeye Drive to tear down the course fence -- a mission that they accomplished promptly. Behind the Interior Department foot troops came the mechanized units -- the bulldozers, front-end loaders and trucks that now rolled over the demolished fence. They went quickly to work tearing up the golfing greens and leveling the grassy rises and bunkers.
While the roar of the bulldozers was being heard, a man came into the just-opened clubhouse, and delivered a document serving notice that F Course was herewith abolished. By nightfall all nine greens had been torn up and most of the course was effectively leveled.
This sudden strike by the Interior Department's National Capital Park Service was carried out with the secret planning and the efficiency of a totalitarian takeover of Czechoslovakia. Since the golfers were completely surprised, and since they never considered assaulting anything but golf balls, the bulldozing machines were enough -- no heavy tanks were nceessary.
As part of its conquer-and-divide strategy, the Park Service "draft plan" had offered goodies for non-golfers in the form of more baseball fields and still more picnic areas. In Phase 2 of its occupation of F Course, the Park Service tacticians followed the bulldozer blitz by moving in picnic tables, which were placed on what had been the golf-course greens and fairways.These tables, sitting in the middle of nowhere, remained empty. But they supposedly fulfilled a promise of more space for picnics, while at the same time having the effect of salting the earth for the vanquished enemy -- golfers.
As a final symbolic stroke of conquest, the Interior Department's Park Service felled one of the tallest trees on the course that had stood shading a tee and a green. The Interior Department's bulldozers and chain saws that we had previously only read about could now be heard and and seen in the nation's capital. The Park Service had adopted Watt's policy for public lands and resources: Get rid of them first; let people argue afterward.
And what has happened since that January day when the golf course was terminated with prejudice? Through all the months when golfers could have played on it, it has stood idle. The picnickers continue to use what tables remain along the waterfront. Some people moved a few picnic tables to the shade of the remaining trees, but even these are seldom used. The destruction of the course that officials later said could not have been delayed has resulted in a wasteland. Why could it not have been delayed?
There are now only these public golf courses in all of Washington: the long 18-hole course and the short nine-hole beginner's course at East Potomac Park, an 18-hole course at Rock Creek Park and a nine-hole course at Langston. To friends of Secretary Watt who play at Burning Tree or other exclusive courses, that may be quite enough for the common people. It's not. Washington's public courses have been open to everyone regardless of sex or race. They have been convenient and affordable ($3 for nine holes, $3.50 on weekends), and they have paid their way. In the entire National Capital Park Service system, East Potomac has always been the prime area for golfers. The intermediate F Course in particular, has attracted everyone from young potential Lee Elders to elderly golfers. Senior citizens found it just the right length for them.
West Potomac Park, which is separated only by a bridge from East Potomac Park, already offers baseball fields, volleyball courts and a sizeable area for football, rugby and cricket matches. It also has a separately maintained polo field.
The Park Service "draft plan" for eliminating the golf course did not mention West Potomac Park or any of the other parks in its domain. But it turns out that West Potomac Park was not to be spared either. Early this month there was publicly unveiled in all its naked stupidity a plan that would also chop up most of the recreation area there.
This plan, which the Park Service said would not have "an adverse impact" on the park, calls for the placement of a proposed Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial on nearly 9 acres of West Potomac Park. It would require the "relocation" or "reorientation" of most of the soccer fields, cricket pitches, rugby fields and the 11 softball fields. "Reorientation" of these softball fields raises the question, "Who's on first?" And, "How many?"
An added feature, which would route cars and visitors in a way designed to create the maximum crowding, congestion and confusion, strongly suggests that the same kindergarten-scissors planners may have been involved here as with East Potomac Park. The two plans, made public a year apart, may be part of a master strategy pitting various sports buffs against each other. Or each plan might have been conceived independently by a separate group of airheads. In any case, both involve the unnecessary though deliberate destruction of existing recreation areas.
In implementing their plan for East Potomac Park, the Park Service official voiced confidence that golfers would "adjust" to the amputation of F Course. But conquerors forget that the conquered don't always adjust.
Two people in particular not only failed to adjust but continued to focus attention on the Park Service depredation. One is Ethel Godin, a retired government worker, who played F Course regularly. This gentle but persistent lady has for months written leters pointing out the dawn-to-dusk year-round maximum use of the golf course -- and taking aim at the false statements put out by the Park Service. She gathered more than 1200 names on a petition that Secretary Watt did not answer; and she attended the sessions that were supposed to be hearings.
The Park Service's bulldozers also failed to intimidate Washington architect Donald Velsey. He carefully studied the Park Service plans and took a close look at Potomac Park to make his own evaluations.He has proposed a sensible alternative to the destruction of F Course (see accompanying story.)
My own feeling is that the Park Service has no business grabbing for itself space for buildings, private parking, garages and junkyards on land that it is supposed to be protecting for public recreation. The headquarters could be relocated some place where its masterminds will not be disturbed by the sight of men and women using a public golf course throughout the year.
The East Potomac F Course issue remains alive, even though the course itself has appeared moribund since January. And now some members of Congress have taken notice. After all, congressmen who can halt some of Watt's plans to dispose of U.S. coal resources and vast wilderness areas can also do something about one of the most widely used recreational facilities in the nation's capital.
A Park Service official has said he sees no chance of now restoring F Course. But that's what we heard after Union Station was destroyed. There the clever planners gave us a hole in the ground that they assured us would be filled with oodles of happy folks, making it more useful to more people that a stupid old train station. The people who rode trains would adjust to the change, they promised. At great cost they wrecked Union Station -- and at great cost that fine terminus is now being restored.
Watt's Park Service strategists and Buckeye Drive commandos who planned and executed the Jan. 21 blitz may look with satisfaction over the desolation and feel that for the players of F Course the game is over.
But it isn't entirely -- not yet. The people of Washington who care about sports -- and about sportsmanship -- can tell them something they might not understand:
The fat lady ain't sung yet.
Copyright (c) 1983, Herbert Block