Back in April, I ruminated on fears that there was an ongoing conspiracy in Washington between the Bush administration, Republicans in Congress, and the commercial sector to slowly, but steadily, turn over portions of our national park system to private interests.
Under the guise of budgetary malaise, brought on by underfunding and indifference, the National Park Service would begin to look more and more to volunteers, advocacy groups, and even the private sector to help make ends meet. There would be those bureaucrats, such as former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and outgoing NPS Director Fran Mainella, who would welcome these outside overtures, claiming they were in fact rescuing the park system.
Of course, the downside when it comes to private enterprise is that, as I've mentioned many times before, these folks want to see a profit. They're not in it for a pat on the back or a plaque, although the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr., would have urged them to be happy with that (as I noted at the end of this post on the selling of our national parks).
To make a profit in the national park system first requires fees, and then higher fees. And when you start to build fee systems in the national parks, you start to distance these national treasures, our national history, from some of the very Americans they belong to. Has it come to the point where our history is for sale, and available only to those who can afford it?
That's not entirely an embellishment designed to make a point. You see, there's an effort under way in New Jersey to privatize part of the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and it doesn't sound good.
The problem, you see, is Gateway NRA officials don't have enough money to preserve and maintain the Fort Hancock area of Sandy Hook. As a result, buildings are quickly deteriorating and key segments of American history are withering away.
"The fundamental problem is the government will never have the money to rehabilitate, to preserve these buildings and bring them back to life," Richard E. Wells, the Sandy Hook Unit's superintendent, told the Asbury Park Press. "What we've been able to afford to do here is patch."
And that's a particularly sad commentary, more so when you read the opening page of the Sandy Hook Unit's web site and come to this paragraph:
"The National Park Service preserves the values and natural and cultural resources of the National Park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations."
Well, that might be so. But in the case of Fort Hancock, the Park Service's solution to preserving the fort's historic buildings is to turn 36 of them over to a private developer "for education, research, office and hospitality" uses.
Among James Wassel's plans for his $70 million-$90 million "restoration" of Fort Hancock is to possibly turn 16 Officer's Row homes into bed-and-breakfast inns. A dorm once used for U.S. troops could be transformed into classrooms for Rutgers University or perhaps Brookdale Community College. Mess halls, gymnasiums, even the old mule barn and the officer's club, would be turned into who knows what to generate profits for Mr. Wassel. And the NPS would spend $2.2 million on a new dock so he could ferry conferees over to Fort Hancock from Manhattan, for a fee I'm sure.
(You'd think if the Park Service had $2.2 million for a new dock it could scrounge up a few million for restoration work, but I digress...)
Mr. Wassel doesn't mince words when he talks about his vision: "I think our national parks are always going to be in the private/public business now," he told the newspaper. "(New uses are) what's going to pay the tab to get these buildings developed."
And as those private dollars get invested, those buildings will become off-limits to the general public, unless it wants to pay Mr. Wassel's fees.
James Coleman Jr., a retired judge who is a member of the Save Sandy Hook organization that opposes Mr. Wassel's plans, doesn't mince words when he talks about the administration's handling Fort Hancock.
"I'm not thrilled with the president's environmental record because he thinks that the only way to save the parks is to have partnerships with private enterprise," says Coleman. "I don't think (John) Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, that's what they envisioned. Now, if they want to throw it down the drain, then let them go tear down the statute of Teddy on Mount Rushmore."
You can read the entire Asbury Park Press story here. And see if it doesn't get you thinking about the way this administration, and this Congress, is handling the national treasures of our national park system.