When does a national park cease being a national park?
That's intended to be a philosophical question, not a technical one. I raise it now because of the recent spate of articles streaming out of New Jersey over the fate of historic Fort Hancock in Gateway National Recreation Area.
The most recent story I saw, from the Newark Star-Ledger last Friday, presented a fairly good overview of the debate that's raging over the National Park Service's decision to extend a 60-year lease of 36 of Fort Hancock's buildings on Sandy Hook to a developer who envisions restaurants, bed-and-breakfast operations, and other commercial operations. In effect, it's a road map that seemingly turns part of Gateway into a mall.
In reading the story, I was somewhat startled to read Gateway's superintendent wholeheartedly endorsing the lease. "We've got to save these buildings, because it's America's heritage at stake here," Richard Wells told the newspaper.
A bit later in the story, in discussing his differences with the Save Sandy Hook organization that stridently opposes the commercial lease, Wells states that, "We have different ideas and values about what is best for Sandy Hook."
But what is best for the national park system? Should it get into the B&B business or become restaurateurs? Think what it could do with those charming cabins in Cade's Cove at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or the lighthouses at Acadia. At least the chalets at Glacier National Park, while operated by a concessionaire, are used for the purpose they were built: overnight housing for park visitors.
Is it best for the NPS, under the guise of preservation, to lease out its facilities to commercial interests that will operate those buildings in absolutely no manner consistent with a national park? Is it saving America's heritage to turn officers' quarters into a B&B or restaurant? Doesn't that erase some of America's heritage? Certainly it obscures it.
Beyond that, is it wise to turn over publicly-owned facilities to commercial entities that will charge fees for previously free access?
So again I wonder, when does a national park cease being a national park? Or, as I posed the question to some colleagues, "Is it better to befriend the devil in the name of saving these structures, or better to watch them collapse due to lack of funds? Is the 'partnership' with a private developer at Fort Hancock a good move for the Park Service?"
Those questions sparked some fierce sentiments.
There's no question that the buildings in question are in need of help, as the pictures accompanying this post indicate. And it's true that the National Historic Preservation Act permits federal agencies to "lease an historic property owned by the agency to any person or organization, or exchange any property owned by the agency with comparable historic property, if the agency head determines that the lease or exchange will adequately insure the preservation of the historic property."
But national park purists will argue that transforming an historic officers' quarters into a restaurant, while preserving that building, is a bastardization not only of the building but of the national park mission and even the heritage of that structure. More so, it furthers the encroachment of private, commercial interests into the national park system.
Yet there are other park advocates, including the National Parks Conservation Association, that support at least the Fort Hancock experiment, if not similar endeavors, of which there are a surprising many. Congress put such tight reguirements on the Presido of San Francisco that it's run more like a business than a national recreation area. Look at the commercialization of Yosemite Valley. Over at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I understand former landowners have been invited by the NPS to lease back their buildings.
Back in the New York-New Jersey region, there are NPS-backed efforts similar to the Fort Hancock initiative to lease facilities at Governor's Island National Monument and Ellis Island National Monument, home of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. In all, between Fort Hancock, Governor's Island, and Ellis Island, the Park Service would offer about 200 historic buildings to private interests.
Alexander Brash, NPCA's Northeast regional director, told me the other day that in a perfect world the federal government would provide the funding necessary to preserve all of the Park Service's holdings without need for private leases. But, he pointed out, that funding currently isn't available. Without it, he added, the Park Service can either watch the buildings collapse -- "What do you maintain and what do you let collapse?" he asked -- or turn to some form of partnership
In a letter-to-the-editor of the Asbury Park Press earlier this year, Brash wrote that the NPCA believes it would be wrong for the Park Service, if it couldn't find the necessary federal funds to restore the buildings, "to stand aside and let Fort Hancock and its history crumble."
The NPCA's support of the Fort Hancock leases disappoints, arguably to the point of disgust, Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, a non-profit that fights the commercialization and privatization of our public lands.
"NPCA views (and perhaps always has viewed) the world through narrowly adjusted blinders and thick filters. In the past that wasn't particularly a problem. Today it is," he told me. "Under (Tom) Kiernan and its current board and corporate sponsors, NPCA has become a tool of the political/fiscal right. They have become facilitators of the corporate takeover of nature -- and more. They put greater importance on the protection of buildings and park funding than they do upon the protection of democracy. They put more in obtaining short-term wins than they do in providing for a bright and brightening future. NPCA's work ensures that tomorrow will be worse than today and that greater sacrifices will be required tomorrow than were required.
"The process of destroying the parks is not taking place within a vacuum. The forces that are destroying the parks are organized and focused."
Pretty strong stuff, no?
Still, even some members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees support the leasing of Fort Hancock.
"In a perfect world, there would be adequate public funding to take care of all the really important historic buildings that are under the responsibility of the NPS, but this is far (and getting farther) from a perfect world," says Bill Wade, the coalition's chairman. "In the case of the Sandy Hook structures, it is clear that the NPS doesn't have the money to maintain them, and even if they did, probably don't have a need to adequately occupy them for protection. So, all in all, I think it is better that they be leased, as long as the stipulations of the lease are proper and adequate, and I assume they are in this instance."
Rick Smith, another coalition member, shares Bill's views.
"There will always be groups of people who believe that private resources should never be invested in public resources," he tells me. "These people seem to be in the Save Sandy Hook coalition. I have not yet seen, however, a viable alternative that they have presented other than 'the government should do it.' In my humble opinion, it can't, and even if it could, it might not."
Why can't the government afford it? Is it because it lacks the money -- a specious argument when you consider how much wasteful spending Congress approves -- or because it doesn't have the will? Or, as Scott Silver maintains, is it because the current administration is determined to outsource, lease, privatize or outright sell whatever it can?
"The policies of the current administration are, BY DESIGN, conspiring to ensure that there is not enough money to maintain anything of value to the American people," he says. "The administration is conspiring to ensure that the ONLY way in which anything is to be preserved is if people are willing to accept the options that have been laid out by the ideologues who have taken over government -- ie., privatization, commercialization, outsourcing, volunteerism, fees, partnerships, etc."
"... When we accept commercialization, we can be assured that MORE commercialization will be forced down our throats," he adds. "If we accept outsourcing, we can be assured that MORE outsourcing will follow. Same with privatization, user fees, reliance upon volunteers, etc. ... If one accepts the solutions that are being offered, then the government will make further cuts in funding. If park managers prove they can do more with less -- then they will be given less and told to do more."
Indeed, that already is the case at many parks under the guise of the Park Service's "Core Operations Analysis program. And yet, what we hear from the agency's Washington headquarters is that while times are tough, what with the Iraq War and the ongoing cleanup of last year's devastating hurricanes, all is pretty swell across the park system.
Down in the ranks, some superintendents are frustrated to the point of grasping at financial straws.
"The problem is not Park Service neglect, in my experience," one superintendent tells me. "It's the excruciating dilemma of not having the tools to protect the resources, no matter how much we want to do. If the choice is to allow the resources to degrade significantly or work with partners to arrest or reverse it, I don't know any superintendent, current or past, who wouldn't look very hard at the partnership option.
"I think the problem right now is that all the rhetoric and organizational and political incentives favor the partnerships, overshadowing the policy statements that tell us these are public resources and the public benefit should always come first."
Distressingly, park superintendents are actually evaluated on "the number of partnerships" they bring on board "and not what they accomplish (or what harm they might do)," this superintendent adds. "The (Interior) secretary touts 'collaborative conservation.' So the scales are now tipped strongly in favor of the partners, and when we resist, politically sophisticated groups are increasingly able to get what they want through legislation.
"I'd like to see some rewards for those who develop partnerships that actually serve the public interest and don't privatize park resources (there are some!), but more importantly, kudos to the superintendents and regional directors who resist the pressure if the proposed partnership will in any way diminish park resources, values, or public access.
"Some of us are trying, but developing ulcers while we do so."
So where does that leave the national park system? How long will it be before facilities in Yellowstone or Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon, are put out for lease to private developers who are more interested in making a buck than preserving the Park Service mission?
Think it couldn't happen? It's already on the way at Fort Hancock. Too, with the new NPS director's support of snowmobiles in Yellowstone, why would she be opposed to such lease agreements in the name of saving structures and money?
Forgive my hyperbole, but these are perilous times for the national park system. Taken individually, perhaps a lease here and snowmobile access over there isn't that big of a deal. But when you consider the collective and peer into the future, it's not so difficult to understand Scott Silver's arguments.
"Any short-term wins that compromising/collaborative (yet politically weak and effete) organizations may achieve for the parks will be wiped out by harm that will befall the NPS as a direct consequence," he says. "Short-term wins will come at the cost of long-term compromises and concessions that will all but ensure our children's lives -- and the fate of this planet -- will be darker."