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How Will National Park Service React To Museum Proposal At Harpers Ferry?

Park Pork?


Two-hundred-and-fifty million dollars buys an awful lot of museum. But does that mean the latest proposal to "save" some of the private land surrounding Harpers Ferry National Historical Park from development is a good one?

The short answer, at this point, is it's just too soon to tell, as the National Park Service has yet to see a formal proposal that outlines the project that includes not just the museum but also a hotel and convention center. What is troubling, though, is that the developers behind this project apparently want the federal government to fund most, if not all, of the $250 million museum complex.

Stonewall Heights, LLC, a group for which I've been unable so far to locate an address or phone number for, apparently has met with U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, to inquire about the possibility of federal funding. Calls to the senator's press secretary Friday afternoon went unanswered.

One person who did answer his phone, though, was Donald Campbell, superintendent of the Harper's Ferry park. A soft-spoken man whose reputation for working tirelessly for the national parks and finding ways to work with various stakeholders was rewarded recently with the National Parks Conservation Association's Stephen T. Mather Award, Superintendent Campbell told me he's equally curious about the proposal.

"This is a proposal that's been made. But there have been no meetings held with the National Park Service on this proposal at this point," he said. "I'm sure those meetings will take place at some point. I don't think there have been any meetings with the conservation community, to my knowledge."

Some have seen this latest proposal -- and that's all it is, a proposal, not a done deal as some earlier reports indicated -- as a white knight of sorts for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. That's because a previous developer had been planning to turn the so-called Old Standard Quarry into a commercial center with millions of square feet of office and retail space.

Plus, the latest proposal would package some additional private parcels to prevent them from being developed.

When Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, heard of the proposal the other week, he showered it with praise.

"This is a fantastic ending to what could easily have been a catastrophe for one of the most picturesque national parks in the country," he said. "My hat is off to the development group that has made this win-win solution possible. It is further evidence that preservation and development are not mutually exclusive, especially when both sides communicate in good faith."

But is this a win-win solution?

While this proposal calls for the museum, hotel, and conference center to also be placed within the Old Standard Quarry, Superintendent Campbell said there are a number of differences between the two proposals,

"I think the principal thing that is different between this proposal and the previous one, the previous proposal would have put in a 2.3-million-square-foot commercial development. That's the size of 12-and-a-half aircraft carriers," he said. "It would have preserved none of the land, simply scraped off the mountain top and put all the buildings in there. Whereas this one, in terms of what they're talking about -- and granted, it's all preliminary at this point -- they're talking about two buildings, one is the Museum of the National Park Service, and there is a hotel and conference center. Both of those in terms of square footage are probably more in the order of maybe 300,000 square feet, as opposed to 2.3 million square feet.

"And they're talking about donating easements over the entire property that would maintain its scenic value. So, that aspect sounds encouraging if one is weighing one against the other."

There are other intriguing details, such as that the proposed museum would house not just a museum devoted to the NPS but also one to house artifacts from other national park sites within the agency's national capital region, such as Antietam National Battlefield and Manassas National Battlefield. Plus, the developer apparently believes the museum can, in essence, be built underground and thus preserve the above-ground setting.

"They have a very prominent architect as part of their project team who has ideas of how this museum could be set into the hillside, or the mountaintop if you will, and then once it's finished the natural contour of the land would be restored over the top of the building and reforested," said Superintendent Campbell, who didn't think, from what he's seen so far, that any Civil War battlefields would be impacted.

All that said, there should be concerns with this proposal that need to be assuaged. Why is a $250 million museum being proposed? That price tag suggests something palatial, and certainly that's the last thing the National Park Service needs at this point, it's $8 billion maintenance backlog notwithstanding.

And really, if a congressman or senator can justify $250 million for a museum project, why can't they also justify better funding for the Park Service across the board? Two-hundred-and-fifty million dollars would hire a lot of rangers, seasonal and full-time, and probably negate the need for entrance fees, just to name two areas that need attention. It also no doubt would take care of the restoration of the Fort Hancock quarters that the Park Service is leasing to a private developer.

Going forward, if this proposal shows some life, that $250 million figure should be pared down, and the federal government shouldn't be expect to underwrite all of it. Too, according to media reports, a tram would be built to carry visitors to the museum. That's an idea that Superintendent Campbell is not sure would mesh with his park.

"I think in their preliminary concepts that that's what's in their proposal, and I think that would be one of the things that would get vetted out if they went forward," he said. "In my opinion -- I haven't seen any design or anything -- it would seem to be an inappropriate thing."

It was just a few weeks ago that I was in Austin, Texas, attending the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy. One of the speakers at that conference was Rebecca Rimel, president and chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts. One of the things Ms. Rimel told me was that she wouldn't be surprised if someone stepped forward with a gift of $200 million for the national park system, and that it very likely would come with some strings attached.

Once such a gift was offered, she said, the National Park Service would have to weigh the "strings" against the benefits of such a hefty donation.

“It’s like any investment decision, you need to understand the terms of the deal and make sure that they’re acceptable to you. But the notion that someone is going to basically turn over those kinds of resources, or any resources of substantial size with no strings I think is unrealistic,” Ms. Rimel told me.

“They’ll (the Park Service) have to determine what the expectations are and whether they think they can meet them and whether they should meet them. And if the answer to both of those is yes, then that’s the best of all worlds. In all of these there’s some give and take.”

In the case of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the latest offer on the table has been made, as Superintendent Campbell made clear to me, by a group of investors. Investors don't look to give things away without gaining something, something usually more valuable, in return.

What the Park Service and its various stakeholders will have to chew on in the coming months is what the investors are looking to gain in return and whether they can live with that.

"Right now, all I see is an idea," Superintendent Campbell told me. "Until this idea has been vetted with the National Park Service, with the conservation community, the Civil War community, all of the public interest groups and individuals that would have interest in commenting on this thing, I think that's all it is, an idea.

"Does it have potential? It certainly is a step in the right direction based on what we were facing here four months ago. Is it the solution? I don't know."

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The latest obsession with the NPS has been "outreach." This means going outside the boundaries of the parks to reach audiences that were previously considered unreachable.

Actually, outreach for national parks has been happening since their inception. The media, including magazines and newspapers, has done an outstanding job of promoting our nation's crown jewels. The most recent issue of National Geographic magazine featured a beautiful article on Death Valley. TV regularly covers the national parks; I'll never forget the old National Geographic special on Yellowstone's grizzlies (and who can forget that music?). I recently saw a great program about my park on the Discovery Channel. Any travel guide worth its salt will extensively cover the national parks within its area of description. Many companies which do business within or near a national park will promote the place on their brochures and websites. Nowadays, most of the big parks have "friends groups," which spend private donations to inform the public about the parks. And looky here! Featured on this very website is the latest craze, brought to you by our friends at NPCA ....a podcast!

If you don't know about the national parks already, I'm sorry. You must have lived a very sheltered life. In fact, you must be so uninformed and unengaged I'm not sure reaching you will make any difference.

The NPS thrives on crisis. Today's crisis is that teenagers and college students don't seem interested in national parks, and therefore we must reach them. But have they ever been reachable? Recall that most of these subadults are too busy partying and trying to get lucky to bother with attending ranger programs.

Let these post-pubescent party animals grow up a bit and at least some of them will come to appreciate national parks. Isn't that how it worked for most of us?

Like Beamis, I'm very concerned with how we spend other people's money. I propose we leave outreach to the private sector and re-dedicate the money saved to painting bathrooms, maintaining trails, informing visitors, and being dedicated to the parks--WITHIN their boundaries. This way, when the outreach of others pays off, the public can visit the parks at their be enjoyed, appreciated...and ultimately supported.

Simple Proposal #5: Fix what's broken before you start something new

My apologies for mixing up the roles of Mr. Wade and Mr. Allen.

Mr. Allen posted a comment on the first article on this subject (before the price tag was revealed) where he stated in part, "We are convinced that this project will be very illuminating to the public and beneficial to the entire National Park Service". "We", I assume, means CNPSR. Now that the price tag has been revealed for this particular plan, I wonder if the CNPSR still supports the project?

My apologizes for not getting my facts straight on this very convoluted issue.

I'd like to be able to find more facts to back up my assertion on franchise fees. I have found a news article by the Billings Gazette which states that in 2005, Xanterra was awarded a contract in Yellowstone with a 2 percent franchise fee. And I have my personal experience at Crater Lake. I wish concession deals were more transparent, and that I could click on the NPS website and see exactly what each concessionaire was paying the NPS. If anyone could point me to such information or such a site, I'd be very grateful.

carping: persistent petty and unjustified criticism

I think it is every American's duty to point out waste, mismanagement, and fraud, so I believe my criticism of the NPS is completely justified. Additionally, I think I have generated positive energy about the exciting future of depoliticized public land management. And I will continue to advocate for reform. I'm sorry some see this as mere complaining.

My many thanks to the editors for providing a medium for spirited debate (the political and controversial posts generate far more discussion than other types of posts).

"Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive." Henry Steele Commager


And open exchange of ideas is NEVER a waste of time, unless you're part of Congress and you're soliciting ideas to build into a bill that has the sole intent of becoming aencyclopedic volume which nobody will peruse in it's complete form, thereby hiding "pork" in the voluminous final edition of the "Bill to Save America from International Terrorism, and ensure proper snowplowing of the roads leading to my house, and repaving my driveway, and oh, that new mailbox I was thinking about, and don't forget my mistress needs a necklace, and of course the private jet to the golf course and casino in Bimini for the lobbyists, and season's tickets to the ......". I understand the frustration that is being put forth by current and ex-employees, but who better than true insiders from which the rest of us can gain that albeit one-sided perspective, since most of us have no manner of inclusion in the innner-workings of the system? Just as long as folks realize that these people are indeed just one side of a multi-faceted arguement, we have the basis for an informative dialogue and with any luck, the opportunity for some true brainstorming on a multitude of issues, park related and otherwise. I personally claim no ties to the "organization", but does that render my insights into certain portions of these articles useless? Lets all of us bear in mind that the Park Service is on part service orgainzation. It is also part business, part science, part administration, part political, and a large part public. The last part is the portion that seems to have been either lost or at least overlooked, and that's what we're all working to reclaim. I hope.

In all honesty I really feel I'm wasting my time contributing to this site, but I plod on because I believe we all have a responsibility to speak our minds...for what that's worth. It gives me much more satisfaction to be out in my park than pecking away at this blasted computer, but I, like Frank & Beamis, feel committed to some innovative thinking...for once! Give these two guys their fair shake for speaking passionately.

As a federal government agency, the NPS is very much about process & procedure, rules & regulations (PPRR). Examples of bureaucratic PPRR are so profuse that I'm at a loss to cite one, the same way I can't recall a single one of my own breaths. The outfit is so hog-tied by its own bureaucracy that new employees see a certain mystique in it all, sometimes leading to rumors about PPRR that don't even exist. "Gee, I thought I couldn't do that because I'd heard there was a rule from the Regional Office stating..."

It's no secret that bureaucracy is appalling. To me, it creates in employees a perfectly diabolical, soul-sucking combination of tedium and stress.

A few years back I took a supervisory training course facilitiated by a private company, which had spent a lot of time analyzing the NPS. The instructor--a bright, observant, and outspoken woman in her 30's--wasn't too complimentary of the agency. Much to the dismay of many attendees, she constantly reminded the class that most PPRR aren't laws. You can bend and break them without being thrown in jail. She also reminded us that it's nearly impossible to get fired when you work for the federal government. Her wise advise: you SHOULD bend and break rules when they're stupid...which they frequently are.

As a supervisor at the time, I took her advice to heart. If an employee asked how to deal with PPRR that was inane, I would tell them to ignore it. If anyone had problems with that, I'd go on to say, you can tell them that I made the decision. The "consequences," after years of practicing this approcah?...I'm rarely questioned abut blowing off such absurd PPRR.

Have the courage to resist ridiculous bureaucracy. You'll save the taxpayers a lot of money. And you'll leave more time for the vastly more important job of fulfilling the NPS Mission.

Simple Proposal #6: Instead of doing things right, Do The Right Thing.

You must be a spotty reader because I have offered up many suggestions and possible solutions and scenarios about changing the ways our parks are managed, many that a former career ranger like yourself probably would disagree with, but offer them I have. I generally get few comments on them, for the most part (except from Kurt & Jeremy). I notice that no one has yet made any comments on the excellent suggestions offered up by our newest contributor Bart. His insider take into the current management malaise gripping the NPS is fresh and insightful as are his concrete common-sense suggestions for agency improvement but I have yet to hear a peep from anyone except for Frank.

It's too bad that you see it as a negative that I want to take the parks out of the dirty hands of politicians, park service careerists and easy-money concessionaires and shift the paradigm towards more locally focused, self-interested management.

I am certainly not being negative about the parks, which I love, but am only pointing out the severe limitations of their DC focused overseers. Your suggestions amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's time for a totally new approach and that's what I will continue to push for.

Oh, and by the way, support Ron Paul for President!

Frank and Bemis--

Quite frankly, i am tired of your constant carping about the NPS. NPT used to be an interesting site to visit to read about issues related to the National Park System. There were often healthy differences of opinion among those who visited Jeremy and Kurt's blog. Now, it's one bitch after another from you guys. Sure, I saw some things during my 31-year career with the NPS that made me uncomfortable. I am similarly outraged, now that I am retired, by decisions like the one going down right now about snomos in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. That doesn't mean that I need to complain incessantly about the agency nor does it imply that I have given up on it.

\What we need to do, in my opinion, is to generate some positive energy to focus public attention on issues that might help things get betteer. Many of these you have already dismissed in earlier posts: an examination of NPS governance; Is Interior the proper place for the NPS? a look at the funding cycle; Are the goals of long-term natural and cultural resources stewardship adequately served by our one-year budget process? the term in office of the Director; Does tying the Director to the current 4 or 8 year political cycle make sense when he/she presides over s System that demands long-term planning?

Why not channel you obvious interest in the parks to questions like these? There is room for honest disagreement among reasonable people about all these issues. I'd rather read your take on these than to have to read more complaints.

Rick Smith

- Concession companies nowadays pay a substantially greater amount in franchise fees that 2%, although there could be a few who are still under contract at that rate.

Would Mr. Wade like to give a few examples of these substantially greater amounts being collected? How much and where?

Thanks in advance.

Frank, I don't think you've got your facts straight, and it appears as if you're jumping to some incredible conclusions.

For starters, yes, a former group of NPS employees has championed the creation of a Museum of the National Park Service. And the PEER link you provided does indeed lead one to the formal proposal for such a museum. However, that proposal does not place a price tag on such a museum, and is entirely separate from the developers' $250 million proposal. At this time the two simply cannot be linked in one breath as you're trying to do.

Regarding Superintendent Campbell's comments, you seem to be taking them out of context. At the time I talked to him the developers behind the $250 million proposal had not made a formal presentation of it to the Park Service, so there was no way for him to know its details. What his knowledge is of the concept of an NPS museum is a separate matter that I didn't raise with him.

Furthermore, the meetings regarding the museum proposal you reference had to do with the conceptual idea for a museum, NOT the $250 million development currently being floated.

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