National Park Service Chastized For Poor Cultural Resource Oversight

The National Park Service is struggling to maintain the cultural resources under its stewardship, according to an analysis. Photo of Mug House at Mesa Verde National Park by Kurt Repanshek.

When was the last time you went up into your attic? While you no doubt have stored away quite a few treasures there, it's likely they're covered in dust, and neglect probably has taken a toll as well, don't you think?

And who in your household is in charge of checking on those family heirlooms? You? Your spouse? Your kids? Is anyone?

That's a pretty good analogy for what's been going on with the cultural resources overseen by the National Park Service. In fact, whoever takes the Park Service helm under the Obama administration will find an agency that has fallen far short in its stewardship of cultural resources across the National Park System.

And we're not talking about a few collections here and there scattered across the country. Here's how the non-partisan National Academy of Public Administration, which assigned a panel to review the Park Service's cultural resources stewardship, defined those resources:

Second in size only to the Smithsonian Institution, NPS museum collections hold more than 123
million items—objects, artifacts, specimens, and archives. Archives make up the biggest share
of the collection (68 percent), followed by archeological artifacts (27 percent). Only about
350,000 items, or less than one-half percent, are actually displayed on exhibit. The vast majority
of items are kept at 691 museum storage facilities in 295 parks. In addition, universities and
other non-federal organizations store items on loan from NPS, including natural history
collections.

And yet, the Park Service is struggling in general, and failing in a few areas, to maintain those resources.

According to a lengthy analysis of the agency's cultural resource program performed by an NAPA panel, the Park Service has seen its cultural resource staff cut substantially more than the natural resources staff (147 lost full-time positions, or 15.8 percent, versus 19 positions, or 1.3 percent) since 2005.

Under the Bush administration, funding also has dwindled noticeably for cultural resource stewardship, dropping 19 percent since Fiscal 2002, according to the review.

"While there was real growth in funding for park cultural resource programs FY1995-2002, inflation-adjusted funding has decreased by 19 percent since FY2002," reads the report. "Largely as a result of the Natural Resource Challenge, funding for natural resource programs today is double that for park cultural resource programs, notwithstanding the fact that two-thirds of the 391 national parks were created because of their historic and cultural significance."

Furthermore, the panel found that a 2005 reorganization of the cultural resources program in Washington resulted in a disengaged and ineffective leadership team.

"The panel concludes that additional funding and staffing are critical to improve stewardship of, and reduce risks to, park cultural resources," the panel said.

The review of the cultural resource program was commissioned by the Park Service this past January. Park Service officials did not respond immediately for comment to the findings.

Over at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, folks are quite concerned about the report.

"The Park Service has treated its cultural and historic programs like a dusty attic which requires no attention," says Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

PEER, by the way, had to sue the Park Service to protect the Little Bighorn National Battlefield from being marred by construction of a 200-seat theater at the base of Last Stand Hill.

"While this NAPA report cites resource shortages, far more damning is its indictment of agency leadership," says Mr. Ruch.

If you work your way through the 123-page report, attached below, there are a number of statements that stand out:

* During the period FY1995-2008, staffing levels for natural resources rose by 335 FTE (31.2 percent), primarily as a result of the Natural Resource Challenge, while staffing levels for cultural resources declined by 294 FTE (27.4 percent). Natural resources staffing is now 79 percent greater than cultural resources staffing. According to NPS staff at all levels, the decline in overall staffing levels for cultural resources is exacerbated by increasing reliance on term employees and impending retirements of many key staff.

* The trend of park cultural resource programs bearing a disproportionate share of budget and staffing reductions should be halted.

* ... interviews with NPS staff who work in the parks, regional offices, and centers revealed widespread concern about the frequency and quality of communications from WASO, lack of engagement of field staff in strategic planning and goal setting, and ineffective advocacy for park cultural resources.

* The panel finds troubling the fact that there are currently 2,811 historic structures of national significance in poor condition.

* The panel concludes that NPS is failing to fulfill its public trust for museum collections, because 45 percent of its collections are not cataloged. As a result, 56 million items are irretrievable and unavailable to park staff, researchers, and the public.

Among the panel's long list of recommendations are the following:

* WASO needs to insist on timely and accurate reporting, seek early identification of problems, and exercise forbearance in reallocating funds when the regions miss goals for justifiable reasons, using each failure as a learning opportunity.

* NPS should include both resource and cultural resource stewardship "as an element in all superintendents' performance evaluations, in particular with respect to park cultural resources at risk."

* NPS should provide "sufficient travel ceiling to support skill-sharing between parks and regional offices, meet critical training needs, and facilitate cross-learning."

* NPS should "undertake an intensive service-wide effort (similar to the Natural Resources Challenge) to develop a comprehensive proposal, clear priorities, and sound justification to improve stewardship of park cultural resources, and seek increased funding and permanent staff to reduce risks to cultural resources of national significance and meet other critical needs."

"Protecting and enhancing our national heritage should be a paramount mission of our National Park Service rather than an afterthought," says PEER's Mr. Ruch. "The next Park Service director really needs to sit down with this report."

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NPS_Saving_Our_History_Oct2008.pdf1.4 MB

Comments

Is anyone really surprised? This is not the first time that this issue has come up and as long as the NPS is in charge of these resources it certainly won't be the last.

Cultural resources are not the raw materials upon which a successful and splashy career in the NPS are built upon. No, instead the pathway is littered with large and ostentatious visitor centers, increased staffing levels so that ten people can now do the work of two and you'll definitely draw rave reviews for beefing up your law enforcement division with lethal and bombastic artillery, night vision goggles, giant SUV's and maybe some drug enforcement money thrown in from the Department of Homeland Security. Now yer talkin' baby!

The nitty-gritty work of protecting artifacts, maintaining sewer systems and keeping trails cleared is often deferred to the next guy, who'll hopefully get these things done while also striving to make a name for themselves on their upward career track leading to a safe and secure government retirement.

Expect to read about this problem again, oh probably sometime in the next five years or so, or less. Mark my words. Take it to the bank.

When was the last time you went up into your attic? While you no doubt have stored away quite a few treasures there, it's likely they're covered in dust, and neglect probably has taken a toll as well, don't you think?

Absolutely not.

As the family historian, I am responsible for preserving my family's cultural resources which include a vintage Kodak camera, a Santa Fe Railroad clock, a California Gold Rush fractional gold coin, a Cherokee medicine pouch that traveled the Trail of Tears, a grinding stone from a Midwest tribe, a Civil War letter, and more.

I have safely preserved these artifacts using mylar and other archival materials. Some are on display; others are locked away in a safe.

You see, I have a personal vested interest in maintaining this collection. The problems detailed in this article arise when cultural resources are held collectively and personal ties to artifacts have been severed.

Kurt, just one quick question: What jurisdiction does most of are ancient historical petroglyphics lie in the U.S...with the BLM or the National Parks? Although I'm not totally familiar in the apparatus in how protect these remarkable icons of are earliest settlers, but do know that vandalism and gross neglect has taken a terrible toll on these magnificent petroglyphics. Is this a subject from the lack of care, lack of money or the lack of not giving a damn by the Bush Administration. Wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter.

I can't accurately answer that question off the top of my head, but I'd hazard a guess that there are more archaeological resources on BLM lands simply because there is so much more BLM land than park land.

I'd also hazard a guess that while the Bush administration's policies are freshest in mind, past administrations also are at fault for not adequately funding programs such as the Park Service's Vanishing Treasures program.

Kurt, thanks for the input. I'm now checking out the Park Services: Vanishing Treasures. Much appreciated!

Certainly an issue that needs attention. My experience on the subject is limited to working at two parks that were heavy on cultural resources and 6 others that more heavily emphasized natural resources. To some extent, how well cultural resources fare as compared to other needs depends on the park management team and how they set priorities. There's rarely enough money or staff to deal with urgent needs, much less routine stuff, for resources of any kind, but it was my observation that some parks are certainly faring better than others on the cultural front.

The NPS isn't the only agency that struggles with proper preservation of "old stuff." Several years ago I was in Philadelphia and visited the city archives in search of some family history information. One would think that city, with its storied history, would have a reasonably good program for handling historic documents. I eventually found the right room in the basement of a city building, and a helpful employee in due time produced a book full of original 18th century documents. One of those was the original will (c. 1780) of one of my ancestors. I was a bit surprised to be given unlimited access to the document - no request to put on a pair of clean gloves, etc. The folded papers were in poor condition, and rather than destroy them, I declined to handle them further. The "archivist" seemed unconcerned, and handed me a dispenser of ordinary scotch tape, to "put them back together." That was apparently S.O.P for their document "repair."

The other end of the scale, at least during my two visits, is the National Archives, which seemed to do things well (as one would hope and expect.)

I'd like to think that most families are as diligent as Frank C. in properly protecting their personal artifacts, but I suspect he's the exception.

In many parks, cultural resources such as backcountry shelters and the old lodges are under attack from "wilderness nazis" who think they don't belong (but hypocritically, privies are OK since they don't want TP blooms everywhere).

To Anonymous Nov 27,

I like your point. I was recently backpacking in the San Rafael Wilderness (USFS) and was pleased and surprised to see they have allowed picnic tables to remain in some backcountry campsites.

I while back when I read that the Sierra Club was suing Olympic NP for repairing backcountry shelters, I nearly had an aneurysm. Forcing the NPS to remove backcountry lean-tos from a rain soaked trail? Lord have mercy. Can't this nonprofit find causes with less Grinch-like motives to spend their supporters time and money on?

(For example, why doesn't the Sierra Club donate money to helping the NPS preserve Cultural Artifacts instead of paying lawyers to steal Christmas trees from Cindy Lou Who?)

Like Beamis, I see this poor management of Cultural Resources as another symptom of a malignant and perhaps fatal disease.

I am a National Park Service Curator, and have been for the past 8-1/2 years. Prior to that I worked in the private sector in museum collections management for 20 years. I can tell you that while the private museum sector has its own set of woes, the NPS does not and has not for a long time, adequately staffed the cultural resource / museum management sector in the parks. For too long, professional curators and collections managers were not part of the NPS "family", and even now, the jobs we take so seriously as stewards of our nation's cultural heritage, are not really understood in the park management system. The workload is tremendous, the support given in terms of dollars, adequate staff, and just plain recognition, is minimal. I am well aware that there is a segment of the population that loves it when government employees complain. That is not my point. Please look beyond the numbers of programs and statistics that don't measure up. There is a bunch of very hard-working and dedicated people that I call my colleagues. We are charged with upholding standards of collections care and care for our historic structures and landscapes. Regionally based programs have been decimated, yes. But the parks, themselves, are not adquately staffed.

Like others who have written here, I also take care of my family's collections: letters, photos, furnishings, glass and ceramics; memories all. The stories are what ties them all together, what gives them real meaning. Likewise the museum collections of the NPS: if there was enough time and people to properly research and document these wonderful collections, these historic structures and landscapes, these archeological remains, we would be setting the standard not only in terms of making policy, but in setting example. I hope that I am able to make a positive difference at my park. I go to work with that in mind every day. I hope that better days are coming for all cultural resources programs in the Park Service.