National Park Service Chastized For Poor Cultural Resource Oversight
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
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.
"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."