While no decisions have been announced by the Interior Department as to how stimulus funds can best be used in the National Park System, there are plenty of suggestions being offered. One is to turn Omculgee National Monument into a national park.
It was back in 1934 when Ocmulgee National Monument, located in Macon, Georgia, was authorized to chronicle the connection between humans and nature going back more than 12,000 years. The monument, little more than 700 acres, contains traces of Southeastern culture starting with Ice Age residents to the historic Creek Confederacy. Within its borders you can find "massive temple mounds of a Mississippian Indian ceremonial complex that thrived between 900 and 1100 (AD) and many artifacts," notes the National Park Service.
Why should the monument be given "national park" status? Outwardly, says Richard Thorton, to bolster the economy in the Macon area. Beyond that, to honor earlier promises, he adds.
Mr. Thorton, an architect, city planner, and member of the Perdido Bay Muscogee (Creek) Tribe of Georgia and Florida, pointed out in an op-ed piece for the Macon Telegraph that it was in the 1930s, before the national monument designation was bestowed, that "civic leaders in Macon promoted the idea that the complex of Native American community sites on the south side of the Ocmulgee River should be acquired by the federal government and made into a national park" encompassing 2,000 acres.
"Once most of the land was acquired, an agreement was entered with the National Park Service by which if given the land by the people of Macon, a national park would be developed on the site. The donated land officially became federal property in 1936," he adds.
Well, on December 12, 1936, the land officially became part of the National Park System under the signature of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but as a "national monument," not a "national park."
As many have pointed out over the years, a "national monument" in theory is treated the same as a "national park" by the National Park Service. However, as many chambers of commerce will add, the "national park" appendage carries much more cachet when it comes to tourists. Mr. Thorton adds that the difference in designation also has cost the monument itself, and the Interior Department can right that wrong by changing the designation.
The “monument” designation has condemned Ocmulgee to chronic under-funding and under-exposure. For many years, there has not even been a professional archaeologist assigned to Ocmulgee National Monument. In recent years, books on Native American archaeology barely mention Ocmulgee or don’t mention it at all. Archaeologists from outside the Southeast repeatedly regurgitate the poorly researched assumptions made by Ocmulgee’s archaeologists in the 1930s, when little else was know about the Native American civilizations in the Southeast.
So why should the federal government invest money into expanding and improving Ocmulgee National Monument into a full-blown “park” when the nation’s economy is in such dismal circumstances?
The most compelling answer is economic development. The Macon area, and Georgia in general, badly need an economic shot in the arm. Macon is centrally located and at the intersection of several major transportation routes. Increased economic activity in Macon would benefit the heart of the state. That increased economic activity would be a direct result of improving a very important archaeological zone into a major educational and recreational destination for heritage tourism.
I said “a major archaeological zone.” Why do archaeologists elsewhere and federal bureaucrats not seem to consider Ocmulgee important? In recent years the archaeological community has been discovering what Creeks have been telling them all along: Ocmulgee was where advanced Native American culture began in the Eastern United States. The recent discovery that the big mound at Cahokia, Ill. (Monks Mound) was started a hundred years after the Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee goes a long way in proving that point. We also have been telling archaeologists forever — often to deaf ears — that the Creeks had contacts with the Mayas. We still have Maya and Totonac words in our language and Maya traditions in our heritage. We think Ocmulgee was founded by salt traders with Mesoamerican roots. In fact, hundreds of large ceramic brine drying trays (identical to those used by the Maya) were found at Ocmulgee in the 1930s.
Now, you can read the rest of his argument on this site. And, if you follow archaeology and historic and even prehistoric cultures, it's compelling.
But there are many other NPS properties that similar arguments no doubt can be made. For decades there have been efforts to change Dinosaur "National Monument" to Dinosaur National Park. The folks living near Cedar Breaks National Monument would prefer to have it called a national park. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants Golden Gate National Recreation Area transformed with the swish of a pen into Golden Gate National Parks (yes, plural).
The list goes on.
But the overriding question in the case at hand, as well as the other examples, is whether a redesignation of Ocmulgee National Monument to Ocmulgee National Park would be in the best interest of the National Park System as a whole? Already, with just 58 "national parks," the 391-unit system is far, far behind on its maintenance needs and obligations. Shouldn't the stimulus dollars that have been set aside for the National Park System try to erase some of that backlog, rather than adding to it?
And one would like to think the National Park Service could bolster the research mission of Ocmulgee National Monument without turning it into a "national park." Indeed, such a designation carries no magical power when it comes to obtaining the full potential of a unit of the National Park System. But if the monument were given the resources to transform itself into a regional research center of note, couldn't Mr. Thorton's goal be achieved just the same without a name change?
And while Mr. Thorton notes that Ocmulgee has no professional archaeologist on staff, he might find it interesting (or disappointing) that Grand Canyon National Park has no official staff geologist, that Mount Rainier National Park has no staff volcanologist, and that the Blue Ridge Parkway has no staff landscape architect.
There is no lack of needs around the National Park System. And while chambers of commerce across the nation no doubt would be thrilled to see the Park Service upgrade as many "national monuments" to "national parks" as possible, you have to ask whether the timing is right and the need worthy.