Earlier this week we had a spirited discussion into whether the National Park Service needs to add a site to honor Cesar Chavez, who orchestrated the farm labor movement in the 1960s. That discussion nips at a larger question: Has Congress led the Park Service astray and turned it into a catchall agency?
When the National Park Service Organic Act was passed in 1916, it stated that this new agency would oversee "parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the
scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Indeed, that act specifically stated that units of the park system be of "like character" as those in the system in 1916: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Hot Springs, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Wind Cave, Mesa Verde, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Lassen Volcanic.
Now, of course, a debate can be kindled over what exactly the founders meant when they listed "historic objects" in that act. But did they really intend for the "Park" Service to be given management of presidential birthplaces, a roundhouse full of steam locomotives, a museum honoring First Ladies, or World War II detention centers?
And what about military parks and battlefields? Many started out in the War Department and later were given to the Park Service.
Is a housecleaning in order, not to debate the value of some of these properties, but rather to bring the Park Service's current mission and management responsibilities back in line with the Organic Act?