Reader Participation Day: Has The National Park Service Been Led Astray By Congress and Become A Catchall Agency?

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?

Comments

Having started my career in Big Parks: Everglades, Sequoia etc. I used to not understand why these smaller sites were part of the NPS. But recently I worked at Carl Sandburg Home NHS and it changed my opinions dramatically. I realized that the role of the NPS was to protect America's culture and heritage whether it be the conservation movement culture or the legacy of those before us who shaped the country we live in today. Although the Chavez site might not stir up an emotional connection for everyone in the country, it might in fact have significant meaning to many people in the USA. Also, Park Rangers inherently care about the NPS site that they work in and although many of these sites are so different there is a commonality of protecting and preserving our country's heritage.

Noped'

I think it is perfectly appropriate and consistent with the mission of the NPS to include historical sites, recreation areas, and other "non-natural" resources. However, I also believe that the Service has been diluated by areas that were added not because of the merit of the resources or the stories, but rather for reasons of political pork and/or desire for economic development. I have worked at two such areas. In both of those places the staffs were typical of the NPS - thoroughly professional and committed to their mission. But, unfortunately, the focus could best be described as trying to make lemonade out of a lemon. Both Congress and the NPS need to get serious about the Criteria for Parkland. The policy was adopted for a reaon, and if it would have been truly followed through the years we would not have 394 units. Someone (if not the NPS, then NPCA or others) also has to convey that the National Parks are NOT economic saviors for impoverished areas. It is true that the parks can have a huge benefit to some communities. But, for example, a small new historic site will never replace economic input and vitality as that military base that closed ten years ago.

I agree with Bri above. Each unit of the National Park System is important and significant in some way. I have visited many of the "lesser-known" parks, and each has a fascinating story to tell. Kurt asks, "Is a house cleaning in order...?" Once you begin "cleaning house", what criteria are you going to use? Who is going to be the chief house cleaner? What cleaning implements will be used? No, this is a desperately slippery slope. Besides, there is the little matter of generational equity. Some generation of Americans decided that these places that are going to be "cleaned out", speaking through their elected representatives, merited protection in perpetuity. Is our generation so much smarter than previous ones that we can second guess their decisions? I don't think so, and I am not eager to start down that path.

Rick

Having spent summers at Yosemite National Park from my 10th through 18th years; from anywhere between 2 to 4 weeks, I have a deep respect for our system. We would do well to remember that we took it from the Native Americans as qualifications for statehood(Califronia). Reference The Articles of Confederation; which continued to 1848 and beyond. Even though it already existed,John Muir had to lobby for this real jewel!. Imagine where where our system would be if humans, with just a little forsight, had not answered their calling?. We have sites giving honor to slavery. Where was the cry then?. We have sites honoring slave masters. Where was the cry then?. We honor individuals who belived African Americans were not even human( the Dred Scott decision). No system in human history has been so dehumanizing; yet we honor these people and their atrocious legacy. Congress does have the right to run the NPS!. Where would we be if the US Constitution had not dealt with injustices through the ammenments?. Was the "founding fathers" intent to "remain the same", or, did they truly recognize that it was only a beginning; a starting point?. Humans must change with wisdom and the times of the culture............!!!

I don't think being a "catchall agency" is all that bad. The inherent problem is the lack of funding when Congress overreaches with authorizing legislation for way too many sites.

Political pork was mentioned in a comment. I do remember a group trying to upgrade Mount St Helens to National Park status (which would require transfer to the NPS) or at the very least bring it under NPS control. The stated goal was that the NPS has better funding than the Forest Service and that National Park status would likely attract more (spending) visitors to the area.

Just last year a local Congressman has been trying to update the status of Pinnacles NM to "National Park". I just don't see it, but he thought it might improve the prospects for visitation. I personally don't think it would. There isn't a road through Pinnacles NM, and the nearby options for lodging are minimal (King City, Soledad, or a few B&Bs).

Have to agree with y_p_w. It's really about funding. The NPS mission will work to protect many places if it has the money to maintain the sites. Can't make a profit so have to rely on partnerships which perpetuates the development. I'd rather see local businesses profit around any NPS site than go to Vegas. But maybe someday Vegas will be a NP.

Yes. Many of those in power positions in the NPS didn’t come from ranks of the service – they came directly from congressional internships, fellowships and policy ranks. The Washington and regional initiatives and external programs are where the power and money goes, because of these relationships, and not to the maintenance backlog or to commonsense programs that serve the park-going public. I think the argument is very difficult to communicate to the public and NPS supporters; they are told how the parks and sites that they love are underfunded and understaffed; they know that the NPS is most likely on the end of the budget discussions. It’s hard for them to really understand that when the NPS gets money, when budgets are doled out, that new positions are created at levels far from parks, to work on creating heritage areas, study new possibilities to make new sites and dilute the current (overwhelmed) park unit structure, and spend money and employee efforts in communities far from parks. America’s Great Outdoors, the “Let’s Move” initiative, and heavy domestic and international travel are examples. Any ONE of the many high-graded jobs that work on external programming could have been better divided into 3 to 4 full-time, year-round, on-the-ground staff in a park. Every year park staff wonder if they will get an adequate number of “seasonals” or interns, while these administrative offices remain staffed and full for conference travel, speaking engagements and political maneuvering. In fact, many of these programs refuse to define exactly what it is they do, just to keep the catch-all intact and ready for the next idea. You can’t ever become irrelevant or unnecessary if you claim to do everything.

The park service IS underfunded, and in a perpetual state of great need – but know that the internal priorities, and the focus on meeting this great challenge is politically driven and in need of as great a change as any other large government bureaucracy.

Issues associated with the National Park Service are really no different than those found in the evolution of any idea or organization over time. There's no question the NPS began with a superb idea of the preservation and use of the nation's best natural and cultural gems. When the agency was created, the sites were the "best of the best." But almost from the beginning, congressional intentions began to dilute the quality through "mission creep." Huge executive expansions during the FDR years and during the '60s and '7os added to the trend. I'm sure readers have heard about expansions in the last generation coming so fast the method was jokingly referred to as as the "park of the month" approach. Similarly, we've head the idea that "every state needs one" or "every congressional district needs one." How could the NPS NOT become a catchall! And through all this I doubt there's been one single budget year since Mission 66 (1956-66) where funding matched real needs.

Yes, I think the agency is in serious need of a housecleaning. Start by seriously tightening criteria for inclusion. Aim for the best of the best once more. Focus on greatness, both good and bad. Site development associated with contemorary persons or events should be delayed --for example, 50 years for National Register listing--to insure significance value. Focus on NATIONAL significance and unity, and beware of the recent trends toward diversity and political correctness and the creation of "victim" resources that separate Americans.

As we approach the centennial of the NPS in 2016, it is going to be very interesting to see how the agency manages its 500 units during a stagnant if not declining economy. It is not out of the question that closing parks of "lesser value" will become a reality as scarce Federal dollars--mostly borrowed--are diverted to essential uses. If that occurs, we will finally see what parts of the mission really matter.

"Victim resources that separate Americans?" Perhaps the most ridiculous statement I've ever read.
Does Manzanar NHS "separate Americans" by memorializing the astounding racial injustice perpetrated upon Japanese-Americans? Does Women's Rights NHP "separate Americans" by preserving the groundbreaking struggle of women to secure equal and full citizenship?
If so, then does not Arlington House also "separate Americans" by honoring a traitor to his country who fought to maintain a brutally racist system of slavery?

I work almost entirely on the natural resources side, but I think that cultural resources and cultural units are equally important in preserving our heritage for the enjoyment of this and future generations. However, what is valuable culturally and historically is much more contentious than what is valuable in terms of natural resources (CAHA notwithstanding).

I personally agree with Travis: Manzanar is an important part of our history and culture, and I hope to get back there to hear some of the oral histories from people (citizens) who were interred there. Similarly, I want to understand what happened at Little Bighorn, I don't want to be "united" around glorifying only Custer any more than I want to be unified by a one-sided interpretation of Gettysburg. I want to learn the big picture about the what and why of Fort Larimie as well as the day to day life of the residents.

As far as funding goes, I agree with the line I've heard: NPS has a mission to die for and a budget that kills us. That said, I also see that the budgets for smaller cultural parks are very small, with more hours put in by unpaid volunteers than by (often overqualified/underpaid) federal workers.

Travis, thank you for making my point.