Unable to financially afford the upkeep of many historic facilities across the National Park System, the National Park Service at times can do little but watch these structures continue to deteriorate.
At Gateway National Recreation Area in the greater New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, for example, the officers quarters at Fort Hancock in the NRA's Sandy Hook unit have suffered from decades of lack of maintenance. A committee has been working to find a solution, and part of that might lie in leasing out the buildings to commercial operations.
That, in part, is one of the tacks the Park Service should take to preserve such structures, according to a new report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In that report, Historic Leasing in the National Park System, Preserving History Through Effective Partnerships, the organization challenges the Park Service to be more aggressive in leasing out historic properties in the name of preserving those properties, even if it restricts public access to those properties.
"Across the country, a number of National Park Service units have successfully used leasing to maintain and revitalize historic structures and open them to innovative new uses," notes the report's executive summary. "However, other regions have been slow to use these tools for a variety of reasons, including a perceived lack of legal authority, a lack of clarity in National Park Service leasing policies, and a lack of information about the range of public-private partnership opportunities."
Gateway NRA officials thought they had solved the problem with the deteriorating Fort Hancock buildings back in 2009, when they signed a 60-year lease with a private company to rehabilitate many of the officers' quarters and other buildings and use them for such things as bed-and-breakfasts and classrooms. But a subsequent review of the company's financial records determined the company couldn't afford the project, and the lease was canceled.
Last year the NRA formed a committee, the Fort Hancock 21st Century Advisory Committee, to provide suggestions on how Fort Hancock could be rehabilitated and utilized.
"I don't think that many of the buildings at Fort Hancock will be around much longer if we don't find a use for them and someone to take care of them," Linda Cananelli, then Gateway's superintendent, told the committee members during a meeting back in January. "We have mothballed the buildings to make them weather-tight, but that only goes so far.
"For some of the beautiful buildings, including my favorite, the Officer's Club, it may already be too late."
Across the 401 units of the park system, there are more than 27,000 historic and prehistoric structures that the Park Service is assigned to preserve, according to the Trust's report. "From this number, there are approximately 9,600 historic buildings, of which approximately 8,250 are not operated by concessioners," the report notes. "This leaves the National Park Service with the responsibility to maintain over 8,000 historic buildings independently or to authorize their use and maintenance by non-federal parties."
Further, of the roughly $11.5 billon maintenance backlog on the Park Service's books, about $4.5 billion of that can be ascribed to "unmet needs of historic and prehistoric structures."
To remedy this problem, the agency should "enter into historic leases and cooperative partnerships with non-federal partners," the report suggests. "Leasing historic buildings provides opportunities for the National Park Service to leverage private financial resources to maintain these public resources for future generations."
One issue with such an approach, though, is lessees could limit public access to these buildings. But, the Trust offers, that might be the price of seeing these buildings preserved.
"Reasonable access limitations needed either to preserve historic sites from overuse, or to secure private investment to fund maintenance expenses for sites that would otherwise be left to deterioriate to the point of no return, are an important management tool available to the Park Service," the report said.
And, to that point, there are many buildings throughout the park system that are closed to the public, many due to their dilapidated condition. But mixing limited access with full access has worked in many areas of the system, the report notes.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park provides another example where the Park Service has made different public access decisions for different park resources. The towpath that runs the length of the park is free and open to the public. The lockhouses stationed at regular intervals along the path are primarily closed to the public, while a few are open for visitor interpretation purposes. The approximately 1,300 other historic structures located in the park are generally closed to visitor access as well. In a unique attempt to open more of these structures to the public, the Park Service partnered with the C&O Canal Trust to rehabilitate several lockhouses and open them as vacation rentals to the public. The C&O Canal Trust performs all of the active management functions for the program and guests are charged a rate between $100 to $150 per night depending on location and amenities.
The Cape Cod National Seashore also provides a wide range of public access options to different park resources. The park recently completed a planning process to determine the best use of its dune shacks, and determined that 40 percent of the shacks will be set aside for private long term residential leases, 40 percent will be operated in cooperation with nonprofit organizations, and 20 percent will be set aside for medium-term leases for residential or nonprofit organizational purposes. Within these different categories, the Park Service will require lessees to allow varying degrees of public interior or exterior access at scheduled times. Also within the park, the historic Ryder House is currently held under a 40 year private residential lease that includes no public access to the House’s interior. In making this leasing decision to exclude all public interior access, the Park Service determined that the public interest was served by ensuring that the house was maintained and that park visitors were able to appreciate the “setting enhancement” its preservation provides. Additional examples, where reasonable limits to public access have been used to ensure that park resources are preserved and managed more effectively, can be found throughout the National Park System.
The 53-page report offers a number of recommendations to better protect the Park Service's historic buildings, ranging from removing "barriers that restrict full use of all available preservation tools, including historic leasing," and reforming the currently cumbersome appraisal process for historic buildings to offering leases up to 60 years in length.
"Leadership and targeted action to address this challenge is overdue and urgently needed. A proactive approach is needed that reviews, reconsiders, clarifies, and more effectively implements Park Service regulations, policies, procedures, and management approaches to historic leasing," the report concludes.
"Steps need to be taken to reduce any delays caused by unnecessary administrative review procedures. To stop further deterioration of historic properties managed by the National Park Service, and the corresponding increase in rehabilitation costs, change is needed now. Historic leasing can be used more effectively by the National Park Service to ensure that the historic buildings under its care will be preserved for future generations to use and enjoy."