Reader Participation Day: Is The National Park System In Danger Of Becoming A Catchall System?

Is the National Park System in danger of turning into a catchall system? Should a site dedicated to the nuclear arms race, another to union organizers, and another to First Ladies really fall under an agency that started out preserving spectacular vistas and landscapes, that showcases Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon?

With the National Park Service soon to launch into its second century overseeing the park system, this would seem to be a timely question, as the agency already is stretched thin with budgetary and staffing issues. Can it afford to also be expected to be a sort of National Historic Service, an agency that oversees and interprets historic moments in the country that have no direct connection to the landscapes the agency was initially charged with overseeing?

This is not to question the significance of some of these sites that are finding their way into the National Park System, but rather to discuss the appropriateness of their inclusion under an agency tasked with conserving "... 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."

Comments

In light of this question, it might be useful to look at just a few of the locations currently being touted by various groups for addition to the NPS:

1. The Pullman neighborhood in Chicago, described by an article in the Chicago Tribune this week as "one of the nation's first factory towns."

2. The George W. Bush childhood home ("when the family lived in the Midland home from 1951 to 1955, former President George H.W. Bush was in the oil business...") . It's already a museum operated by a local group.

3. The Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area (Texas coast south of Houston).

4. The Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana.

5. The Maine Woods National Park and Preserve.

A blog called the "New National Parks Project" appeared in January 2011, but hasn't seemed to gain much traction. Its basic premise does, however, touch on the same question asked by this article:" ... our National Park System is far from complete. There are hundreds of priceless natural landscapes and historic sites that qualify as new parks ...Now is the time to preserve these irreplaceable treasures as the next generation of national parks — before they are lost forever."

The challenge will be figuring out which of those areas are truly "irreplaceable treasures" worthy of addition to the national park system...and which should be operated by other organizations.

My answer to the the question: "Is the National Park System in danger of turning into a catchall system?" would be "yes."

What, exactly, is the problem with a catch-all system? There's some organizational challenges but you get to take advantage of synergies - preserving mixed-grass prairie at Little Bighorn or historic sites in the Smokies or archaeology everywhere.If the problem is that Congress likes to add sites without funding them adequately - - well, Congress is a different kind of problem.

Thank you Kurt for providing this thread to continue the "derailed" discussion of Kalaupapa.

In my opinion, the answer to your question posed above is absolutely yes and it is absolutely the wrong way to go. The NPS should preserve signficant historical and natural assets. It should not be used to create symbols of hero worship or social/political movement celebration. The latter merely dilute its mission, relevance and budget.

I have no problem with lots of variety in the system. I guess in my mind the term "catchall" implies the risk of the NPS trying to be so inclusive that the quality of the system suffers. In some cases, the primary motivation for recent or proposed additions seems to be (1) a local group can't afford to keep running an existing site or (2) the assumption that NPS status will result in a boost to the local economy. Neither of those is justification for addition to the NPS system.

Traveler, a tough issue. I am inclinned to agree with you however, my own bias is to try to protect more of the ecological units of the system. On the other hand, respect for our cultural and historical heritage is important also. But it does seem we are trying to preserve all of it, or, as Jim Burnett points out, becoming a catchall for sites that local organizations cannot maintain. Interesting issue.

Thanks for the comment and links, Jim Burnett.

A northern Maine woods national park may be a good idea. I guess I don't understand the logic of excluding Mt. Katahdin and the rest of Baxter State Park as is the case with this proposal. The scenery in northern Maine certainly qualifies as a National Park. The Northeast currently only is home to one national park -- Acadia outside Bar Harbor. Perhaps Franconia Notch and the Mt. Washington area in New Hampshire should also be considered for a National Park. Before he leaves office after the end of 2016, President Obama should consider some kind of action on a second national park for the Northeast.

Saying that those sites are in the "National Park System" is a catchall phrase in itself, since the first three are either National Historic Sites (or proposed) or National Monuments. They are under the jurisdiction of the Park Service, but they aren't National Parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.

The Park Sevice has different responsibilities for different types of sites and landscapes, and they are the logical agency. The BLM and Forest Service manage a few other landscape-scale monuments, but I can't imagine them in charge of historic sites.

The real question is, as Jim Burnett raised, whether these sites are important enough to be managed by a federal agency.

I think that ship has sailed- the National Park System is already a catchall system. A cursory look at the variety of sites confirms that. I think the underlying reason is laudable: people want to protect and preserve the full scope of the country's natural, historic, and cultural heritage. The reason why all these areas are under the management of the NPS is because there are no real alternatives on the national level. The U.S. does not have Cultural Ministry like many nations, or a National Trust like the U.K. For those who believe an area desrves national recognition, there are few options other than the National Park System.

"Is the National Park System in danger of turning into a catchall system? Should a site dedicated to the nuclear arms race, another to union organizers, and another to First Ladies really fall under an agency that started out preserving spectacular vistas and landscapes, that showcases Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon?"

Morristown was the first National Historical Park; it was created in 1933, 81 years ago. Salem Maritime was the first National Historic Site; it was created in 1938, 76 years ago. the first four National Military Parks were created in the 1890s, and were transferred to the National Park Service in 1933, the same year that the first NHP was created.

So this seems like a particularly silly question to me. The National Park Service may have started out just preserving spectacular vistas and landscapes, but for the past 80 years it's clearly been managing more than that. It's not like the Park Service's expanded role of preserving sites of historical and cultural significance, in addition to areas of natural beauty and significance, is some sort of new development.

If it is appropriate for the National Park Service to manage sites associated with the development of maritime industry or the textile industry or trade outposts, then it is appropriate for the Service to manage a site associated with the history of organized labor. If it is appropriate for the Park Service to manage sites associated with the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and the Civil War and the Cold War (Minuteman Missile), then it is appropriate for it to manage a site associated with World War 2. If it is appropriate for the Park Service to manage birthplaces and residences and memorials associated with various presidents, it's appropriate for it to manage one associated with First Ladies as well.

The alternatives to this would be either the government jettisoning these historic sites, which I feel would be a colossal loss for our country and our national heritage, or creating a duplicative and redundant bureaucracy to perform the same functions the National Park Service is already performing perfectly well -- and considering many of our National Parks still involve the management, interpretation, and preservation of historic structures (or are you saying there are none of these things at Yellowstone, at Glacier, at Yosemite?) the Park Service would still need to employ historians and archeologists like whatever new bureaucratic agency we create to exclusively manage historic sites. So what's the point? It sounds like an increase in inefficiency and a waste of taxpayer money to engage in such a reorganization.

I saw a comment a while back, and I think it was on this forum, that the NPS should maybe be broken up into 3 units. One should be for historic, another for military, and a unit for the nature parks. I think this is a better approach. Then those three units are funded and budgeted accordingly. It can get pretty sketchy when it comes to historic sites, because just about anything can be declared historic if it's somewhat aged. I think the original National Park idea was created to preserve landscapes. I think Mesa Verde was where that tide started to shift.I don't really seek out the cannonball sites, but I can see where they are part of the American fabric.

I do hope Maine Woods occurs in my life time. I also like your idea of upgrading the Presedential range. Also, the adirondacks are a pretty well preserved place too. Even though it's not a National Park, it feels like it in many areas.

"I saw a comment a while back, and I think it was on this forum, that the NPS should maybe be broken up into 3 units. One should be for historic, another for military, and a unit for the nature parks. I think this is a better approach."

I really don't. Many of the historic sites also contain areas of natural beauty that need to be preserved along the same lines as places like Glacier National Park. And many of the grand natural areas have historic sites within them that require the appropriate preservation and interpretation.

So you'd create three different agencies. And then, in order to properly do their jobs, these agencies would either need to co-manage virtually every site in the system, or they'd end up employing people with the same professional skills. It'd create new inefficiencies and bureaucracies that would not actually help in the management of these places in any way. You're the supposed expert on Great Smoky Mountains here. Well, Great Smoky has the appropriate staff to maintain its trails and vistas, but it also has people with historical expertise who maintain its historic structures. So would the new Historic Park Service need to co-manage Great Smoky with the Natural Park Service in order to ensure the sites are cared for appropriately? Or would the Natural Park Service keep employing historians and archaeologists, the same sort of people getting hired by the Historic Park Service? Then we'd have two duplicative agencies hiring the same sort of people. It makes absolutely no sense.

The National Park Service is staffed to properly manage each aspect of its mission.

" It can get pretty sketchy when it comes to historic sites, because just about anything can be declared historic if it's somewhat aged."

That's not really true. The National Park Service has clear guidelines for determining national significance, along with suitability and feasibility for inclusion in the park system, for historic sites. If you think their analysis goes no deeper than "yep, that building is old," that's really silly. Their criteria is solid, they do great historic analysis, and I've read plenty of SRSes where they've dismissed sites as lacking national historic significance.

"I think the original National Park idea was created to preserve landscapes."

That was the original idea, but the idea changed a long time ago. When the oldest historic sites under the Park Service's purview are almost as old (81 years) as the Park Service itself (98 years), it's kind of pointless to change things back to the way they used to be. The service has long since adapted to its expanded mission of preserving historic and culturally significant sites.

The alternatives to this would be either the government jettisoning these historic sites, which I feel would be a colossal loss for our country and our national heritage

Disagree on two levels. First, many of these sites really have no historical significance and dropping them from the NPS would do nothing to diminish our national heritage. Second, jettisoning even the significant ones would not necessarily result in a loss. Take Presidential homes. Which are the most historically significant and most visited? Hoover birth place? Truman's home? Reagan's birthplace? Carter's peanut farm? No. Its Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier. None of which are in the park system. It didn't take the NPS to preserve these truly historically significant properties.

Its the National Park System. Not the National Historic Society or the National Cheerleader for Social Causes. If there is a truly historic site that is threatened or can't be privately maintained then NPS status might be warranted. But when the NPS has to search for a cite to honor politically correct cause A, B, or C, then it is nothing but a waste of taxpayer money.

I do hope Maine Woods occurs in my life time. I also like your idea of upgrading the Presedential range.

Given these are already well managed and protected, what would be accomplished? I have hiked the 100 mile Wilderness a couple of times. I can't see how upgrading it to NPS status would improve the experience in any way.

Simply due to providing the eastern US with a few more National Parks on par with Shenandoah, Smokies, and the Everglades. Maine Woods, the Allegheny Highlands in northeaster WV, and the Presidentials would fit the bill for the next best places, IMO.

Simply due to providing the eastern US with a few more National Parks

Why? Just to say we have more National Parks?

ethelred, I am mostly in agreement with your comment, however, I do think it is well documented that some areas are absorbed into the NPS pretty much for a political payoff, the NPS criteria being set aside to do so. A very interesting book on the issue is Dwight Rettie, "Our National Park System". Two glaring examples were Mar-A-Largo (Florida) and currently Steamtown, USA. At least Steamtown is an interesting place to visit. Mar-A-Largo was de-listed, but it took much to get it done. Mar-A-Largo was justified by the Senators of Florida at the time as a classic example of the lifestyle of the extremely wealthy (over consumption at its height). It was the Post family and the widow was trying to get the three daughters interested in taking it over, but they all declined saying it was to expensive to maintain. In any case, a fascinating read. I do think that when you get into de-listing, it is a a very complicated issue and can be quite polarizing. But the general state of our current political process truly is corrupted by the huge of amounts of money necessary to get anyone elected or get through the army of well heeled lobbyists at every door. It is quite polarized in my view.

"I am mostly in agreement with your comment, however, I do think it is well documented that some areas are absorbed into the NPS pretty much for a political payoff, the NPS criteria being set aside to do so."

That is correct. A more recent example is Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. The NPS conducted a special resource study and determined the area was not something that should be included in the National Park System. But ultimately these decisions are made by Congress, so it got included anyway.

I merely pointed out the NPS's strict criteria to refute the idea that they'll add any ol' place just because it's old. Not so. If you read through their criteria for national significance, for suitability, and for feasibility, they're sensible criteria and they're fairly strict. And if you read through a lot of the SRSes they conduct, in plenty of instances they decide an area is lacking in one or more of these criteria and recommend against inclusion. Usually Congress heeds that.

Agree ethelred, on the whole, the NPS effort and policies addressing listing new areas set a high standard. Thank you.

ethelred,

Do you have a link to these stringent historical crieteria the NPS uses. I would like to know how common homes occupied for a few years by people who became president 40 years later can meet such thorough vetting.

Thank you Kurt for offering this article as a "Reader Participation Day" topic. The discussion of the evolving mission of the NPS is many decades old, with Horace Albright requesting upon his retirement as the agency's second director that the NPS not evolve into yet another government bureaucracy.

All too often from where I sit, I see the NPS succumbing to the economic and political pressures of industrial tourism, with every community, Chamber of Commerce, and special interest group desiring it's own green spot on the map designated with an NPS arrowhead and local visitor center.

The argument made for keeping the catchall system as it is and thus avoiding duplication of staff expertise, seems sound. This duplication of expertise would certainly occur if the NPS were given a more restricted focus on the management of natural areas of national and international ecological and scenic significance, with other entities given responsibility for areas significant to our nation's history, culture, military achievements, and to urban and suburban outdoor recreation.

On the other hand, such an argument can also be made for consolidating all federal agencies that utilize employees having similar expertise in law enforement, administration, education, science, interpretation, etc., in their management of large or small areas of national and cultural significance. Perhaps this logic was what was in the minds of Clinton/Gore administrators when they "reinvented" government and removed staff scientists from the NPS and transferred them into the now defunct U.S. Biological Survey (since absorbed by the USGS)?

Re: the question from ec about criteria for proposed new units for the NPS. I'd suspect there are documents with more details, but a summary of those criteria is found at this link.

What appears to be the same or a very similar document is found here in a plain text layout (a .pdf file) that may be easier to read than the brochure cited above.

Apparently I was logged off so I got to read a posters comments I have on ignore. So I'll comment. Instead of asking others to produce information why don't you go lookup the SRS documents for the homes for which you have an axe to grind with their inclusion in the NPS. You have not proven that the NPS didn't reject those sites and Congress went ahead and included them anyway. It was tempting to give you a lmgtfy.com link to help you out. It was nice of Jim to provide what he did. Now back to the ignore feature.... Thank you Kurt.

You have not proven that the NPS didn't reject those sites and Congress went ahead and included them anyway.

Since I didn't make the claim, I don't know why I would have to prove anything. I am sorry it offends you when I ask for assistance.

Jim,

Thanks for the link. It is nice to know that some of us can civily share information so that all of us can expand our knowledge base and gain further appreiciation for differing perspectives.

Per the link, it would appear to me that many units would fall short of these criteria:

A proposed unit will be considerednationally significant if it meets all four of the followingstandards:it is an outstanding example of aparticular type of resource.it possesses exceptional value of quality illustrating or interpreting the natural or culturalthemes of our Nation’s heritage.it offers superlative opportunitiesfor recreation for public use andenjoyment, or for scientificstudy.it retains a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled example of theresource.

I don't know anything about the organization, but an article today on the website nextcity.org illustrates the potential risk of political pressure to establish new NPS areas based more and more on the hope of a boost to local economies. The article, "14 Billion Reasons to Support the National Park Service" begins as follows:

"Across America, communities look to tourism to boost their economies, and when it comes to attracting more visitors, many cities are looking to the National Park Service (NPS). Some in Chicago are aiming to revitalize a poor, historic neighborhood with the help of an NPS designation. In Northern California, Rosie the Riveter National Park has recast Richmond’s waterfront."

Whether it's always true or not, there's a perception that the NPS designation has a Midas touch for local economies, and that message is getting a good bit of media attention. That siren song of more dollars in local cash registers holds potential pitfalls for the NPS going forward if the quality of new additions suffers as a result.

In Northern California, Rosie the Riveter National Park has recast Richmond’s waterfront."

With only a little over 30,000 in attendance last year its doubtful the park itself has had meaningful impact. The creation may have motivated the area's constituants to do what they should have done in the first place - but then that is their job, not the Federal governments.

That siren song of more dollars in local cash registers holds potential pitfalls for the NPS going forward if the quality of new additions suffers as a result.

Anything that dilutes the quality is likely to have pitfalls for the NPS.

It's too bad that Congress countermands recommendations of NPS.

It's too bad that Congress countermands recommendations of NPS.

Generally I would agree with that. How often does it happen?

Did a little research.

In the first 70 years after the establishment of Yellowstone, there were 32 units created out of a total of 149 (21%) that had less then 100k visitors in 2013. The next 70 years, there were 110 out of 220 (50%).*

That is what happens when you go searching for causes.

* Statistics are for units that had visitor counts in 2013

In 1933, the War Deparment transferred battlefields, cemeteries and national monuments to the National Park Service. I wonder what the discussion was then.

The National Park Service is not just about "protecting and preserving". It's also about interpretation. What does the site mean? Why was it preserved? How does it fit in with our national history?

Danny

www.hikertohiker.com

We should certainly dump the "ego parks." Those homes, birthplaces, and all the other places associated in some way with a past president -- except for those who had profound effects on our nation's history, such a Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and a few others.

How many places have been designated or proposed to recall Clinton? Three? Not sure and don't want to look it up. But so far it seems that his birthplace, boyhood home, and back seat of one of his cars have been proposed.

While we're at it, let's ban the naming of Federal buildings, courthouses, highways, dams, bridges and other structures for the Congresscritter who dragged home the pork needed to build a monument to himself. They could be named, instead, in honor of people who have really contributed something to the country. People like Medal of Honor recipients or those whose work to improve medical care, education, culture or other worthy efforts is really worth remembering.

Generally agree with you Lee except that being a member of Congress doesn't necessarily disqualify one from really contributing - though it may be a major impediment.

"And the back seat of one of his cars"

I love it!

Nice post, Lee, although disambiguating history from political history can be pretty tricky.

Yep (what ecbuck said:).

disambiguating history from political history can be pretty tricky.

More likely completely impossible.

When I see the NPS announcing things like this "National Park Service To Look At American History Of Lesbians, Gays, Transgenders, And Bi-Sexuals" I'd say describing it as a catchall system is being kind. They have seriously lost their way.

I would prefer to see them stick to preservation of natural wonders and leave monuments, historic places & "culture" to others.

Whenever culture becomes "culture", it is usually referring to someone else's culture.