What Cost to Save Historic Ft. Hancock?

Ft Hancock at Sandy Hook : NPS PhotoCompared to exploding geysers, red rock canyons, and ice covered mountains, public policy is pretty boring stuff. No one is going to send home a postcard containing the text of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 for instance. But, there is language contained within that NHPA that is making a mess for the people fighting private development in Sandy Hook at the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Part of the argument against private development at Sandy Hook is that it is public property and that there is something illegal (if not at least unethical) for a corporation to come in and make a profit at our expense. Unfortunately, that isn't a strong argument anymore. A very quick look around the Park Service reveals many corporations making big profits at the expense of park owners (you and me). You are probably familiar with these: In Yosemite, Delaware North runs not only the hotel concession, but operates for-profit gift shops, a grocery store, and interpretive services. At Mount Rushmore, visitors are required to pay to park at a concessionaire run parking lot within the monument. And if you'd like to visit Alcatraz Island or the Statue of Liberty you must pay a private for-profit concessionaire for a boat ride. The Presidio, a former military installation like Ft Hancock, is now being managed by the Park Service to pay its own way with many diverse lease holders occupying the historic buildings on base.

The central problem with Sandy Hook is the preservation of its historic buildings. Like any historic building, without attention, they will fall apart. And you know that when I say "attention", I mean money. So who pays?

A couple days ago I highlighted an essay here at Park Remark which I called the "Roadmap to Privatization". At one end of the management spectrum is a "Fully Public" model, and at the other end is the "Fully Private" model. It wouldn't surprise me if most readers considered the "Fully Public" model the best case for managing our National Parks. But what does reality tell us? The Parks today have made big strides into the second model (Public Utility - entrance fees, etc) and have even stretched into number three (Outsourcing - concessionaire run core services). So to argue, as I have done, that the money to maintain the buildings at Sandy Hook should come 100% from the government might be idealistically sound (Fully Public model), but it ignores the current reality of Park Service management.

If the government won't pay, and we have decided these buildings at Ft. Hancock are worth keeping in our historic trust, where do we get the money to protect them? Reasonable people have pointed that the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 provides concessions to outside lease agreements. Section 111 of the NHPA:
(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any Federal agency after consultation with the Council, shall, to the extent practicable, establish and implement alternatives for historic properties, including adaptive use, that are not needed for current or projected agency purposes, and may lease an historic property owned by the agency to any person or organization, or exchange any property owned by the agency with comparable historic property, if the agency head determines that the lease or exchange will adequately insure the preservation of the historic property.

(b) The proceeds of any lease under subsection (a) may, notwithstanding any other provision of law, be retained by the agency entering into such lease and used to defray the costs of administration, maintenance, repair, and related expenses incurred by the agency with respect to such property or other properties which are on the National Register which are owned by, or are under the jurisdiction or control of, such agency. Any surplus proceeds from such leases shall be deposited into the Treasury of the United States at the end of the second fiscal year following the fiscal year in which such proceeds were received.
So, there ya go. That is our solution. If we don't want the buildings to crumble to the ground, and the government will not pay for the necessary improvements, the law allows us to find private lessees who will make those improvements. But does that make it right? I would answer "no, it does not".

The arrangement at the Presidio is a mess (did you know that you can link directly to "Leasing Opportunities" from the Presidio nps.gov homepage?). When the federal budget is created each year, I imagine that some government accountant sees the Park Service as a giant liability -- $2 billion down the hole annually. But the Presidio represents (for this government accountant) an opportunity to turn a liability into an asset, a chance to make some money back. And if the Presidio makes money, the accountant wonders, why can't we do the same thing at other park units? Sandy Hook has been added to this grand experiment.

For those of you who want that "Fully Public" model for the parks, consider Scot Silver's words as quoted at the National Parks Traveler last week:
When we accept commercialization, we can be assured that MORE commercialization will be forced down our throats. If we accept outsourcing, we can be assured that MORE outsourcing will follow. Same with privatization, user fees, reliance upon volunteers, etc. ... If one accepts the solutions that are being offered, then the government will make further cuts in funding. If park managers prove they can do more with less -- then they will be given less and told to do more.
Which is worse: No funding for preservation of buildings at Ft Hancock which leads eventually to their destruction, OR the continued spread of privatization across areas managed by the National Park Service? Sounds a bit like an ultimatum, doesn't it? How would you answer?