National Park System Dilemmas, 1966-2016

By Special Contributor posted 12-08-2015 13:24

  

By John H. Sprinkle, Jr.

In this next post as part of a monthly series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, John H. Sprinkle, Jr. looks at the most recent fifty years of NPS history.

Painted Desert Community Complex, 1962 | Courtesy NPS/Photo by Beinlich Photography
Painted Desert Community Complex, 1962 | Courtesy NPS/Photo by Beinlich Photography

On Founder’s Day, August 25, 1966, when the National Park Service celebrated its 50th anniversary, there were 231 units (grouped in 16 distinctive categories) in the system that encompassed nearly 27 million acres spread across the United States and its territories. Despite the just-completed billion dollar infrastructure investment known as Mission 66, the Park Service in 1966 retained the same fundamental mission and character as in 1916: it was a (mostly western) land management agency dedicated to the stewardship of nationally significant historical, natural, and recreational resources. All this was about to change: the “new conservation,” which had begun as part of President Kennedy’s New Frontier (and as expanded in President Johnson’s new federalism approach to the Great Society), would transform the mandate of the National Park Service, adding major roles and responsibilities that focused attention beyond the boundaries of its traditional activities. Change within the mandates and missions of the National Park Service over the last 50 years has created a constellation of administrative dilemmas which continue to challenge the agency, its leadership, and its employees as we approach the centennial.

One perennial debate within the agency swirls around the question of expanding the system. Traditionalists within each generation have decried the addition of what were seen as less-than-nationally significant units—sometimes called “park-barrel” projects, where agency guidelines, standards, and analysis were swept away by a deliberate application of political pressure known as “Criterion P.” Reflecting this attitude on agency’s 65th anniversary, NPS Director Russell Dickenson exclaimed that the growth of the system “must now be curtailed.”1 The Park Service, it was frequently argued, cannot adequately fulfill its role as steward to an ever-increasing portfolio without substantial investment in maintenance and operations. Others were more pragmatic (in recognizing the reality that Congress and the executive branch rarely tire of creating new units), viewing the park ecosystem as organic and mutable, and embracing the episodic ability to fill gaps in the system so that it reflects a representative panorama of America.

The Section 106 process led to the protection of historic World War II structures at Montford Point Camp. This historic photo shows African American Marines during a training exercise.| Courtesy Montford Point Marine Museum
The Section 106 process led to the protection of historic World War II structures at Montford Point Camp. This historic photo shows African American Marines during a training exercise.| Courtesy Montford Point Marine Museum


Another Park Service dilemma over the last two generations was the growth of the so-called “partnership programs” where the agency’s mission crept beyond its traditional borders. Prior to 1966, for example, the Park Service was substantially hindered in its ability to assist states, local communities, or other federal agencies in addressing historic preservation issues at sites that were not deemed nationally significant. Expansion of the National Register of Historic Places, the execution of the Section 106 process on federal undertakings, and the creation of the diverse array of departmental standards and guidelines, each represented another layer of administrative responsibility that was external to what some saw as the agency’s core mandate. Implementation of the “new preservation” expressed in the National Historic Preservation Act, especially in its enabling of rehabilitation tax credits, was matched by the impact of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and other “non-park” programs on states, tribes, and local communities. For a short time during the Carter administration the internal and external programs were separated by the creation of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS).

The National Park Service has long recognized that these philosophical quandaries regarding the shape and content of the system are influenced by a wide variety of forces. The recent work of the National Park System Advisory Board under the leadership of historian John Hope Franklin and the National Parks Second Century Commission illustrated the ongoing debate about the future of the agency and its mission.2 These studies, and others, recognize that, despite its seemingly unique mission within the federal government, the agency’s status within the broader nationwide conservation movement has evolved—some would say declined—over the last five decades. Now serving as stewards for more than 400 units and administering dozens of external programs, the dilemmas facing the National Park Service are not new—they are well worn and familiar.

Next up: A look at some of the specific programs of the National Park Service.

Notes


1. Russell Dickenson, “Our Challenge Today,” National Park Service: 65th Anniversary, (National Park Service, 1981).

2. National Park System Advisory Board, Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century, National Park Service, 2001; National Park & Conservation Association, Advancing the National Park Idea, 2009.

John H. Sprinkle, Jr. is the Bureau Historian for the National Park Service. The views and conclusions in this blog are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the National Park Service or the United States Government.



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