Preserving Historic Resources in the National Park System

By Sharee Williamson posted 10-20-2016 10:09


This year, as the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th birthday, the National Trust and many of its partner organizations are acknowledging the extraordinary role that the NPS has played in preserving our cultural heritage during its first 100 years. There are innumerable preservation successes throughout the national park system—from well-known places, like Gettysburg National Military Park, to lesser-known ones, like Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The NPS manages sites that allow visitors to experience firsthand the breadth of America’s stories, and the centennial provides an opportunity to reflect on this legacy of historic preservation and plan to build on it into the next century.

But the important work of preservation is not without its difficulties. The NPS faces several major challenges in ensuring that the historic resources under its management receive sufficient attention and funding—including a focus on both natural and cultural resources and a considerable maintenance backlog.

Natural and Cultural Resources

A majority of the 413 park areas within the national park system managed by the NPS were established to ensure the protection of historic and cultural resources. While the first national parks—including Yellowstone, which was established in 1872, and Sequoia and Yosemite, which were established in 1890—are known for their majestic and iconic natural features, many other resources within the national park system—like Mesa Verde National Park, the first park founded (in 1906) primarily to protect cliff dwellings and other archaeological resources or Fort McHenry National Monument—focus primarily on protecting and interpreting the nation’s history. To ensure that these resources are preserved into the next century, it is imperative that greater emphasis be placed on their maintenance and protection.

A bridge in Yosemite National Park. | Credit: Lee Rentz

Despite the many sites that are managed by the NPS for their historical significance, the public is sometimes less aware of the role that our national parks play in preserving and interpreting our history than of their role in conserving natural resources. Some of the most visited and iconic parks in the national park system are renowned for their natural features, like Half Dome in Yosemite and Gregory Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But these same two parks also feature historic resources: Yosemite is the home to rustic stone bridges that cross the Merced River and lend a unique, immersive sense of place to the park. In the Smokies, visitors to the Elkmont campground can see the remaining cabins of the Elkmont Historic District.

While these historic resources are less well known, Americans who visit Yosemite and the Smoky Mountains enjoy them alongside the parks’ natural features. Cultural, as well as natural, resources enrich the parks, and funding for the maintenance of historic resources should be prioritized to ensure that both remain available to future park visitors.

Addressing Deferred Maintenance

Unfortunately, congressional appropriations for the national park system have been insufficient to address the needs of the historic resources managed by the NPS. The current maintenance backlog within the national park system is estimated at $12 billion, of which more than $3 billion is attributed to the needs of historic resources. This deferred maintenance puts historic sites at risk of permanent damage or loss.

Insufficient federal funding has created a need for innovative approaches to bringing in funds from non-federal partners. One such method of attracting outside funding—as well as hands-on involvement—is historic leasing, which ensures the preservation of historic structures by shifting the ongoing maintenance obligations to partners.

In 2013 the National Trust published a report about the benefits of historic leasing, including the ability to reduce the maintenance backlog while simultaneously enhancing public use and enjoyment of cultural resources. Historic leasing has already been used successfully at sites like the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the Argonaut Hotel in San Francisco, and Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas and is still being explored in places like Fort Hancock in the Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey and New York.  Given the size of the maintenance backlog, the NPS should consider pursuing  historic leasing more aggressively across the park system.  

Download the Report

Case Study: Apostle Island National Lakeshore

When Congress established the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore along Lake Superior in Wisconsin in 1970, the NPS acquired numerous properties, including summer and permanent residences, farmsteads, fish camps, and former lodges and resorts. Many of these buildings have since been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Trust’s 2013 report identifies the Lakeshore as a candidate for historic leasing. 

Congress gave considerable attention to the Lakeshore’s historic significance. The 1969 Senate Report that informed the park’s establishment declared that “the Lakeshore would be a key link in a network of natural and historic attractions of national value that is taking shape in the north-central United States.” At least three congressional sponsors extolled both the historic and cultural value of the Lakeshore in their floor statements, and former NPS director George Hartzog testified that “the concept [of the Lakeshore] is to optimize outdoor recreation in the context of preservation of the natural and cultural resources that are there.”

Unfortunately, despite this initial focus on preserving a variety of resources, the NPS removed numerous buildings from the park in the Lakeshore’s early years, including most of the buildings that had once comprised a year-round, 19th-century, Norwegian-American fishing community at East Bay on Sand Island. Only two of the properties in the East Bay community remain: the Hansen farmstead, which is undergoing gradual restoration by the NPS, and the Plenty Charm cottage, which is currently in critical need of serious repairs.

And, despite the unambiguous testimony from the time of the Lakeshore’s founding, its current superintendent recently wrote that “the legislative history of the park also shows scant mention” of the Lakeshore’s many historically significant properties. If this misunderstanding of Congress’s intent continues to guide management decisions, more of the Lakeshore’s historically significant resources may be lost forever.

View of the Sand Island Lighthouse. During it's lifetime Sand Island supported a community of farmers and fishermen. | Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on flickr via Creative Commons license.

Another 100 Years of Preservation

The Apostle Islands Lakeshore is certainly not the only park in which management has not prioritized the maintenance of historic resources or been slow to embrace tools—like historic leasing—that can shift maintenance responsibilities onto non-federal partners, and Congress has begun to recognize that alternative tools are needed to address the needs of historic resources in the national park system. In FY 2012 and FY 2014, budget reports from the Congressional Appropriations Committee directed the NPS to increase the use of historic leasing. (Similar language is expected in the upcoming FY 2017 budget report.) This is a clear indication from Congress that the NPS should be looking for alternative ways to fund the needs of historic resources on the maintenance backlog.

The beginning of the NPS’s next century is an occasion to revisit and put into action the language of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, which defines the purposes of every national park and directs the NPS to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein.” Similarly, the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies “to administer federally owned ... historic resources in a spirit of stewardship for the inspiration and benefit of present and future generations.” The NPS should closely review its management priorities and funding mechanisms for maintaining historic resources and work to ensure their preservation for the next 100 years.

Sharee Williamson is an associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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