The Cultural Resource Challenge: Committing to Stronger Advocacy

By Special Contributor posted 11-09-2016 16:11


In honor of the 2016 anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), Preservation Leadership Forum is hosting a series of blog posts highlighting its programs and history. In these posts staff look back on how far the NPS has come and forward to where it hopes to go in the future.

In this post we end the series by talking to Stephanie Toothman, the associate director of Cultural Resources, Partnerships, and Science at the National Park Service and the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, about the Cultural Resource Challenge—its goals, challenges, and accomplishments thus far.

The Cultural Resource Challenge: Preserving America’s Shared Heritage in the 21st Century was created to chart a course for the National Park Service (NPS) to manage our stewardship and partnership responsibilities for America’s cultural heritage as we celebrate our centennial and look forward to the next hundred years. Released in 2013 the Challenge commits the NPS to stronger advocacy for both parks and partnership programs by addressing these programs’ most urgent needs and key challenges.crccover.jpg

How did the Cultural Resources Challenge come about and what are its aims?

During the NPS’ centennial year, we have focused on efforts to raise public awareness of the entire breadth of the NPS’ mission, including the important work we do in historic preservation and cultural resource management. The fact that we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) during the same year made this effort even more essential.

These milestone anniversaries offer an opportunity to reflect on where we have come from and where we need to go. The future of our national historic preservation program depends on our work making cultural resources relevant to present and future generations, exploring the complexity of our shared heritage through our parks and programs, and demonstrating how that shared heritage is important to the quality of life of all Americans.

To guide our efforts in preserving America’s shared heritage in the 21st century, the NPS developed the Cultural Resource Challenge, which incorporates more than a decade of analysis, discussions, and experiences both within the NPS and with many partners. The Challenge identifies overall goals and specific actions to support the national historic preservation program.

The vision that the NHPA proposed 50 years ago is just as relevant today, establishing strong connections between the preservation of our heritage and our quality of life—between preservation and issues ranging from education to energy.

The Challenge is intended not only to move us in the direction of this vision but also to identify priorities for doing so within the limits of our capacity:

Although nothing less than additional funding will help fully preserve America’s heritage for future generations, waiting for a comparable level of much-needed increases to address the issues that confront us now is NOT an option as we strive to meet our stewardship and partnership responsibilities to preserve the Nation’s shared heritage for future generations. … The goals and actions of the Challenge focus on opportunities the NPS does have to move forward within our existing levels or modest increases of support; they are designed to be aspirational, scalable, and collaborative.

The ambitious scope of the Challenge encompasses not only park stewardship needs but also support for our preservation assistance programs, including the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF).

We identified five goals that reflect the core values of the NPS and our partners:

  1. Stewardship: Provide leadership, support, and advocacy for the stewardship, protection, interpretation, and management of the nation’s heritage through scholarly research, science, and effective management.
  2. Partnerships: Recommit to the spirit and letter of the landmark legislation underpinning the National Park Service mission, as expressed in the Organic Act, the Antiquities Act, the Historic Sites Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act, through which the American people have made clear their desire for the protection and preservation of our historic and cultural resources.
  3. Engagement: Connect all Americans to their heritage resources in a manner that resonates with their lives, legacies, and dreams, and tells the stories that make up America’s diverse national identify.
  4. Relevancy: Integrate the values of heritage stewardship into major initiatives and issues such as renewable energy, climate change, community assistance and revitalization, and sustainability, while cultivating excellence in science and technical preservation as a foundation for resource protection, management, and rehabilitation.
  5. Workforce: Attract, support, and retain a highly skilled and diverse workforce, and support the development of leadership and expertise within the National Park Service.

The 40 actions associated with these goals provide specific guidance for moving forward. The funding priorities we have identified include additional NPS staff in both parks and programs, additional research funds, the digitization of the National Register of Historic Places, and full funding of the HPF at the authorized $150 million level.

What are some of the first steps being taken to meet the challenge?

To accomplish the goals of the Challenge, we have prioritized available funding to maximize our impact. Foremost, this meant getting our own house in order. We restructured the Cultural Resources directorate and our budget to provide room to grow, change, and fund key priorities—such as new National Historic Landmark theme studies addressing underrepresented communities—while striving to meet our core responsibilities. We have worked closely within the NPS, as well as with the Department of the Interior and the Office of Management and Budget, to support the Challenge and develop consensus on funding priorities for the national historic preservation program, both for the NPS and for our preservation partners.

I am proud to say that we have made important progress on many of the action items identified in the Challenge:

  • We have increased our baseline documentation for parks and our commitment to sharing that knowledge with our visitors and managers.
  • In partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration, we are making progress in fully digitizing the National Register of Historic Places.
  • We are making efforts to engage underrepresented communities through our “Telling All Americans’ Stories” initiatives—most recently through the release of the LGBT theme study in October 2016.
  • We are developing a Climate Change Response Strategy for Cultural Resources.
  • Our Cultural Resource Career Academy is providing new forums for both training and sharing information through Communities of Practice, a network of NPS employees collaborating on shared subjects and issues.

What is the biggest barrier to accomplishing the goals outlined in the document?

As stated in the introduction to the Challenge, we cannot fully address the present and future needs of the national historic preservation program without a substantial increase in funding.

Increased funds would ensure the NPS’ capacity to steward in perpetuity the cultural heritage our parks represent. They would enable our partners to carry out their work with American communities across the nation—identifying, documenting, and protecting the stories and sites they value. They would enable us to integrate the benefits of historic preservation into the response to major challenges facing us as a nation. And, finally, they would ensure that the visions of our 1916 Organic Act— "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects therein and to ... leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations"— and the 1966 preamble to the NHPA— "the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life ... to give a sense of orientation to the American people"—can be fully realized.

Stephanie Toothman is the associate director of Cultural Resources, Partnerships, and Science at the National Park Service and the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.

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