Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Experiencing History Firsthand in Our National Parks 

12-09-2015 17:35

Historic preservation is ultimately preserving what makes a community unique what gives a community its “one--ofa-- kindness” and its “sense of place.” This is an increasingly important issue in a world that constantly changes.

It is ultimately the one issue that underlines all our national historic preservation programs, such as the National Register of Historic Places or the historic rehabilitation tax incentives.

And it is the one issue that resonates in our great national parks. I have just come from two national parks Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and Stones River National Battlefield in Tennessee.

Both parks commemorate a unique “place.” Mammoth Cave preserves not only the remarkable natural wonders above and below ground. But it also preserves and commemorates a complex human story beginning with the first Americans who lived on the land that would become the park and continues with the traditional communities removed when the park was first created in the early 1940s.

That story is not dusty history. Both communities survive and remain vibrantly interested in the lands within the park and demand a voice in the care and preservation of this unique place and how their stories are told by the Park Service.

The same is true at Stones River which preserves the site of the winter of 1862--63 Civil War battle. Now almost 150 years after the guns fell silent at Stones River, we Americans continue to care deeply about what happened at that unique place how it is told and how it is preserved.

The history of the Civil War is not dead. Just pick up any newspaper these days. In fact, history is never dead. Why? Because we preserve the site of the Battle of Stones River not so much for what happened there long ago but for the lessons it holds for us today. How it speaks to us and to the generations of Americans yet to come. How we come to these places to learn who we are as Americans where we have been and where we are going.

There is nothing more compelling and meaningful than standing on the place where history happened. Experiencing it firsthand for yourself. That is the most powerful learning experience.

As preservationists, we are about preserving “place.” We must never forget that.

Preserving Natural and Cultural Treasures

I always feel it’s important to say a word about the National Park Service as this nation’s principal heritage ministry. Most of our citizens think of the National Park Service as the steward of America’s wild and irreplaceable natural treasures Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Denali, Everglades, Acadia.

And we are! But did you know that fully 62 percent of the 388 units of our great national parks were created by Congress to preserve and tell some aspect of the great American story?

As treasured historian David McCullough has said, “What better place to experience the history of the nation than in our great national parks?”

National parks such as the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace or Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Kentucky. Or the great battlefields of the American Revolution or the Civil War at places like Stones River, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Saratoga, Cowpens, or Kings Mountain. Sites from our nation’s earliest history in Alaska at Bering Land Bridge to southwest Pennsylvania, the site of the tragedy of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.

Preserving the American story is as important a mission for the National Park Service as our commitment to preserve habitat and species. We also take seriously our commitment as the nation’s heritage minister with our responsibility for the national preservation program for the more than 1.3 million properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places to the more than 2,300 National Historic Landmarks designated since the 1930s.

We value our partnerships with state historic preservation offices, tribal historic preservation programs and the thousands of local governments without whom the National Park Service could not carry out its mission.

The National Park Service is proud to once again be a co--sponsor of the National Preservation Conference. It cannot be said enough that the National Trust is the National Park Service’s principal private sector partner in historic preservation. It has been a productive partnership for more than 50 years and the National Park Service looks to many more.

Publication Date: Winter 2005


Author(s):Fran P. Mainella

Tags and Keywords