Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Introduction: Preserving Historic Structures in Our National Parks 

12-09-2015 17:35

The writer Wallace Stegner once famously asserted that “national parks are the best idea we ever had.” Our parks are among our greatest treasures, places that we can scarcely imagine not being here with us, part of our national identity, protected forever. Rock solid and secure as our national parks may seem, we must remember that they are in fact fragile human creations, subject to constant threats and in need of regular re-investment and careful stewardship. This issue of the National Trust’s Forum Journal looks at our national parks from several perspectives, and offers some new thinking on how we can be more effective in preserving the many historic structures that are found in our parks.

The national park idea has evolved significantly since its 19th-century beginnings in Yosemite and Yellowstone. When the National Park Service was first organized in 1916, there were just 14 “national parks” and another 21 “national monuments” placed under management of the new agency. Today there are some 387 “units” of the national park system, located in every corner of the country, and the lexicon of park types includes battlefields, cemeteries, historic sites, national seashores and lakeshores, wild and scenic rivers, parkways, trails, and recreation areas. Parks today are not only located in remote areas, but can also be found in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Increasingly, our parks reflect the diversity of our nation’s heritage, with park units dedicated to interpreting developments ranging from the Industrial Revolution to the Civil Rights movement.

Not only are there more parks, there are more people using them. In 1945, the number of visitors to all of our national parks totaled less than 12 million people. Last year, the number of annual visitors to our national parks totaled nearly 280 million, and some 23 individual parks recorded more than 3 million visits each. The Blue Ridge Parkway received the highest number of visits last year, at just under 20 million people, followed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area near San Francisco at 13.5 million and Great Smokies National Park at 9.2 million. Unfortunately, maintenance of park infrastructure has not kept up with the demands created by increasing numbers of visitors, and historic resources have suffered as a result.

We in the preservation movement have a special role to play in caring for national parks, for every one of them contains significant historic structures. Over the years, there has been a tendency among preservation groups to treat parks as separate realms, cared for by Congress and a host of environmental groups. Some have assumed that because parks are managed by the very agency that administers our national historic preservation programs, they probably don’t need our help. It isn’t so.

Historic preservationists have a huge stake in the future of our diverse and well-used system of national parks. More than 27,000 National Register properties are located in parks, ranging from well-known landmarks such as Ellis Island and the Old Faithful Inn to remote back country cabins and vernacular farmsteads. The first article in this issue, “From Rustic Romanticism to Modernism, and Beyond,” describes the architectural character and quality of historic structures found in our national parks. Threats to these sites are coming from all directions, both inside and outside park borders, causing the National Trust to include 17 different national parks on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places over the past decade.

Sprawl and its impact on the setting and historic context of many parks has been the reason for listing several national parks on our list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. There have been several note-worthy successes as a result of these listings, such as the protection of rural landscapes around Manassas Battlefield in Virginia and Antietam Battlefield in Maryland. But the pressure on other national parks from sprawling development has not waned, as indicated in John Hennessy’s essay on our Civil War battlefield parks in Virginia.

The need for maintenance and repair of historic structures has reached crisis levels in many parks, including Valley Forge National Historical Park and Mesa Verde National Park, both included on past lists of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The National Park Service estimates that there is a backlog of more than $1.2 billion needed to rehabilitate the historic structures in our parks. Although private donations have helped, including several key contributions raised by the National Trust through the Save America’s Treasures program, much more support is still needed to maintain historic park structures. We should also remember that maintenance takes more than money. Many parks lack adequate staff to carry out rehabilitation projects or do not have personnel trained in specialized preservation techniques.

Too many historic sites in our national parks are vacant and deteriorating because a viable use for the structure has not been identified. Historically, this has been a particular problem in parks where a premium is placed on scenic or natural resource values, such as Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming or Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. A number of experiments are being conducted in parks that offer hope for languishing historic structures, such as the long-term leasing programs being developed to preserve historic farmsteads at Cuyahoga National Recreation Area in Ohio and 19th century military facilities at Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey. Both of these innovative efforts are described in articles in this journal. We need to explore ways to expand the effective-ness of leasing programs to help preserve historic structures in other parks as well.

Since her appointment last summer, National Park Service Director Fran Mainella has stressed her belief that public-private partnerships must be part of any strategy to protect our parks. This is where historic preservation groups at the local, state, and national levels can play a greater role. Partnerships like the joint effort between the National Trust and Rocky Mountain National Park to preserve the historic McGraw Ranch, which is described in this issue, can be developed to save threatened sites in many parks. Several of the larger parks have strong “friends groups” that are increasingly taking on the role of funding partners as well as advocates. If the preservation of historic structures is not already on the project list for these groups, it can be added. New groups can be formed as well. The National Trust’s Midwest Office helped establish Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear to find re-use alternatives and raise funds to preserve vacant farmsteads within Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in Michigan.

Finally, while there is much that we all can do in the way of partnerships and creative problem solving, it should not be forgotten that our parks also need increased and sustained public funding to address the immense challenges they face, from transportation issues to monitoring the condition of fragile natural and cultural resources. The success of the Fee Demonstration Program, where parks are allowed to keep 80 percent of increased receipts from higher entrance fees, is a great example of how new funding programs can make a difference. As the final article in this journal explains, a national coalition called Americans for National Parks has formed around the goal of convincing Congress to add $280 million in new funding for parks next year and more in future years.

There is no one solution that will save our national parks. What is needed is a commitment from all of us— Congress, the National Park Service, preservation groups, environmental organizations, and private citizens—to work together to ensure that our parks and the fragile resources they contain are protected for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Publication Date: Summer 2002

#NationalParkService #repairbacklog #ForumJournal #PublicLands

Author(s):Richard Moe