Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Introduction to Summer 2008 Forum Journal (Vol. 22, No.4) 

12-09-2015 17:35

Many Americans assume that most of our nation’s important cultural resources are part of the National Park System. Most of them also assume that these places are fully protected and well cared-for.

They’re wrong on both counts.

Right now, while summer vacation season is in full swing and crowds of people are flocking to national parks and historic places all over the country, hundreds of significant landscapes, structures, and sites—including some irreplaceable treasures that record important chapters in America’s story—are in imminent danger of being lost forever.

Many of these endangered places are on public lands administered by two federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Neither is a historic preservation agency in the generally accepted sense, but each is the de facto steward of an enormous—and enormously significant— collection of historic and cultural resources. What’s more, each has been given a mandate that often assigns a low priority to preservation activities—or even ignores these responsibilities altogether.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for some 260 million acres of land, mostly in the West. It is a common misperception that the BLM manages a lot of third-rate real estate, land that isn’t “good  enough” for inclusion in the national park system and is valuable only for exploitation of its minerals. Nothing could be further  from the truth. Much BLM land displays stunning scenic beauty, and much of it is thickly sown with historic and archeological sites that are part of the heritage of all Americans.

Similarly (and understandably), most people associate the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) with one word: trees. But in fact, Forest Service lands encompass much more than tall timber. USFS is responsible for more than 190 million acres of public land in 44 states and Puerto Rico, and on that land are nearly 325,000 identified cultural resource sites, ranging from Native American sacred places to battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil wars and fire lookouts built in the New Deal era.

Both agencies are plagued by chronic underfunding and understaffing. One result is that only a small portion of the land under BLM and USFS jurisdiction has been surveyed— which means that the agencies don’t know precisely what kinds of cultural resources, or how many of them, actually exist on the land for which they are responsible. It is estimated, for example, that more than 2 million sites of historical and/or cultural significance may be out there on Forest Service land—but since only 20 percent of that land has been surveyed, this figure is only a guess.

As for the sites that have been identified, far too many are being damaged or even destroyed by threats as varied as careless off-road vehicle use, grazing, mineral exploration, unauthorized land use, theft, and vandalism—not to mention natural forces such as floods and wildfires, as well as the inexorable effects of time and weather.

Over the years, the National Trust has sought to focus public attention on this serious situation— and, more important, to bring about needed change—in a number of ways. In 2006 we commissioned a study of the threat to cultural resources on BLMlands (NTHP-BLM-Report.pdf), and earlier this year we issued a similar report on lands managed by the Forest Service (NTHP-Forest-Service-Report-2008-web.pdf). Our 2005 list of America’s 11Most Endangered Historic Places included the National Landscape Conservation System, which is managed by the BLM, while the 2007 list included the scores of threatened historic structures that stand in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. These and other activities are part of the National Trust’s ongoing Public Lands Initiative, which is summarized on our website at www.preservationnation.org/information-center/saving-a-place/public-lands/.

This issue of Forum Journal is part of that same effort. These articles present a compelling overview of the challenges and complexities of preservation on America’s public lands—but they also spotlight a few of the ways in which the challenges are being addressed at places such as White Grass Ranch in Wyoming and Lake Fannin in Texas.

Cultural resources on our public lands should be treated with the utmost respect, with only the best stewardship practices, the highest level of scholarship, and the most up-to-date technology employed in their identification, preservation, and interpretation. We’re well short of that goal right now, and we have an obligation—to ourselves and to the generations that will follow us—to make sure that we reach it soon.



Publication Date: Summer 2008

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Author(s):Richard Moe
Volume:22
Issue:4