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What’s in a Name? Is Landscape Important?

By Eleanor Mahoney May 1, 2013
Photo: Wikipedia Commons User Dk4hb

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

In 2000, during the waning days of the Clinton presidency, then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed an administrative order establishing the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). Housed within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the NLCS represented a significant shift in the agency’s mission and public persona. An organization once largely defined by its emphasis on “multiple uses,” now was home to a solidly conservation-oriented initiative, which currently includes more than 27 million acres. Even more noteworthy, the NLCS also encompassed a large number of newly designated National Monuments, many of which were distinguished by historic and cultural values, as well as their outstanding natural resources. Indeed, it was only in 1996 with the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that the BLM joined the National Park Service and the Forest Service in administering such sites.

Over the years, the NLCS has not been without its share of controversy and critiques. Conservatives in Congress have repeatedly attempted to de-fund the program, seeing it as an additional layer of federal bureaucracy and oversight on lands that might otherwise be leased for grazing or resource extraction. Preservationists, meanwhile, have not always appreciated the BLM’s management approach, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation going so far as to place the entire NLCS system on its “Most Endangered Places List” in 2005.  In explaining the selection, the Trust commented,

“…BLM’s ability to provide this protection is seriously hampered by chronic understaffing and underfunding…Unless BLM gets the funding and staffing it needs for the National Landscape Conservation System, irreplaceable treasures will continue to be lost or destroyed, and important chapters in America’s story will be erased.”

Environmental organizations focused much of their critique on the politicization of the program during the Bush Administration, when funding, executive interference and even complete elimination became constant concerns.

Yet, despite these challenges, in 2009, Congress passed authorizing legislation for the NLCS as part of a larger omnibus public lands bill bus, achieving something that other large landscape conservation initiatives, including National Heritage Areas, have so far failed to achieve. “In order to conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations, there is established in the Bureau of Land Management the National Landscape Conservation System,” the bill reads, setting a new national precedent for the recognition and subsequent designation of large, complex, layered landscapes.

Yet, now, in an interesting twist, the BLM has decided to change the program’s name somewhat unofficially, referring to it simply as “National Conservation Lands.” What does such an alteration mean? Is it just semantics? I would argue no, it is not. For both practitioners and the public the term “conservation,” has specific and historic connotations, meanings not often associated with culture or with living landscapes. Instead, (rightly or wrongly) conservation is usually shorthand for natural resource centered activities and experiences. Including the word landscape, by contrast, offers an entirely different sensibility. It connotes a combination of the natural and human-made, of interaction, evolution and change, challenging the artificial boundaries between nature and culture. It also recognizes that even our “wildest” places were and perhaps still are sites shaped by people on an ongoing basis. Perhaps the word landscape is not so important, after all “National Landscape Conservation System,” is undeniably a mouthful, but I do not think so. Words are more than letters on a page, they contain myriad meanings and possibilities and landscape is not one I am quite yet ready to abandon.

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Made in Pennsylvania and the State of Industrial History

By Eleanor Mahoney March 1, 2013

 

The Bost Building served as headquarters for the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers during the 1892 Homestead Lockout and Strike. Today, it is a visitor’s center for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Credit: Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

In 1991, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission published Made in Pennsylvania: An Overview of the Major Historical Industries of the Commonwealth. The text traced the course of the state’s industrial history, providing a succinct overview of major industries and significant historical landscapes, including steel, transportation, lumber and coal.  In addition, Made In Pennsylvania also provided a useful overview of the status of preservation vis-a-vis the Commonwealth’s industrial sites.

Reading the report (for the first time) over 20 years later, I was struck by the impressive work that Pennsylvania has done to both protect industrial sites and begin the process of interpretation and, if necessary, clean-up/restoration. I was also reminded of the important role that the 12 state and 6 national heritage areas have played in this process. Consider, for a moment, a few of the landscapes and themes the Pennsylvania State Areas encompass: the Oil Region in the Northwest region, the Lumber Region in the Northcentral region, the former Coalfields in Lackawanna Heritage Valley, the transportation networks of the Delaware and Lehigh Valley and the steel communities of the Rivers of Steel area in the Southwest. These same regions and the industrial heritage within their boundaries were highlighted in the Made in Pennsylvania report.

As noted above, many of these regions are also National Heritage Areas – a program now under threat. Legislation that links the National Park Service to 12 National Heritage Areas (including Rivers of Steel and Delaware and Lehigh) and allows for funding to flow to the Congressionally designated management entities has not been re-authorized, leaving preservation, recreation and conservation efforts in these regions, rich in industrial heritage, in a precarious position in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In the wake of the positive evaluation findings noted in another post on the Observer, its time that NPS and Congress acted to provide long-term support to the program.

For more information on NHAs significance to American labor history, check out a blog post I recently wrote for www.pubichistorycommons.org

 

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Secretary Salazar and Large Landscapes – A Fine Legacy

By Eleanor Mahoney January 31, 2013

In 2012, Sec. Salazar signed the designation of connecting components to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley on the left and NPS Director Jon Jarvis on the right. The Smith Trail represents two of the departing Secretary’s priorities – large landscape conservation and water trails. Photo: National Park Service

Earlier this month, Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he would be retiring from the Department of the Interior (DOI) by the end of March. Salazar, a Democrat who served for the entirety of President Obama’s first term, had previously been a Senator from his home state of Colorado. In declaring his intent to leave the administration, Salazar joined several other departing high profile figures on the “environment” team, including Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator.

Salazar’s legacy will likely hinge on the impacts of his energy policies, including the DOI’s handling of the Deep Water Horizon disaster and subsequent re-vamping of drilling safety standards, as well as his support for renewable energy projects on public lands and his role in settling Cobell vs. Salazar. However, he also should be recognized for his commitment to the field of large landscape conservation, in particular his emphasis on collaborative models and public-private partnerships.

Shortly after taking office in 2009, Salazar began discussing the idea of a “Treasured Landscape” initiative aimed at bringing diverse stakeholders together to conserve both federal and private lands. Based on experience with Great Outdoors Colorado, the Secretary and his staff hoped to draw support from local, state and national government agencies as well as nonprofit entities like land trusts and the private sector.  The program suffered negative publicity within a year however, owing to the leak of an internal departmental memo outlining potential future National Monument designations on Bureau of Land Management Lands in the West.  A testy exchange with members of Congress followed (this press release from Congressman Bob Bishop of Utah gives a bit of the tone) and, whatever the veracity of the document or its plans, the leak made “treasured landscape,” a dirty word and undoubtedly slowed momentum on some aspects of the program.

In late 2010 and 2011, attention shifted to the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative. Launched by the President himself, the AGO directed the Secretaries of the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to develop a joint conservation and recreation agenda based on input from the public. There followed a series of 51 listening sessions held across the country, an effort that ultimately engaged more than 10,000 participants in live sessions and generated more than 105,000 comments. Key points that emerged from the meetings as identified in a summary report included:

  • A need for accessible parks and green spaces for children
  • Enhanced support for urban parks and community green spaces.
  • More funds for river restorations and recreational “blueways,” which contribute to economic revitalization
  • Support for farmers, ranchers, and private landowners that help protect rural landscapes and provide access for recreation
  • Reinvestment of revenues from oil and gas extraction into the permanent protection of parks, wildlife habitat, and access for recreational activities
  • A 21st century conservation ethic that builds on local ideas and solutions for environmental stewardship and connecting to our historic, cultural, and natural heritage

In late 2012, Salazar signed a Secretarial Order establishing a formal AGO program within the DOI. The Order identified projects in all 50 states and included a list of landscapes of significance (take a look here), with a focus on working lands, rivers and urban parks. The Secretary also recently oversaw the establishment of a network of National Water Trails and the National Blueways System to conserve and promote outdoor recreation on key rivers. In addition, during Salazar’s tenure, the US Fish and Wildlife Service started the Landscape Conservation Cooperative program and the National Park Service committed to making “Scaling Up” a key point in its 2012 Call to Action.

Not a bad legacy for four years on the job!

So what is next? The short list of candidates is already growing. Whom would you nominate? Share your thoughts!

 

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Efforts Underway to Protect Lackawanna (NY) Industrial History

By Eleanor Mahoney December 8, 2012

Some interesting links/news on efforts to preserve the historic Bethlehem Steel Administration Building in Lackawanna, New York near Buffalo. Read the stories below to learn more about this grassroots effort to protect an integral part of the city’s labor history, spearheaded by the Lackawanna Industrial Heritage Group.

http://www.buffalorising.com/2012/11/im-steel-standing–a-celebration-of-beth-steels-administration-building.html
http://histpres.com/im-steel-standing-protest-demolition-bethlehem-steel-buffalo-lackawanna-ny

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New Featured Landscape

By Eleanor Mahoney October 31, 2012

Be sure to check out the newest featured landscape – Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Located on Whidbey Island, Washington State, Ebey’s Landing is a landscape that illustrates a continuous record of Pacific Northwest history. The land appears much as it did a century ago. Patterns of settlement, historic homes, pastoral farmsteads and commercial buildings are still within their original farm, forest, and marine settings. A visitor can experience a variety of diverse physical and visual landscapes within a small geographic area. The community of Ebey’s Reserve is a healthy, vital one that allows for growth and change while respecting and preserving its heritage.

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Reading Recommendation

By Eleanor Mahoney September 28, 2012

Looking for an interesting read on conservation, preservation, community development, cultural resources – or all of the above? So are we – and we want to hear from you. Let us know what you are reading so we can include it on our Research and Writing page.

In the meantime, here’s one quick recommendation (look for more from time to time) – Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. In this book, author Karl Jacoby explores the lesser-known stories behind of some of the United States’ most iconic protected landscapes: the Adirondack Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park.

In contrast to an at-times romanticized narrative of environmentalists fighting heroically against corporate interests, Jacoby chooses to introduce his readers to individuals and rural and indigenous communities ignored, displaced and, indeed, even criminalized, by the designation of public lands. In framing his analysis, Jacoby never goes so far as to say that land conservation is bad or unnecessary; rather, he emphasizes that the creation of parks rarely proceeds in a “clean” or even fashion, creating diverse sets of winners and losers along the way. Though a work of history, this book’s insights should be of interest to contemporary conservationists as well.

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Signs of the Landscape Times

By Eleanor Mahoney August 27, 2012

Hudson River view from Poughkeepsie

A few weeks ago, I drove from New York City to Montreal, Canada. Over the course of four days, I explored the Hudson River Valley, eastern Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region, all among the Northeast’s most iconic large landscapes. During the trip, I encountered a fair amount of signage, identifying or marking the landscape in different ways. What follows are some general thoughts on what I found – I am also interested in learning what others think, have done or have learned about using signage to create awareness of place.

Highway signs:What does it mean to pass a sign, while going 70 miles per hour that reads, “Entering [insert name here] landscape/heritage area/trail/ etc? For most visitors, I would hazard to say little to nothing if (important if) that is all there is! I only have anecdotal data to support this claim, but multiple friends and relatives have told me they passed heritage area road signs for years (in the case of my own father for over 10 years) and never knew what to make of them until I began working for the program and explained its significance. One recommendation I would offer is that these signs link-up to an actual place a visitor can exit and get information, even if it is an unmanned kiosk at a rest stop. So, instead of just “Entering [insert name here] landscape/heritage area/trail/ etc,” the sign should read Entering [insert name here] landscape/heritage area/trail/ etc – Stop at Exit 1 for information.” Obviously, it is impossible to go back and change all the existing signs, but, in the future, it might be worthwhile to consider this approach.

Hyde Park, Home of Franklin Roosevelt National Historic Site

The Importance of Hubs:One of the stops on my drive was Hyde Park, the Home of Franklin Roosevelt National Historic Site. This is one of the most highly touristed sites in the Hudson River Valley and draws regional, national and international visitors. As such, it can (and hopefully does) serve as a springboard for visitation to other interesting, but lesser known, locations. A great use of a sign I saw at Hyde Park was a map that showed the boundaries of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and identified multiple points of interest. Many visitors stopped and looked at the map (always draw people in) and discussed possible visits. In considering how best to create informational signage like this for large landscapes, prioritizing quality signage at a highly visited hub like Hyde Park seems important because many of those stopping may only be familiar with 1 or 2 such sites. Another idea might be to identify sites by driving distance. While it seems less interesting than thematic grouping, it might make more sense for trip planning purposes.

Tourist vs. Resident – One of my favorite stops was a state park near the highway in New York where we stopped to stretch our legs. The park had free parking nearby and most of the visitors appeared to be local residents out for an evening stroll. There was a large amount of conspicuous signage, but no one seemed to be reading it. The signage discussed both natural and cultural history. I wondered, when a park serves residents of a large landscape, rather than tourists – what kind of information is best? Do residents read signs? Are they (it seems obvious) in a different mindset than a tourist who has set out to visit a specific place to learn its story. What are the best ways to generate a dialogue/ interpret a landscape for those who live there, such that they can offer their expertise on the place and possibly learn something new as well in a setting as informal as a riverside walking trail?

Do organizations keep track of their signs effective or conduct cost/benefit analysis?

Have you seen great landscape-scale signage?

Please, share your ideas/thoughts!

 

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UNESCO adds 26 new World Heritage Sites

By Eleanor Mahoney August 15, 2012
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Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Expands

By Eleanor Mahoney May 22, 2012

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently designated four water trails as new historic connecting components of the existing Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.  Click through to watch a video of the signing ceremony. The new additions – the Susquehanna, Chester, Upper Nanticoke and Upper James Rivers – expand the public’s connections to the history, cultural heritage, and natural resources of the 3,000-mile-long national historic trail in the Chesapeake Bay. The new river connecting trails are found in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service report released

By Eleanor Mahoney April 12, 2012

The Organization of American Historians (OAH) recently released the report Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park ServiceIt examines the practice of history (broadly defined) in the National Park Service today. This is an important issue, considering that 2/3 of NPS units are considered historic sites of one type or another, with the remaining natural parks also home to rich stories of the past.

Among other conclusions, the study’s authors found that:

Much is going well. Our study identified nearly 150 examples of historical projects and programs that NPS personnel regard as effective, inspiring models. We ourselves observed many instances of high-quality scholarship and creative interpretation. More than a
dozen of these successes are profiled herein, as lamps lighting the path ahead.

But we also found that the agency’s ability to manage its sites “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”—let alone achieve its highest aspirations to become the nation’s largest outdoor history classroom—has been imperiled by the agency’s weak support for its history workforce, by agency structures that confine history in isolated silos, by longstanding funding deficiencies, by often narrow and static conceptions of history’s scope, and by timid interpretation.

As a consequence, one of our survey respondents wrote, history in the NPS is “sporadic, interrupted, superbly excellent in some instances and vacant in others.” Our findings describe many specific aspects of the state of history practice today—an uneven landscape of inspiration and success amid policies and practices that sometimes inhibit high-quality work.

The report also suggests that parks look beyond their boundaries in order to tell richer, more nuanced, multi-layered narratives – perhaps considering a landscape-scale approach similar to that of National Heritage Areas. Interesting stuff!

Read the study here.

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