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Sustainability – is it really what we want?

By Eleanor Mahoney December 30, 2014

Earlier this month, 15 National Heritage Areas had their authorizations to receive federal funding extended, meaning that the relatively modest amounts of support the areas receive via the National Park Service would continue to be available – at least for a while. While this is a positive development, it nonetheless underscores the precarious condition that many new and non-traditional types of parks and protected areas (at the local, state and federal levels) find themselves in year after year, constantly wrangling for dwindling public funds, while also applying for unpredictable grants and support from private foundations and individual donors. Is this the future of conservation or is there a better way? Is the oft-used term “sustainability” just a cover for the creation of under-funded, privately-supported parks, a sign of the shrinking public sector?

When the Congress, the NPS or a state agency asks that heritage areas or other types of partnership-based initiatives be “sustainable,” they often mean “able to operate without continued public support” or to be generous “with diminished public support.” But is this really the way we want our next generation of parks to be developed? What would local, state and national park systems look like if they had been managed in the same fashion? If Congress had told Yellowstone National Park or Antietam National Battlefield to be “sustainable,” the contemporary landscapes at both sites would likely be far different than the ones visitors encounter today. Indeed, we can already see a hint of what this type of austerity can do when we look at state park systems across the country. Starved for funds, state park agencies are closing parks, operating with shoestring staffs, putting off needed maintenance AND coming up with funding schemes that rarely raise the hoped for monies. All this, despite high visitation numbers and usage and incredibly devoted and professional staff people.

So, where does this leave us? New types of parks and protected areas need to be designated with care (always difficult when politics invariably comes into play), but once created, demand treatment commensurate with more longstanding sites. New parks should not have to be “sustainable” if other parks are not – they should be fully supported and advocated for as public goods, contributing to the preservation and conservation of significant historical, cultural and ecological resources and stories.  Of course, in a time of diminished public funding, this view may be labeled as unrealistic and perhaps even naive. Maybe so. But then let’s also be open about the situation and acknowledge that newer, partnership-oriented parks often get a raw deal relative to older sites and that this situation is directly linked to shifting government priorities and perhaps a lack of vision as well.

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2 Responses

  1. Liz Madison January 22, 2015

    Interesting point of view. It is worth noting that when Congressdesignated Antietam National Battlefield the site included 1 acre, the location of the current Visitor’s Center. Thanks in large part to the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the work and partners of The Conservation Fund, Bloody Lane, the Cornfield and other areas of the Battlefield have been protected and Congress approved boundary changes. Too often we over estimate the role of public dollars and under estimate the role of nonprofits and charitable donors in the conservation of our nation’s heritage. Could it be possible that passing on to the next generation a legacy of stewardship that requires all to be involved — is a worthy aspiration that will help sustain these resources through changing public priorities.

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  2. Eleanor Mahoney January 29, 2015

    Great points and thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that the significance of public dollars is often overstated and, of course, public money can be used in ways that are detrimental to the environment and communities — I’m thinking of urban renewal, highways and some of the Mission 66 projects to name a few of the better known examples. Also, I take your point that some NPS units and state parks were created or expanded via private donation or assistance, and, of course, non-public monies have been critical in protecting amazing landscapes all over the US and abroad…but, I would also argue, that if a private entity actually ran Antietam the visitor experience would be pretty different (from the level of fees, to the # of private events, to sponsorships…but I would be happy to be proved wrong on that if there are examples out there). Other reasons I think conservation should be kept as public as possible 1) accountability and transparency (govt is more accountable to diverse public audiences than private entities, which are not subject to FOIA and do not have to hold public meetings to explain decision-making) and 2) government entities (in theory) do not have to chase after donors for funds and then be responsive to those donors. Of course, government has other types of pressures to contend with, but that is too big an issue for this post. Thanks again for your insights on this discussion

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