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NPS and Anniversaries

By Eleanor Mahoney September 30, 2015

In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary. If you work for or with the NPS, this is probably old news. However, for those outside of conservation and preservation circles, the information may well come as a surprise. Coverage of the upcoming NPS centennial in popular media has been relatively scarce, with prominent sources like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, for example, devoting little coverage to the Agency’s plans for the upcoming year. What, if anything, does this relative lack of attention reveal about the current and future state of the NPS as well as its many affiliated programs and partnerships?

Fifty years ago, the NPS found itself in a radically different position – at least insofar as the media was concerned. As the country’s population exploded and as discretionary income and vacation time grew for many, though far from all, Americans, public lands, including National Parks, experienced an unprecedented surge in usage. At the same time, however, funding remained flat, resulting in overcrowded and even dangerous conditions at many sites. Popular magazines such as Life and Readers Digest published exposes on the subject. Among the most famous was a 1953 piece in Harpers by columnist Bernard DeVoto entitled “Let’s Close the National Parks.” In it, he critiqued both the entitled attitudes of many park visitors as well as the insufficient support provided by Congress.

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Road building in Yellowstone. Image: NPS

The article and others like it generated substantial interest in the future of recreation and land use, especially as it related to the park service. Within a few years time, the Agency would finally succeed in gaining the attention of decision makers in Washington, D.C., who approved a decade-long, multi-million dollar spending program dubbed Mission 66, which aimed to “modernize” the parks in time for the NPS’ 50th anniversary in 1966. The initiative received substantial attention in the press, with numerous articles in local and national publications highlighting efforts big and small.

In the end, Mission 66 fundamentally re-oriented the way visitors experienced NPS units, whether through the addition of new front country amenities, the building of enlarged visitor centers or the construction of new roadways to previously inaccessible areas. These projects and others proved controversial, with many scholars crediting Mission 66 as a factor driving support for passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 as well as a push against commercialization in NPS units.

Roughly a month ago, on September 1, 2015, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the Obama Administration’s legislative proposal for the upcoming NPS centennial. Dubbed the National Park Service Centennial Act, the bill focuses particular attention on the creation of a Challenge Fund, which would use both private and public monies to support “signature projects.” In addition, a separate, smaller Public Lands Centennial Fund would also be established, which would provide up to $100 million annually to not only the NPS, but also other federal land or water management agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service. Attention in the bill is also focused on youth outreach, volunteers in parks, interpretation and visitor services. But, what is the big picture or vision behind this initiative? It’s hard to tell. What does the Agency want to become over the next 50 or 100 years? For all its shortcomings, which were myriad, Mission 66 captured the public’s (albeit a select public of park goers) imagination. Will this effort do the same? Are public-private partnerships the answer to the NPS’ chronic under-funding? Do new approaches to large landscape management need to get more attention? What do you think?


Half-century Legacy of LWCF at Risk

By Eleanor Mahoney August 31, 2015
President Johnson signing the the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964. Photo: National Park Service

President Johnson signing the the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964. Photo: National Park Service

This year marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, an occasion first celebrated in 1970. It also marked the 45th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA as well as the 45th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the government body most widely associated with monitoring and enforcing regulations governing air and water quality as well as pollution and its effects. It is not surprising then, that the 1970s are often known as the environmental decade and that the years of the Nixon presidency (1969-1974) are usually those most often associated with the implementation of an environmental agenda, especially at the federal level.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon’s predecessor in the oval office, also had a robust conservation vision, driven, in large part, by his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, as well as his influential Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Many National Seashores and Lakeshores, like Indiana Dunes, Point Reyes and Fire Island, gained designation during the Johnson Administration as did National Parks such as Canyonlands and North Cascades. Beautification initiatives also gained widespread support, including the famous highway clean-up / planting efforts of the First Lady.

Additionally, the role of non-governmental organizations shifted greatly during this period. NGOs expanded their influence and reach, as advocates challenged the public sector on many of its policies, especially in the realms of water management (ex. dam building in the western U.S.) and regulation of industry and industrial contaminants. Passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 is perhaps the best known instance of the increasing influence of citizen-driven conservation and environmental initiatives.

As the deadline for re-authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grows ever closer, it is worth considering just how groundbreaking the original piece of legislation really was – since its now 51-year history perhaps leads us to take its historical significance for granted. At the time of the Fund’s establishment, however, members of the Johnson administration knew its importance. For example, in a 1966 memo on achievements in the areas of conservation and natural beauty sent from Secretary Udall to Joseph Califano, Special Assistant to the President, Udall commented on the LWCF Act:

“This legislation has set in motion a comprehensive and far-reaching outdoor recreation program by the States and the Federal Government, which will reap tremendous recreational benefits for all Americans. It constitutes a landmark in the outdoor recreation and conservation fields. It will provide much needed funds for the States, on a matching basis, and for the Federal Government, for outdoor recreation and endangered species of fish and wildlife.” (1)

Before the early 1960s, the federal government played a very limited role in funding land conservation outside of federally owned lands, which were predominately west of the Mississippi River. Providing opportunities for outdoor recreation, especially in areas close to urban centers, was left largely in the hands of state and local government, entities that often struggled to find adequate resources. LWCF, along with an Urban Open Space Program funded by the Housing and Home Finance Agency (later HUD), created an entirely new pool of funds for the protection of landscapes significant for their ecological and cultural values (which were, of course, often tied together).

These programs were not perfect. Urban areas, in particular, continued to receive proportionately less funds over time, though some efforts have been made to address this imbalance. Additionally, the LWCF’s chief funding source, royalties from off shore drilling, is ironic at best, especially given the ever more dramatic effects of climate change on the planet. The pursuit of other revenue sources must be prioritized moving forward.

Nonetheless, the achievements of the LWCF are impressive, over 5 million acres of federal land protected and over 40,000 projects supported on the state side of funding, just to name a few of the more notable statistics. With one month to go before funding expires, it is time for Congress to act to ensure that this “comprehensive and far-reaching outdoor recreation program” to quote Stewart Udall continues to play a key role in conservation for at least another half-century.


1. WHITE HOUSE CENTRAL FILES, SUBJECT FILE: Memo, Stewart Udall to Joseph Califano, 2/9/66, Ex NR, Box 5, WHCF, LBJ Library.



New Monuments, Old Debates

By Eleanor Mahoney July 29, 2015
President Obama signs an Executive Order creating three new National Monuments.

President Obama signs an Executive Order creating three new National Monuments. Photo:

On July 10, 2015, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate three new National Monuments – Berryessa Snow Mountain in California, Waco Mammoth in Texas, and Basin and Range in Nevada. With these new designations, the President will have used the Antiquities Act to establish or expand 19 national monuments. First used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the Antiquities Act remains one of the most important – and most controversial – tools by which the Executive Branch can take immediate action on pressing conservation and preservation priorities.

Between 1864 (the creation of Yosemite) and 1906, the number of National Parks in the United States grew at what might fairly be called a snail’s pace (1). Over roughly half-a-century, Congress only saw fit to designate a handful of sites, leaving some of the country’s most iconic locations open to either natural resource or commercial development.

At the same time that the National Park idea languished, the National Forest System (then called Forest Reserves) grew rapidly. Indeed, in a little less than two decades time, 1891 to 1907, the federal government created more than 150 new forest reserves, covering some 150 million acres of land. A variety of factors led to the divergence in the fates of forests and parks, but one of the most significant proved to be the legal authorities governing each system. Until 1907 (when Congress repealed the authority), Forest Reserves could be created by Presidential action, a power granted to the Executive by the 1891 General Revision Act (sometimes referred to as the Forest Reserves Act after the specific amendment granting the Presidential authority). This opened the door to a slew of designations, supported by both a growing cadre of professional foresters, led by Gifford Pinchot, as well as much of the general public, who had grown increasingly concerned over the threat of a “timber famine” in the forests of the Northeast and Upper Midwest.

In contrast, there was no similar authority available to establish park units from the public domain or from donated land. Instead, Congress had to pass a bill to create a new park, a far more arduous process. This all changed in 1906 during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Concerned about the ongoing and largely unchecked destruction of sites associated with the histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples (including the theft and sale of ceremonial items and other materials to all manner of “collectors” both in the U.S. and abroad), Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which gave the President the ability to quickly set aside lands with significant natural, cultural or scientific features. Significantly, however, Indigenous peoples themselves were not consulted on the majority of the monument designations that flowed from the Act’s passage.

Almost immediately after the bill became law, Roosevelt took action. Rather than focus solely on the protection of archaeological sites, as perhaps some members of Congress had assumed he might, the President used his new authority to designate a diverse array of public lands as National Monuments, including the Grand Canyon in 1908.

In the early years, depending on prior management, monuments were allocated to a variety of federal agencies, including the Forest Service (within the Dept. of Agriculture), the Department of the Interior or the War Department. In 1916, with the creation of the National Park Service, monuments under Interior became part of the NPS portfolio. Later, in 1933, during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the federal government would transfer management of the USFS monuments to NPS, a decision that caused consternation within the Forest Service. The War Department monuments would also come under NPS jurisdiction during this same period. (2)

For almost its entire history, the Antiquities Act has generated controversy, though it is important to note that presidents (16 in total) from both parties have used their authority to create new monuments. Consequently, there have been ongoing calls, including during the current session of Congress, to either repeal or significantly limit the Act. For example, Senate Bill 228, the National Monument Designation Transparency and Accountability Act (introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho) would require not only Congressional approval for new National Monuments, but also passage of a supportive bill by the legislatures of affected states. Not surprisingly, the recent designations by President Obama, have only added to debate over the Act’s future.

A few other notable controversies connected to the Antiquities Act:

In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt designated the Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming (roughly 220,000 acres), which included lands purchased by Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Many local officials opposed the monument’s creation and Roosevelt eventually had to veto a bill passed by Congress to disestablish the monument. In 1950, President Harry Truman signed a bill merging most of Jackson Hole National Monument with Grand Teton National Park and the monument itself ceased to exist (it has been common over time for monuments to eventually be re-classified as National Parks). However, bowing to continued local opposition, the 1950 bill also modified the Antiquities Act, limiting presidential power to proclaim National Monuments in Wyoming.

In 1969, the town of Boulder, UT passed a resolution changing its name to “Johnson’s Folly” in protest over the decision of President Lyndon Johnson to expand both Arches and Capitol Reef National Monuments, both of which were later declared National Parks. The town would later change its name back to Boulder.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, despite assurances his administration would take no such action. A public ceremony to mark the monument’s creation was ultimately held in Arizona at the Grand Canyon owing to the growing controversy, and, while the act may have helped Clinton’s national re-election hopes, he lost Utah by a whopping 21 % points to the Republican nominee Bob Dole.

(1) The author dates the first national park to Yosemite in 1864 (despite the term “National Park” not being used, rather than Yellowstone in 1872, which is also a commonly used date.

(2) For a detailed overview of the creation, abolition and expansion of monuments connected to the NPS, see this informative article from the National Parks Traveler.


Economic Change and Park Policy

By Eleanor Mahoney May 26, 2015

The upcoming National Park Service centennial in 2016 offers an ideal moment for those interested in the past, present and future of protected areas in the United States to assess the policies that have most affected conservation and preservation priorities over the course of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. While the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s certainly had a tremendous impact, as did earlier New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, it is imperative that transformations in economic regulations, including seemingly arcane issues such as tax rules (so important in determining the rise of suburban sprawl), not be left out of the discussion. Indeed, one might argue that political economy shaped the direction of park planning and development more than any other single factor, often determining both where new parks were located as well as the type of land management strategy pursued in a particular location by federal, state or local park agencies.

Two examples from the post World War II period highlight the significance of political economy and the need for it to be at center of critical, historical discussions during the centennial year. First, consider the example of industrial heritage parks – what I very roughly define as protected areas without clear (i.e. immediately visible to a visitor) boundaries or significant public ownership, but with an area of emphasis, whose prime interpretive and preservation focus are the human, environmental and economic stories of steel, textiles, mining, and other mass production industries. In the urban Northeast and Midwest, more two-dozen industrial heritage parks, also sometimes called urban cultural parks or heritage areas, gained either federal or state recognition between roughly 1977 and 2000. They represent a milestone in both conservation and preservation history in that the stories and experiences of working people often (though not always and perhaps not enough in covering more recent decades) took center stage in interpretative activities. (Note: Not all heritage area or urban cultural parks would fall under my rubric of industrial heritage parks, but many do).

Industrial heritage parks, whether in their earliest, neighborhood-centric form such as what eventually took shape in Lowell and the other Massachusetts state heritage parks, or in their later incarnation, the more regional-in-scope national heritage area model, were a response to swings in both corporate and government spending. By the 1970’s, most War on Poverty-era urban programs had been phased out, with only a few outliers continuing to operate beyond the early years of the Nixon administration. Civic leaders and activists in economically hard hit areas searched anywhere and everywhere for even small amounts of federal and state funding, hoping it might be the spark both to ignite economic growth and to preserve important places and stories. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for them, local leaders soon discovered that parks could, in fact, be a potential source of support, especially with an Interior Department and, for a while, a Congress willing to invest in urban parks. Whereas industrial production once dominated these landscapes, now, it was hoped, parks and tourism might lead the way. Industrial heritage parks are thus a significant marker of the U.S. economy’s broader shift from an industrial to post-industrial focus. They also are an example of the move in protected areas towards a smaller degree of public ownership and a more partnership-oriented approach to management.

The second example from the postwar period worthy of further study is the “greenline park.” This is complex term encompassing many types of projects. For my purposes, it refers to the use of a mix of land protection strategies, including zoning, easements, and occasionally fee-simple purchase to protect “lived-in” landscapes threatened by rapid development. Thus, at the same time that cities in the nation’s industrial heartland turned to parks as a possible remedy to economic decline, other communities, particularly those located in coastal areas and rapidly expanding suburbs, sought to limit new investment and building via designation as a park or protected area.

By the 1970s, community opposition to highways, sprawl and second home construction in sensitive locations was no longer new. What had changed, however, was the federal and state regulatory environment. Bills like the National Environmental Policy Act and its state counterparts, the so-called little “little NEPAs” as well as legislation addressing historic resources, like the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, offered those seeking to protect landscapes a host of new tools and strategies. In addition, the implementation of zoning and other land use restrictions, once under the almost exclusive purview of local government, had begun to garner attention at the state and even federal levels, a move often referred to as the Quiet Revolution in Land Use Control after an influential Council on Environmental Quality report published in 1971.

Given these changed conditions, it is perhaps not surprising that the administration of protected areas would also take on new forms and functions. Advocates drew, for example, on European models, such as the English National Parks and the French Regional Nature Parks, programs that not only regulated development on largely private lands, but also sought to ensure some degree of continued public access.

In the United States, public regulation of private lands is typically seen as a political lightening rod. Yet, for a brief period, running from roughly 1960 – 1980, with its highpoint in the seventies, jurisdictions in rapidly growing areas across the country, frequently with the aid or direct oversight of the federal government, attempted to pursue just such an innovative approach to landscape protection. Prominent examples that took shape during this period include the Pinelands National Reserve in southeast New Jersey, Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve in Washington State and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California to name only a subset. In these places, different types of zoning, rather than fee simple purchase or condemnation, emerged as a prominent land protection strategy, as did the use of federal, state and even citizen- run commissions.

The two types of protected areas I all too briefly describe above – industrial heritage parks and greenline parks – both took shape, in large part, in response to shifts in the geography of American capitalism – forming in regions most impacted by connected patterns of disinvestment and speculation. By better understanding the origins, the possibilities and the limitations of these non-traditional parks, scholars and practitioners can reveal much about late twentieth-century planning, environmental policy and public space as well as how our contemporary economic moment – one characterized by funding austerity as well an increasing reliance on public-private partnerships – may be affecting the types of parks we both imagine and eventually create.


George Wright Conference Highlights Large, Living Landscapes

By Eleanor Mahoney March 30, 2015

Writers and contributors from the Living Landscape Observer will be participating and presenting in a variety of sessions at the 2015 George Wright Biennial Conference that begins today (March 30) in Oakland, CA and runs through the end of the week. Themes to be covered include new approaches to cultural landscape conservation and connections between social and economic change and park policy. See a full schedule here.

Highlighted panels include:

Concurrent Session No. 3 – The Indigenous Cultural Landscape Approach in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed: Update and Next Steps (Monday March 30, 10am)

Concurrent Session No. 41 – Making Connections: Linking Heritage of Agricultural Landscapes with Community Engagement and Protected Area Conservation (Tuesday March 31, 1:30pm)

Concurrent Session No. 97 – Scaling Up and Private Protected Areas (Thursday April 2, 10am)

Concurrent Session No. 103 – New Directions for Cultural Landscapes (Thursday April 2, 1pm)

Concurrent Session No. 117 – From Theory to Practice: Social Policy and the Park Service, 1950 – 1980 (Thursday April 2, 3:30pm)



Labor History Makes Headway in NPS

By Eleanor Mahoney February 26, 2015
Pullman strikers in Chicago. The Illinois National Guard is visible protecting the building.

Pullman strikers in Chicago. The Illinois National Guard is visible protecting the building.

Roughly a week ago, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Pullman, a former company town in Illinois, as a National Monument. The effort was a long time in the making, with many organizations and partners involved in the designation campaign.

Pullman first came to prominence in the 1880’s when George M. Pullman decided to build a model town to house workers employed at his rail car factories. While the accommodations and landscaping of the new community were fairly comfortable, the strict controls exercised by Pullman over the lives and political activities of his employees proved far less agreeable. Residents chafed at his strict behavioral standards and inflexible rents, which became especially onerous during the Panic of 1893, an economic depression like none the nation had ever seen (or would again until the stock market crash of 1929).

As a result of the crisis, Pullman workers saw their incomes drop, but not their rents, precipitating a strike in 1894 that would ultimately last for 2 months. The American Railway Union (only a year or so old at the time), then headed by Eugene V. Debs, sought arbitration, and when that failed, authorized union members to cease work on any trains that carried Pullman Palace cars. The strike – now national in scope and affecting some 250,000 workers – ground much of the country’s rail transport to a halt, with little traffic moving in and out of Chicago, the system’s largest hub. Ultimately, it took intervention on the part of the federal government, including both an injunction and the use of soldiers (both unprecedented at the time), to bring the action to a violent halt. Though the workers lost the strike, they did succeed in gaining widespread sympathy among the public. This support, however, did not translate into improved pay or working conditions. The 1894 events in Pullman demonstrated not only what solidarity among workers could achieve, but also the lengths to which some within the government and business establishment would go to prevent collective action among labor.

In later decades, the Pullman Company would continue to play an important role in labor and African American history. In 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an African American union founded by civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, won a contract for Pullman porters – an exclusively African American workforce. Coming amidst the Great Depression, the agreement was truly groundbreaking, marking the first major contract between a union led by Black workers and a large corporation. Indeed, at the time, Pullman was the largest single employer of African Americans in the United States, though the town of Pullman itself remained racially segregated and largely off-limits to Black residents. Significantly, Randolph also played a key role in pressuring President Roosevelt – via his (Randolph’s) calls for a 1941 March on Washington – to issue Executive Order 8802 (1941), which prohibited discrimination in defense industries and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

Reading such stories, it is hard to believe that it took until 2015 for Pullman to become a part of the National Park system. Even more troubling, Pullman remains one of only a handful of sites that focus on telling stories of industrial work, especially in the context of union organizing, collective bargaining and civil rights movements.* It is important to note that unions, while advocating and organizing for economic change, often practiced racial, ethnic and gender-based discrimination, an important part of the labor story and one that adds much needed complexity to the potential interpretation at a site like Pullman.

Given the undeniable and ongoing impact of industrialization and later de-industrialization on the American landscape, it is well past time for places connected to key industries such as coal, steel, automobiles, aerospace, retail or petroleum to gain the attention (and yes, the debate and national dialogue) that comes with NPS designation. At a moment when income and wealth inequality is growing, reflecting on the role of unions in shaping late 19th and 20th century life seems all the more pressing.

To learn more about some of the labor history sites considered for both National Historic Landmark designation and unit designation, see the 2003 National Labor Theme Study (draft).

* Other sites (please let me know if I have missed any) that interpret these stories include: Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park (RI), Lowell National Historical Park (MA), Keweenaw National Historical Park ( MI), Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (NJ), César E. Chávez National Monument (CA) and Rosie the Riveter/ World War II Home Front National Historical Park (CA). The Kate Mullany National Historic Site, an affiliated area, also has a strong labor focus.

A large number of National Heritage Areas also interpret and protect sites associated with late 19th and 20th century labor and industrial history including: Augusta Canal National Heritage Area; Baltimore National Heritage Area, Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor; Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Essex National Heritage Area; Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area; Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor; John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor; Lackawanna Heritage Valley National and State Heritage Area; MotorCities National Heritage Area; National Coal Heritage Area; Ohio & Erie National Heritage Canal Way; Oil Region National Heritage Area; Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area; Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area; and Wheeling National Heritage Area.


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.


The Recreation Imperative

By Eleanor Mahoney December 1, 2014

One of the most prominent themes to emerge at the recent National Workshop on Large Landscape Conservation was the need to make cities central to the practice of conservation. Since at least the late 19th century, if not earlier, urban areas have often been posited as the antithesis to nature and natural spaces. Indeed, even those parks created within cities were intended by their middle-class proponents to function as green oases, calm respites from the physical and perceived moral ills of city life.

In the decades following World War II, however, attitudes towards nature began to change. While efforts to protect wild areas certainly gained traction, as evidenced by the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, so too did initiatives geared towards population centers, especially in and around coastal areas threatened by rapid development. Much of this energy centered on the provision of recreation, defined broadly to include everything from walking, driving, swimming and playing sports to hiking, camping and birdwatching. Also significant, the new protected areas created during the 1960’s and 1970’s, like Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (1978), Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (1974), and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve (1978) recognized the mutual shaping of place by both nature and culture, acknowledging – albeit in fits and starts – that all landscapes, whether in designated wilderness or in downtown Manhattan, are products of the ongoing and intertwined histories of human and non-human life.

Following the release of the influential 1962 report Outdoor Recreation for America, issued by the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, both Congress and the Executive Branch began to take a more sustained interest in and agitated for action on the linked issues of open space, outdoor recreation, park creation and the relative paucity of protected areas of any sort in close vicinity to cities. Numerous scholars have pointed out that initiatives like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) were in conflict with other federal programs, namely highway construction and the (racially-discriminatory) federal home loan program, but that, despite the many contradictions, funding continued to flow to both sets of priorities, though at significantly uneven levels.

One of the key recommendations that came out of both the 1962 ORRRC report as well as subsequent legislation authorizing the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR) was the need for a national recreation plan, which would inventory resources and recommend current and potential directions for land and water use. Slated to be completed before the end of the ’60’s, the effort languished, until the Nixon administration, under Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, renewed calls for its completion. Dubbing his effort “parks to the people,” Hickel sought to promote urban-centric outdoor recreation, advocating for the creation of new national recreation areas among other endeavors.

In 1970, the BOR finally completed its 1,000+ page national study, entitled “The Recreation Imperative.” Cities were at the core of the study, and would have benefited from a massive infusion of cash and technical assistance, including the creation of a new National Park Service urban program. However, the plan’s massive price tag, over $6 billion, caused consternation among officials at the Budget Bureau (predecessor to today’s Office of Management and Budget), who were able to hold up the plan’s progress. The urban focus also did not prove popular with other officials within the Nixon Administration, who succeeded in suppressing the report for several years. Another, heavily-edited report, “Outdoor Recreation: A Legacy for America,” appeared in 1972, significantly it had no cost estimates.

Eventually, it was only as a result of Congressional action that “The Recreation Imperative” entered the public record. In September 1974, the Senate Interior Committee, then under the direction of Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) published the plan as a special committee document. Jackson also circulated the document among public and non-governmental officials and included their reactions to the study in the committee document as well. It is all now available on the web, and is worthwhile reading for those interested in often times convoluted history of federal park-making initiatives in metropolitan areas.



LWCF and the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission

By Eleanor Mahoney November 4, 2014
President Lyndon Johnson signs the bill establishing the LWCF. Photo: NPS

President Lyndon Johnson signs the bill establishing the LWCF. Photo: NPS

In the years following World War II, outdoor recreation of all sorts, hiking, fishing, hunting, picnics, and yes – even driving – boomed across the United States as many families saw an increase in their income levels and their leisure time.  At the same moment, population pressures and suburban development, including in ecologically sensitive areas like shorelines and wetlands, threatened to both degrade and reduce open space and water access.

In response, Congress passed the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Act (P.L. 85-470) in 1958. The bill established the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) and charged it with not only assessing contemporary recreation needs and wants, but also with looking ahead to the years 1976 and 2000, in an effort to predict what the country’s future recreation demands might be.

The Commission included representatives from executive branch agencies, Congress and private citizens. A 25-person advisory council also provided advice as did a knowledgeable staff. Laurance S. Rockefeller served as Chairman of the Commission, with Francis Sargent, who would later become Governor of Masschusetts, employed as the Executive Director.

The final documents issued by the ORRRC in 1962 are voluminous. In addition to its summary, Outdoor Recreation for America, the commission also issued an additional 27 study reports (link leads to a free public site where all reports, as well as many other government documents, can be accessed) dealing with all manner of subjects – open space, wilderness, shorelines, recreation in the heavily populated Northeast and development of private outdoor recreation facilities.

Two of the Commission’s proposals proved especially significant: a call to create a new recreation-centered agency in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the associated recommendation that the new entity would manage a federal grant program to aid states in the planning and acquisition of new recreation sites. These potential additions would be highlighted in state comprehensive outdoor recreation plans (or SCORPS as they are commonly known today).

In his March 1962 message to Congress on conservation,  President Kennedy endorsed much of the committee’s work. He soon moved to implement many of its action items, including the establishment of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in the DOI. This move did cause some consternation among more established DOI agencies like the National Park Service, which had been the lead on federal-level recreation since the 1930’s.

President Kennedy and his Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall also took steps to establish the proposed grant program, dubbed the Land and Water Conservation Fund,(LWCF) but legislative efforts initially stalled. Ultimately, the momentum to fund outdoor recreation proved too great and a bill (P.L. 88 -578) to create the LWCF passed with bipartisan support in the next session. It would be signed into law on September 3, 1964. A more detailed history of the LWCF program is available on the NPS program site.

Initially, as proposed by the ORRRC, the new Bureau of Outdoor Recreation administered the fund. When the Bureau was abolished by the Carter Administration in 1977, a new agency, the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS), assumed its responsibilities. This arrangement proved short-lived however, as HCRS itself faced elimination in 1981 during the early months of the new Reagan Administration. Tasks associated with recreation, including LWCF, as well as other programs including management of the National Register of Historic Places, would then come under the purview of the NPS.


See America in a New Light

By Eleanor Mahoney January 31, 2014
This poster, from the late 1930s, is an example of the "See America" themed posters created by WPA artists. Poster by Harry Herzog. Source: Library of Congress

This poster, from the late 1930s, is an example of the “See America” themed works created by WPA artists. Poster by Harry Herzog. Source: Library of Congress

Earlier this month, the Creative Action Network and the National Parks Conservation Association launched an inventive crowd-sourced visual arts campaign called the “See America Project.” The initiative gets its name from a series of posters created by artists working for the Federal Art Project (FAP) during the 1930’s. One of several New Deal art programs, the FAP aimed to put unemployed artists back to work on a wide variety of tasks. Indeed, just in Washington State (which I researched for the Great Depression in Washington State Project), artists painted murals, did easel paintings, organized a successful art center in Spokane, created dioramas and demonstrated fabric arts. Across the country, artists also joined together to organize collectively in hopes of improving working conditions and wages and making the program permanent.

The FAP was one of several cultural ventures launched by the Roosevelt administration during the summer of 1935. Housed within the Works Progress Administration (WPA), these creative programs were collectively known as Federal One and also included the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Music Project and the Historical Records Survey (originally part of the Writers Project). Together, they represented a key element of the “Second New Deal,” a period (1935-1938) when landmark programs like Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act were first implemented. For those wondering, funding for most post office murals did not come from the WPA; instead, officials at the Treasury Department selected which works would be installed. See a few of the WPA See America posters here.

The See America concept, however, goes back further than the New Deal era. According to research done by scholars Marguerite S. Shaffer and Cory Pillen, the original See America campaign was launched by the Salt Lake City Commercial Club in 1905 in the hopes of generating tourist revenue that was ostensibly being lost to Europe. Other tourism officials soon picked up on the campaign, making it a national trend. This is only of many examples of the connection between parks and commercial tourism prevalent in this period, perhaps best captured by the relationship between railroads and the development of the NPS.

These early materials and the later WPA posters tended to represent an idealized, tourist friendly idea of the American landscape. For example, imagery associated with Indigenous peoples was quite common, yet the reality of dispossession, so fundamental to the creation of public lands in the United States, utterly disappeared from view – an especially noteworthy omission as the early years of the 20th century marked the high point of land loss facilitated by the Dawes (General Allotment) Act.

I have had a great time looking at the new See America Project submissions and I applaud the wonderful creativity of the artists, who have the freedom to imagine and present sites however they wish.  My hope for this 2014 series is that it can avoid the romanticizations and omissions of the past and instead embrace images of the landscape that capture and celebrate the ongoing interactions of diverse people and places throughout the United States. I would love to see images of people working, in addition to recreating, as well as of national historical parks that capture difficult, but important, moments in American history.  And, since it is NHA@30, I would also love to see some heritage areas, which are rich in labor history and cultural traditions.


Pillen, Cory. 2008. “See America: WPA Posters and the Mapping of a New Deal Democracy”. Journal of American Culture. 31, no. 1.

Shaffer, Marguerite S. See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.



By Eleanor Mahoney December 2, 2013

I have to admit, I was more than a little bit intrigued to read Parked! How Congress’ Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures, a report issued in late October by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).  In 2008, while working for the National Heritage Areas program, I had helped gather data for a response to an information request from the Senator’s office, so ever since then, I’ve kept an eye on his various publications concerning the National Parks and other public lands programs.

Though the tone of the report is at times sensationalist (the cover at right an especially good example), one interesting critique did catch my attention, the propensity of members of Congress to introduce and then pass bills establishing new park units with no concurrent effort on the part of appropriators to adequately fund these units. This is not a new problem, but it has gotten worse over since the late 1970’s and 1980’s. This same issue has also proven incredibly detrimental to the heritage areas program, where funding has remained essentially flat, while the number of areas has more than doubled since the early 2000’s. (Coburn, never a fan of National Heritage Areas, criticizes them in the report as well.)

The National Parks Traveler published an interesting summary of the report, which included commentary from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Deny Galvin, a former deputy director of the National Park Service, noted that: “This report is really more a criticism of Congress than of the NPS. Most of the programs it criticizes are based in law. The NPS has to administer them…The contention that (the Park Service’s) recent actions have exacerbated the (maintenance) backlog doesn’t stand up. Three of the programs it would eliminate have been around for about a half century. (Historic Preservation Fund 1966, Land and Water Fund 1965, National Recreation and Preservation ((RTCA and Heritage Areas)) 1963 with some authorities from the ’30s…” (National Parks Traveler, October 29, 2013)

Is it a problem that members of Congress continue to establish park units and affiliated areas with no means of adequately funding them? Will those authorizing new parks and those tasked with funding them (and existing parks and affiliated areas) ever be on the same page? Do we even want them to be – as this might mean important sites not getting designated. Are more National Heritage Areas, in particular, being designated because the regulatory requirements (i.e. zoning, a federal commission or federal funds for land acquisition) rarely remain part of NHA bills? Parks do not have a sunset, but NHAs often do have a date inserted in their authorizing legislation – how does this impact the debate? What do others think of this report and its findings? Will its impact be positive, negative or forgetful?




Women in Preservation 2013 Breakfast

By Eleanor Mahoney October 31, 2013

Women in Preservation (WIP) is a formal gathering of women organized by an ad hoc group gathered occasionally for the sole purpose of producing the Women in Preservation Luncheon. WIP first met in 1984 and has since lunched in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998, and 2001. Tradition was broken in 2002 by having a WIP Breakfast with guest speaker Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After a too-long hiatus, a WIP Breakfast was held in 2010 featuring Stephanie Meeks, the first woman president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Stephanie Toothman, Ph.D., associate director for cultural resources, National Park Service.

For more information on WIP, to be added to the email list, or to become a sponsor (contributions help defray the cost of the event and provide scholarships for attendance and sponsor special guests), please contact: Jere Gibber, National Preservation Institute / 703.765.0100 /

Information on the upcoming 2013 Breakfast:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

8:00 a.m. earliest entry into building

8:00 – 8:30 a.m. networking

8:30 – 10:00 a.m. breakfast and program

Location: U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room SVC 210-212

Metro stations: Capitol South / Federal Center, SW / Union Station


Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand (invited)

Co-Sponsor Historic Preservation Fund Dear Colleague Letter

Keynote Speaker: Rachel Jacobson

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Department of the Interior

Registration form at

Deadline for registering: Tuesday, November 12

Bring a WIP friend!! All welcome. Seating is limited to 120!

Breakfast and Directory, $25

WIP Directory only, $4

Scholarships to attend will be available

Event Sponsorship, $100

For more information:

Jere Gibber, National Preservation Institute • 703.765.0100 • •

Conference Committee: Meagan Baco • Eden Burgess • Anna Franz • Jere Gibber • Elizabeth Hebron • Elizabeth F. “Penny” Jones • Nellie Longsworth • Eileen McGuckian • Kelly Merrifield • Rebecca Miller • Susan West Montgomery • Terry Morton • Loretta Neumann • Gail Rothrock • Kathleen Schamel • Carol Shull • Rhonda Sincavage • Charlene Dwin Vaughn • Nancy Witherell


Landscapes in Passing

By Eleanor Mahoney September 3, 2013

Landscapes in PassingThe end of summer, the season of road trips and family vacations, cross-country moves and college drop-offs, is a fitting moment to reflect on how highways and automobiles have changed the ways in which we view and interact with landscape. An exhibit currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Landscapes In Passing: Photographs by Steve Fitch, Robbert Flick, and Elaine Mayes, offers varied perspectives on this question as well as evocative views of the late 20th century United States.

The photographs by Elaine Mayes come from her Autolandscapes series (1971), which captures scenes shot from the window of a moving vehicle. Many of the images document a cross country drive in the early 1970’s, not too long after the completion of the interstate highway system. A journey that once took weeks, could now be completed in a matter of days, allowing the traveler to fly through the landscape, perhaps noticing changes in color or vegetation, but little else.  In viewing Mayes’ photographs, I wondered how technology serves to frame a particular view of place, opening up some vistas, while closing others. The high-speed highways made the country accessible, but it also fomented more superficial and homogenized experiences. How has the use of GPS changed landscape views? Will tools like google earth offer new frames, both more and less limiting.

Steve Fitch’s Diesel and Dinosaurs (1976) offers a more thorough explanation of the U.S’s postwar roadside landscape, especially that of the desert West. The photographs of kitschy dinosaurs at first bring a smile, but then a different mix of emotions – nostalgia, disgust, unease, curiosity. How and why did these huge sculptures spring up in so many places? What are the contemporary “dinosaurs,” which future generations might look at with the same feelings?  What is the relationship between tourism, marketing and place? Can yesterday’s tourist trap becomes today’s authentic roadside experience?

The final set of photographs are Robbert Flick’s Sequential Views (1980). In a striking departure from Fitch’s work, Flick presents orderly grids of images, documenting Los Angeles streetscapes. Moving from block to block, Flick deliberately captures the impact that automobiles have had on the shape of the American city.

Landscapes in Passing is a small exhibit, but well worth a visit to those interested in thinking about the relationships between transportation and various ways of seeing and shaping landscape.  In addition, the American Art Museum has developed a wonderful online presence to accompany the show, with even more materials and commentary.


Change Over Time in an Industrial Landscape

By Eleanor Mahoney July 31, 2013
View of Rankin hot metal bridge connecting Homestead Steel Works to the Carrie Furnaces. Image FLICKR creative commons, user Jay M. Ressler

View of Rankin hot metal bridge connecting Homestead Steel Works to the Carrie Furnaces. Image courtesy FLICKR creative commons, by user Jay M. Ressler

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Carrie Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark in Rankin, Pennsylvania. From 1907-1978, the furnaces produced iron for U.S. Steel, as part of its massive Homestead Works complex. At its height during and immediately following World War II, the site employed more than 15,000 workers. Today, amazingly, little of the plant’s once gigantic footprint is left – at least above the surface. Indeed, aside from Carrie Furnaces # 6 and # 7,  all that remains is a rather incongruous set of smokestacks positioned near the parking lot of a newly built shopping complex in Homestead. What was once arguably the center of American industrial production has, in the span of only a few decades, been rendered largely invisible, save for the important preservation and interpretation work now occurring at the Carrie site.

A view of Carrie Furnace #7 in 1989. Source: HAER

A view of Carrie Furnace #7 in 1989. Source: HAER

Carrie Furnaces is managed by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area (ROSNHA). ROSNHA also owns and has its headquarters in the Bost Building in Homestead, a former boarding house which served as the headquarters for striking steelworkers during the 1892 Battle of Homestead, a pivotal event in U.S. labor history. Ron Baraff, Director of Museum Collections & Archives for ROSNHA, led my tour, which was scheduled as part of the 2013 Pennsylvania Statewide Conference on Heritage. The visit offered a highly informative “behind-the-scenes” perspective on what it takes to stabilize and interpret a site as complex as an abandoned blast furnace.

One particular aspect of the contemporary Carrie Furnaces landscape that I would like to highlight is the treatment of natural resources. When the site was actively producing iron, little to no plant life grew in the area. Now, the opposite is almost true. Both native and invasive species have returned, creating an odd and somewhat riveting view-scape, where the steel and brick furnaces are juxtaposed against vibrant green leaves and vines.

At a panel presentation on industrial landscapes held during the conference, an attendee asked whether it might serve a better historical purpose to remove the vegetation at Carrie, so that visitors could gain a better idea of what the site looked like during its active period. With so much green, the questioner wondered, would a contemporary tourist lose perspective on what industrial Homestead might have looked like? Such an inquiry echoes debates often heard at other park and historic sites, such as removing trees from a Civil War battlefield or removing 19th century architecture from a historic park connected to the colonial period.

Contemporary view of Carrie Furnaces site. Source: ROSNHA

Contemporary view of Carrie Furnaces site. Source: ROSNHA

While I am sensitive to the question, especially as I personally dislike attempts to aestheticize abandoned industrial spaces, I think removing the plants would be a grave mistake (unless, of course, they are seriously harming the furnaces). Why? Because ruin, abandonment and environmental regeneration are all critical to the story of Homestead Steel and the Carrie site. While the period of significance for the National Historic Landmark designation may end in 1935 (strangely, the reviewers did not find it necessary or desirable to include the CIO organizing period, which marked the first time that mass production industries like steel had extensive union representation, though ROSNHA certainly discusses these important events) the landscape’s community significance and context continues to change and evolve and should not be held static. In its current state, Carrie viscerally communicates the rise and fall of much of American industry, as well as the shift to a service-based consumer society. It also can teach visitors about the ability of non-human nature to rebound from incredible stress, as well as the lasting impacts of pollutants to soil and water resources. Ruins are important, especially if they can be sensitively integrated and incorporated into ongoing community needs and wants. The Carrie Furnaces site is endeavoring to pursue just such an approach.



Archived Newsletters

By Eleanor Mahoney July 15, 2013

Did you know you can access all of our archived newsletter directly from the website? Its an easy way to catch up on large landscape conservation news from the past year. Check them out here.


Washington State Tidelands

By Eleanor Mahoney July 1, 2013
View of Lopez Island shoreline, near Iceberg Point

View of Lopez Island shoreline, near Iceberg Point

In March of this year, President Obama designated five new National Monuments, including one in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, an archipelago of over 450 islands, rocks and pinnacles in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States. In his proclamation, the President stated, “The protection of these lands in the San Juan Islands will maintain their historical and cultural significance and enhance their unique and varied natural and scientific resources, for the benefit of all Americans.” The proclamation also recognized the past and continuing significance of the islands to Coast Salish peoples, including the Lummi Nation. For a map of the new monument, click here.

The San Juan Islands National Monument includes nearly 1,000 acres of land already administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). While the designation does not expand BLM holdings, which remain relatively small relative to the total land area of the islands, it does heighten the degree of protection afforded to the landscape. It is now very unlikely that any private development, including resource extraction, will ever occur on lands located within the monument boundaries. The monument is also now part of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands program (formerly known as the National Landscape Conservation System).

No Trespassing signs, a common site on Lopez Island.

No Trespassing signs, a common site on Lopez Island.

On a recent visit to Lopez Island, I had the opportunity to explore some of the lands now in the monument, including Iceberg Point. In addition to spotting a Bald Eagle, I also noticed something a little less spectacular – a slew of “private property” and “no trespassing signs.” In fact, along almost every beach I passed on Lopez, the signs were in full view, in front of each and every property. The visibility of these markings served to underscore the importance of protecting not only the new monument, but also existing county and state lands.

Relative to other Pacific Coast states, especially Oregon, Washington has a low percentage of tidelands in the public domain. Beginning in the late 19th century, the state government pursued a policy of actively selling tidelands, a practice which continued until 1971. Today, only about 30% of tidelands are publicly accessible. Compare this to the Oregon Beach Bill, passed in 1967, which established the right to public ownership of land on the Oregon Coast from the water up to sixteen vertical feet above the low tide mark. As a result, the vast majority of the beaches are open to the public, many as state parks.

Will Washington State ever pass legislation similar to the Oregon Bill? The answer is probably not, at least in the near future. However, other approaches, particularly Cape Cod National Seashore, now more than 50 years old, may provide a model as to how coastal lands in states with a high percentage of private property could be managed to ensure accessibility. Moreover, the public trust doctrine in Washington State should be clarified. Right now, it is not entirely clear if an individual has the right to walk across a beach ostensibly in private property – the signs on Lopez Island would indicate this right does not exist, but the courts have not been as absolute in their rulings. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future, in Washington State and elsewhere, as pressure to privatize beaches and other tidelands continues.


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.


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



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!



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.–a-celebration-of-beth-steels-administration-building.html


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.


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.


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!



UNESCO adds 26 new World Heritage Sites

By Eleanor Mahoney August 15, 2012

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.