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Anniversary of the NPS: Building on a Legacy?

By Eleanor Mahoney February 21, 2016
Rangers and visitors  celebrate the National Park Service Centennial and Find Your Park.

Rangers and visitors celebrate the National Park Service Centennial and Find Your Park.

This post  first ran in our September 2015 newsletter, as NPS and Anniversaries. We are re-printing it now in an effort to spark conversation not only about the NPS centennial, but also the legacy of the Obama Presidency and National Parks more generally. After almost 8 years, what do you see as the primary imprint of the Administration on the National Park System and other public lands? Will the President’s expansive use of the Antiquities Act, which has resulted in the protection of more than 260 million acres of America’s lands and waters, be remembered as advancing the large landscape approach to conservation policy? The Administration has also focused on telling the stories of underrepresented communities, for example the recent designation of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument,  Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, and the Pullman National Monument.  In recent years the NPS has led efforts to tell the history of all Americans by exploring American Latino heritage and Asian American Pacific Islander heritage, Women’s history, and LGBTQ history. For the celebration of its Centennial year  NPS has  committed to making the national park system more diverse and relevant and its narratives more inclusive. Will these initiatives change the long term culture of the agency and how it is perceived by diverse communities? Share your thoughts on all these topics as well as ideas for what the next Administration should emphasize.

NPS and Anniversaries

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.

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?

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Special Update: Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park next step up for National Heritage Areas?

By Brenda Barrett December 30, 2014
Credit: National Park Service

Map of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor

Interested in the future of the heritage movement? Concerned that the program has had to invest so much of its political capital on re-authorization and just hanging on to a flat line budget? Then the recent legislation establishing the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park might be one way forward – offering stability and just possibly a new kind of partnership to conserve landscape scale resources.

A little background, the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor has always been a special case. Created in 1986 as the second of a new kind of National Park Service (NPS) designation, the area was the poster child for this new approach to managing a living landscape. However, in recent years the NPS seemed to retreat from this bold strategy. A special resource study for the Blackstone Valley recommended creating a traditional park around a cluster of historic sites – a very reduced footprint indeed! See Blackstone River Valley: Sounding a Retreat from Landscape Scale Work?

So it is very good news that as part of the recent National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, Congress authorized the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park with some very expansive language.

The park was created with a dual purpose to preserve, protect and interpret the industrial heritage as well as its urban, rural and agricultural landscape that provides the overarching context for the region. Along with individual industrial sites, the park boundaries include the Blackstone Canal and the Blackstone River and its tributaries. The legislation also recognizes the role of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. It authorizes the park to enter into cooperative agreements with the heritage corridor and to offer a range of technical assistance to resources outside the official park boundary.

Credit: NPS

A former textile mill along the Blackstone River in the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. Credit: NPS

The new park along with the re-authorization of the heritage corridor to the year 2021 in the recent Omnibus Budget Bill provides a new opportunity to conserve the Blackstone Valley on a landscape scale. Charlene Perkins Cutler, the executive director of the Blackstone River Valley Heritage Corridor certainly sees the new designation this way, saying “This gives recognition to the importance of the entire watershed and the heritage corridor as the birthplace of the industrial revolution,”

Many people have worked hard to pass legislation that ensures that the tools for landscape scale work are at the ready. The next three years will be critical. Will the new national park fashion a management plan that takes advantage of these sweeping authorities? Will the heritage corridor be made a full partner in preserving and interpreting the larger landscape? Can the permanent presence and sustainable funding of a park unit serve as home base to continue the innovative holistic approach to the Blackstone Valley? Only time and more hard work will tell if this is the new model for heritage development.

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Our Predictions for Living Landscapes in 2013: How Did We Do?

By Brenda Barrett January 2, 2014

Last December, the Living Landscape Observer ventured a few predictions for the coming year of 2013. So looking backward, how did we do? Let’s answer the question.

1. The large landscape movement will continue to expand. With no big change in course at the national level the landscape scale programs at the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management will continue to grow and prosper. The America Great Outdoors initiative will frame the work of the Department of the Interior. The National Park Service will issue guidance on how to “Scale Up” efforts around National Park Units. On the private side, conservation organizations will come together around the new Large Landscape Practitioners Network.

Answer: Yes, we were right on! Sally Jewell the new Secretary of Department of the Interior is just as committed to the large landscape approach as former Secretary Ken Salazar: highlighting large landscape efforts US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, encouraging the National parks to Scale Up and issuing departmental Order 3330 “On Improving Mitigation Policies” in part through landscape scale planning . On the nongovernmental side, a new web site to connect large landscape practitioners is launching in the New Year.

2. National Heritage Areas will be pulled back from the brink. One of the country’s premier large landscape programs, the National Heritage Areas, are in a precarious position. The twelve original areas are facing a loss of funding and most of the newer areas are severely underfunded. We predict the program will be rescued, but remain unsure on whether much needed program legislation will be passed.

Answer: Just barely, but nobody is a winner in this game of chicken. In 2013 the sequester followed by the government shutdown played havoc with all protected area programs. National Heritage Areas were particularly hard hit. For example, the future of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor is very problematic. Once a shining example of public private partnership, it is struggling to keep the doors open, more on this story in the coming months.

3. The concept of cultural landscapes will be revitalized. New ideas about cultural landscapes including Indigenous Cultural Landscapes and Historic Urban Landscapes are attracting new and diverse audiences, including the conservation community, regional planners and urban developers. Look for these approaches to proliferate and shake up traditional concepts of cultural significance. Just one example of new ways to think about landscape is what’s happening at the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

Answer: On track to succeed, the National Park Service launched a series of initiatives to rethink the meaning of cultural landscapes in the National Register program. For more information on another innovative idea, the Indigenous Cultural Landscape Initiative, see our post on the sessions at the George Wright Conference in March of 2013.

4. The Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor will be in the spotlight. This is a given – after all the Commission has been honored by an invitation to march in the 57th Presidential Inaugural Parade on January 21, 2013. With a newly completed Management Action Plan, this should be an important year for the preservation of this national treasure. See our post on the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor.

Answer: Congratulations to the Gullah Geechee Corridor for their strong promotional efforts in 2013. These include offering banners and highways signs for the region and advancing awareness of the corridor through gubernatorial proclamations. Despite limited funding and the budget woes of their National Park partner, the corridor is moving forward. The observer covered the float in the Inaugural Parade , the new Gullah Geechee Commission and the challenges of community conservation on Sapelo Island. Despite limited funding and the budget woes of their National Park partner, the corridor is moving forward. The next step, a nationwide search is on for the corridor’s first executive director.

Also in 2013:

Not predicted, but we all should have seen it coming, was the United States’ defunding of UNESCO and the impact this has on the World Heritage program . Just when there is a popular ground swell of interest in World Heritage designation in places as disparate as San Antonio, Texas and southern Ohio, the United States has stepped back. Follow this issue thanks to the work of Preservation Action.

The Living Landscape Observer predicts that there is plenty of unfinished work for 2014. What do you think?

 

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Charting a Future: National Heritage Corridor to become our next National Park?

By Brenda Barrett May 24, 2012

Interested in the future of National Heritage Areas or in the bigger issue of partnership management in the National Park Service (NPS)?  If so, the proposed legislation to rethink the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor may be of interest.

In the past, one of the selling points for designating National Heritage Areas was offering a model that was   an alternative to a NPS park unit. Within the boundary of a heritage area, the NPS would not own any land, would avoid costly maintenance of historic buildings, and would be able to count on partners and volunteers to make a major contribution to the work.  In return, the NPS would be able to tell nationally important stories of industry, agriculture and cultural heritage on a large landscape scale that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. This was certainly the idea in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the first national heritage corridor along the Illinois and Michigan Canal. This model was also fresh in Congress’s mind when they created the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor two years later.

For a quarter of a century the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Commission, in partnership with the NPS, has managed a 550 square miles corridor that spans two state and 24 communities. The landscape of the Blackstone Valley illustrates an arc of the nation’s industrial history stretching from sites of early industrial innovation to environmental exploitation, then abandonment, and finally regeneration. The mission of the Blackstone Valley Commission included both natural and cultural resource conservation. It boldly tackled issues like water quality, local land use and even leadership training for residents and government officials. The commission was recognized as a model for partnership management of a living landscape.

Despite these successes, the community, political leaders and the NPS seem to have taken a new path and are proposing to create a new National Park unit. A recent NPS Special Resource Study (2011)  recommended a more traditional approach – the creation of the Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park. The sweeping ideas of the original heritage corridor – partnership management of the valley – have been reduced to NPS staff preserving a collection of industrial heritage sites. And this is not just a study; Congress has introduced legislation to make it a reality. (See SB 1708 and HR 3191).

So why is this happening? One reason is clear just look at the NPS budget for National Heritage Areas. Unlike national park units who have predictable annual funding, the heritage areas funding has been shrinking just as the program has expanded. For the last decade the Blackstone Commission has had to lobby for adequate funding every year, making long-range planning, implementation of multi-year projects, and staff retention very challenging. However, the proposed solution is not necessarily more cost effective.  A comparison between the current Blackstone Heritage Corridor and the proposed new Blackstone park unit make a compelling case for the benefits of collaborative management:

Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor encompasses an entire watershed with a broad mandate for the preservation, redevelopment, and interpretation of the regional landscape. The Blackstone Commission has a current annual operating budget of approximately $1 million and 14 full-time employees.

Proposed Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park would encompass four historic districts, the Blackstone River and Blackstone Canal with an annual operating cost of $3.5 million not including proposed planning costs, construction, rehabilitation and exhibits at four sites.

With 49 National Heritage Areas from Alaska to Alabama, these numbers are thought provoking. More problematic for the NPS are the implications for management based on partnership, community engagement and working at a landscape scale, rather than the traditional, ownership model.

A 2005 NPS study identified the critical ingredients for the Blackstone River Valley’s’ future success as: (1) strong collaborative leadership to carry forward the vision; (2) an ongoing relationship with the NPS; and (3) secure, sustainable funding. In 2012 two of those critical ingredients may be on the way, but the first and most important one remains uncertain.  Just as the NPS’s most recent strategic plan, calls for scaling up its work and promoting large landscape conservation to support healthy ecosystems and cultural resources, one of the best examples of collaborative lived-in landscape management may be headed for a down sizing.

Is this an overreaction?  Some of the longtime leaders of the Blackstone Corridor see the new legislation as a positive approach. They point out that the new park unit will have grant funding for continued partnership work in the region and they remain hopeful for the future. Let us know what you think.

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