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Sustainability – is it really what we want?

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.