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NHA@30 New National Parks in the 1990s: Thinning of the Blood or a Much Needed Transfusion?

By Brenda Barrett January 30, 2014

In 1991, I wrote a paper by this title as a contribution to a National Park Services (NPS) gathering on the occasion of the service’s 75 Anniversary. Known as the Vail Agenda (for the conference’s location at an off-season ski resort) the meeting was at a time of review and self-examination for the agency. Trying to be memorable or at least catchy, the title played off then National Park Service Director James Ridenour’s discomfort at many of the new national park proposals being pushed on the park service by Congress and local communities. Ridenour had spoken out strongly against such “thinning of the blood” and the agency’s leadership knew exactly what he meant – more than a few nodded in agreement. These new threatening ideas were rivers and canal corridors, cultural areas, and partnership parks. A number of these new fangled designations became known as National Heritage Areas.

The “new park proposals” were challenging for an agency that had attempted to maintain a high degree of credibility and control over the national park system. These designation were also a real concern for an agency that had suffered years of no growth or budget reductions and where resources were stretched to the limit. It was difficult to welcome these unfamiliar and possibly expensive newcomers. At that time I stated that:

… the issue before us is whether the National Park Service can make some sense or something of continuing value out of this phenomenon. While it may be too early to look for patterns and make predictions, we need to try. All time can do is prove us wrong.

In trying to identify the opportunities in this new approach, I wrote about the pressing need to think big. The NPS had long recognized that parks were only a small patch of any given ecosystem and were constantly buffeted by changes to the larger whole. Cultural parks commemorating a specific event in time and place had often become an island in a radically changed landscape. Perhaps I suggested these new ideas for large landscapes could help conserve land adjacent to national parks or tackle projects where fee ownership is not feasible or desirable. In addition the new parks reflected new ideas about history by addressing industrial themes, tales of laboring men and woman, and other of the country’s diverse stories. These new parks were a long way from the traditional great men, great events type of historic sites and the agency needed to embrace this new direction.

Finally, the paper identified some of the innovations that these new park proposals might bring to enrich the practice of all NPS parks and programs, such as:

1) Partnerships – True partnerships are developed between the federal government, state partners, local governments, local citizens and other related historic attractions. These partnerships are broad based, even regional in nature, and must be true partnerships, not just opportunities to come to a few informational meetings.

2) Economic value – Unlike traditional parks, the tourism and economic development role of a park in a community are directly addressed. Related natural and cultural preservation opportunities in the region are recognized and assisted.

3) Education and interpretation – The message is more complex than the one story line that can be told at one park or one site. The landscape and the natural environment in a broad area are used to tell the story.

4) Local priorities and capacities – Unlike a traditional park where the NPS has total control, economic, social and cultural concerns of the community must be incorporated into park planning and management.

As we look backward, it turns out these ideas of partnership management, economic value of parks, regional interpretation and public engagement have become more  and more central to the agency. Today managing park units at a landscape scale is seen as a more mainstream approach and the number of National Heritage Areas have grown from a trickle to a flood of designations. However, despite all these changes, NPS still struggles to make something of value from these new park ideas in the face of persistent foundation myth that continues to reinforce the more traditional narrative of the park as an island of protection in a sea change. Read the full paper here: New National Parks in the 1990s: Thinning of the Blood or a Much Needed Transfusion?


National Heritage Areas on the Brink

By Brenda Barrett September 24, 2012

View of Wilkes-Barre in the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor

Talk about a cliffhanger!  As of now it looks like the funding for 12 of the 49 National Heritage Areas may be going over the edge.  The Living Landscape Observer reported on this possibility earlier this year, but expressed hope in a post on National Park Service Policy & Proposed Legislation  that new thinking and support of the program would save the day. However, Congress took no action on the long awaited National Heritage Area Program legislation (HB 4099) or on any of the individual funding extension bills. Now the passage of a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through March 27, 2013 leaves the 12 heritage areas in the lurch – the CR provides level funding for the broader National Heritage Partnership program, but without the requisite authorizing legislation, none of the 12 areas in jeopardy can access these dollars.

And here is what is so frustrating; within the National Park Service (NPS) support for the program is stronger than ever. Heritage areas were identified in the recent Call to Action as a promising strategy. Director John Jarvis has spoken out strongly in favor of the approach and has issued a policy directive that reinforced the importance of these partnerships.  In March of this year, NPS testified in favor of reauthorization legislation for a number of areas.

In a final irony, the NPS is just putting the finishing touches on evaluations of nine of the twelve area (evaluations of two of the earliest heritage areas were completed in 2006). These have not yet been released, but if the findings are anything like the earlier evaluations, it will reinforce Director Jarvis’s message that NHA’s are an important means for developing partnerships, engaging diverse communities, and protecting large landscapes. In other words, making the NPS relevant to a wide cross section of our nation’s people.

So what is the future for 12 areas? The short history of the National Heritage Area (NHA) program has been full of last minute saves. There are number of  “save the day” possibilities: Congress could pass a reauthorization bill after the election and before adjourning for the year; it could take legislative action when the members come back in 2013; or it could tackle the issue as part of adopting the other half of the FY2012 budget.  Whatever the outcome, this kind of brinksmanship along with all the other budget drama in Washington makes it difficult to keep building heritage partnerships that local communities can believe in.

The roll call: Augusta Canal National Heritage Area, Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, Essex National Heritage, John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Lackawanna Valley National Heritage Area, Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Area, Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, National Coal Heritage Area, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area, South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, and Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.




A Summit on National Parks: A New Landscape for the Next Hundred Years

By Brenda Barrett April 1, 2012

The America’s Summit on National Parks in Washington DC (January 24-26, 2012) was in the tradition of past large convocations to set the future direction for the National Park Service such as The Vail Agenda (1991), Discovery 2000 (St. Louis) and Joint Ventures (Los Angeles 2003), but with a key difference. The event was convened by the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Foundation and the National Park Hospitality Association and, of the 300 invitees to the summit, only 44 were employees of the National Park Service. The summit’s big idea was to use the agency’s centennial in 2016 to power the national parks’ second century. The National Park Service’s Call to Action (released August 25, 2011) framed most of the sessions of the two-day event.

Working on a landscape scale was very much in the foreground. Although the two sessions on Connecting and Conserving Landscapes were billed as cultural and as natural, the speakers blended both ideas and focused on the need to collaborate to conserve resources. The session, The Next Generation of America’s Parks: New Models and Opportunities, tackled another theme of the summit: How to expand the national park system to reflect the diversity of our cultural and natural heritage? While these sessions were based on two of the actions steps identified in the Call to Action report (See Action #1 Fill in the Blanks and Action #22 Scaling Up), the panelists took the ideas one step further. They spoke with an authentic partnership voice on the opportunities and frankly the difficulties of working with the National Park Service. They made real world recommendations that the agency must make if it wants to work on a larger scale and be ready for the next 100 years.

In his opening remarks, Secretary Salazar noted that only 3% of park units represent diverse communities and called for new thinking to broaden the agency’s base of support. Panelists at the break out sessions wondered why – if landscape scale projects and diverse perspectives are so important to the National Park Service – do national heritage areas, trails, and wild and scenic rivers receive so little funding. Tribal and other community partners also said they wanted to work with the parks, but were frustrated by the process. The Call to Action has its work cut out to address many of these issues.

In other observations, the summit’s many plenary sessions were packed, generating a stream of ideas from political, corporate, nonprofit leaders that this observer would analogize to “drinking from a fire hose.” It was clear that the summit planners subscribed to the maxim that if you want people to remember you then invite them to your party. Re-occurring themes were the importance of paying attention to youth and new audiences, but also the enduring value of the National Park Service as a brand.

 So what are the next steps?

All summit attendees were provided with a draft document “National Parks for a New Century: Statement of Joint Principles,” which as critiqued at the closing session for being too focused on park units and not representative of the many partnerships represented at the event. As a good first step, the summit planners have now revised the Statement of Joint Principles to be more inclusive and are actively seeking organizations to sign on as supporter. For more information on the summit speakers, sessions and notes on the highlights, visit the summit’s web site Taking Action.