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Debating significance.

Once again public events, financial constraints, and the bureaucratic desire for neatness in all things have brought to the fore the question of whether too many national parks exist, whether some lack national significance, and whether the National Park Service ought to divest itself of some of its 368 units. These concerns are reflected in a bill before Congress bearing the tide National Park System Reform Act of 1995. The apparent intent of the bill is sound; its tide and some of its proposals are not.

The United States has the most complex and elegant system of national parks in the world. The intent of the National Park System is clear: to preserve and protect in perpetuity the finest American landscapes, the best exemplars of American culture, the most exacting sites at which the nation may commemorate its historical experiences. Whether park, historic site, or seashore, a unit of the park system must be nationally significant.

A definition of national significance involves an understanding of the nation's history. To those who believe in the connectedness of all things, every plot of land, every mountain's majesty, every Civil War battle site speaks of the nation's experiences, of its pride and its fears, and thus has significance. Clearly this was not what Congress or the founders of the National Park Service had in mind. But today the question, Who does history belong to?, is producing enormous problems for those parks that attempt to interpret the nation's cultural and historical resources. Disputes at Pearl Harbor or at Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site reveal that important sectors of the public are unwilling to accept the presumably dispassionate and more objective views of scholars or bureaucrats. The bill before Congress is an attempt both to deal with the confusion arising over debates about national significance and to protect the Park Service from being the object of rampant "pork barrel" politics.

The National Park Service was created in 1916 by an act which often is said to have presented the service with a "contradictory mandate." The Park Service was directed "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." There is, in fact, no contradictory mandate here. I have completed a legislative history of this act, going well beyond the customary history to examine the surviving private papers of every member of every House and Senate committee that worked on the legislation. It is clear that Congress intended the dual mandate - "to serve" and "to provide for the enjoyment" - to be read in order of priorities. If the second charge came into conflict with the first, it was the protection of the resource that took precedence.

Over the years, a score of types of units have been added to the park system. Some of them have recreation as their primary purpose. While all are expected to have national significance, this standard may be subtle and not immediately apparent to a less-than-informed visitor: protected fossil beds, complex and unique though not visually striking archaeological sites, structures and places that preserve the memory of a historical movement not yet completed. Through interpretation at the site and in publications, the Park Service is responsible for illustrating and verifying the national significance of the unit.

By and large the Park Service has skillfully fended off unworthy units. During the 1930s, more than a hundred proposals were put forth, and dozens of bills were introduced in Congress by representatives who had been persuaded, often by a chamber of commerce, that this or that local landmark or museum should be added to the system. Sen. Albert B. Fall of New Mexico pushed for the All-year-round National Park, a site to consist of minor recreational areas around his ranch. Over the years, communities eager to push a local amenity onto the federal taxpayer have proposed various watering holes, cemeteries, agricultural museums, fenced wildlife parks, abandoned shortline railroads, and even a petting zoo for the system. With knowledgeable friends in Congress, who understand and cherish the purposes of the park system, the system usually has been able to avoid being turned into a series of federally subsidized sandlots.

Not always, of course, because the creation of a national park flows from the political process. If a substantial number of unworthy units exist - if, as former Park Service Director James M. Ridenour has put it, a "thinning of the blood" has occurred - it is Congress that must be held responsible. Seldom has the Park Service sought any property that failed the national significance test. Of those hundred and more proposals put to it in the 1930s, only 10 percent became part of the system. The others most frequently were turned away with the judgment that the proposed area lacked national significance or that the system already contained a better "specimen" - a better cave of its type, a historic site that more fully represented the Westward movement. In fact, as more appropriate examples of particular land forms and historical activities were identified, the Park Service had several units removed: Shoshone Caverns in Wyoming, Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana, Verandrye National Memorial in North Dakota, Farther Millet Cross in New York, and 18 others. At times, with a unit thrust upon it by Congress, the Park Service has turned a sow's ear into a silk purse through skilled interpretation.

Surely, units of the park system exist that lack national significance, have little historical integrity, and are hardly accessible. Perhaps such places might be better protected by another agency of government or through private enterprise. Few students of the park system believe that Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania is of national significance or can ever be made so.

As one observer noted, Steamtown consists of a miscellaneous collection of rolling stock, much of it irrelevant to Pennsylvania's history. A weakened and almost inattentive Park Service found this unit added to its responsibilities by a determined congressman who by-passed any historical review in order to provide within his district a potential tourist attraction that might help offset precipitous economic decline.

In the 1980s, Congress briefly considered the notion that every congressional district should contain a park unit. Congress also has required studies with a view toward establishing a unit for every president of the United States. Do Chester Arthur and Millard Fillmore rate this treatment? Should Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in South Carolina be retained, when it is now clear that Pinckney never lived at Snee Farm, the unit's focus ? Pinckney NHS was created when Congress decided that, where possible, every delegate to the Constitutional Convention should be honored by a unit, a clearly impossible and undesirable step superseded, perhaps, by the creation of Constitution Gardens in the nation's capital.

Who is responsible in the end for poor units or underfunded ones? Congress seldom provides the needed funds when it adds a unit to the system, often against the Park Service's better judgment or contrary to its own studies.

The Hefley-Vento bill can provide the moment when the American people, their representatives in Congress, and their stewards in the National Park Service can take a hard look at the criteria by which a unit joins the panoply of symbolically sacred places. It can be a time for declaring, once and for all, that protection of the resource stands above the pleasure principle in any national park. It can be a time for revitalizing the ethic by which the nation came to have the world's finest, most intellectually elegant, and best protected system. It can be a time for moving forward in the creation of new units, since the system can never be complete, as our understanding of ourselves and our culturally diverse development will make clear.

But this bill contains dangers. Your unworthy unit might not be my unworthy unit. Any contemplation of removing units from the system must be taken on a unit-by-unit basis, and the successful removal of any one unit cannot be seen as a precedent for the removal of any other. An alternative agency should always be ready and able to accept transfer, for if a unit is finally judged not nationally significant, it could have such local significance as to become a superb state park. No one should produce a "hit list," for without a careful examination of the legislation that created each unit, one cannot be certain of the original congressional intent. The act ought not to refer to "reform" as though it had prejudged the outcome; certainly what is intended is a complex reassessment. This is a process that cannot be rushed, for many voices will have to be heard, and much education will be necessary, sometimes of Congress itself.

Particularly disturbing is a provision that requires the Park Service to complete its "reassessment" more quickly than it can reasonably do. If the Park Service fails to meet the deadline, the bill calls for establishing a commission that will draw up a list for modification or termination. The commission is to consist of seven members, two appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives, two by the president pro tem of the Senate, and three by the Interior Secretary, one of whom will be the Park Service director. Where are dispassionate students of the park system, individuals who have no ax to grind and no desire to add or protect a unit in their state, in this process?

This is a good time to look again at the criteria, to seek to educate the public and its representatives about why it matters that a nation preserve its beauty, its historical and recreational heritage, its great natural landscapes. The purpose must be to protect the parks, to assist the Park Service in its efforts, already under way, to act upon the clear intent of the 1916 act, and to identify and acquire new symbols of our past. This bill, if passed, must be for constructive, not destructive purposes.

Robin W Winks is Townsend Professor of History at Yale University.

The National Park System Reform Act is before the House Committee on Resources. A hearing is scheduled for February 23. NPCA will be working to ensure that final legislation will include a balanced and fair process of review that does not place undue emphasis on money when compared with the loss of protection for nationally significant areas.
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Title Annotation:Congress considers the fate of the national parks system with the draft of the National Parks System Reform Act of 1995
Author:Winks, Robin W.
Publication:National Parks
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Words:1751
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