In the National Park System, cultural resources “are in serious trouble”

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

State of Americas Natl Parks 2011 Yosemite pg4

Image from page 4 of The State of America’s National Parks, a report by the Center for Park Research of the National Parks Conservation Association. It is identified as: “This historic structure in Yosemite National Park now serves as a museum and bookstore. Adaptively reusing historic structures helps protect them from decay and enriches visitor experience.” The image is credited to Jarno Gonzalez Zarraonandia/Shutterstock.

National Parks in the USA preserve archaeological resources. Right?

Yes!

A June 2011 report from the Center for Park Research of the National Parks Conservation Association, titled The State of America’s National Parks, says:

State of Americas Natl Parks 2011 cover clip

Within the 394 national parks, the National Park Service holds in trust nearly 27,000 historic buildings, 3,500 historic statues and monuments, an estimated 2 million archaeological sites, and 123 million museum objects and archival documents—collections bested only by the Smithsonian Institution’s assemblage of museums. [page 23]

The report (also on page 23) goes on to note that because of the assistance that the National Park Service offers federal agencies, state and local governments, and even the private sector, it “is the closest thing the United States has to a heritage ministry.”

Management and policy within the National Parks tends to emphasize “natural and scenic wonders,” which means that “heritage preservation too often has played second fiddle” (page 24), the report states.

Overall, researchers found that cultural resources in the National Park System—considered the most important to our country’s heritage—are in serious trouble. In fact, these places and collections are being maintained in a condition well below the level that the National Park Service itself has deemed appropriate. In 91 percent of the parks we surveyed, cultural resources were found to be in “fair” or “poor” condition…. None merited an “excellent” rating. And the weaknesses are widespread. The problems affecting cultural resources occur across park designations and across regional divisions. [page 25]

This is not a trivial matter. The report continues on page 30:

The absence of resource documentation and planning documents denies our heritage the protection—and prioritization—it needs to withstand the rigors of time. More importantly, the National Park Service has failed to develop either a holistic national process for assessing cultural resources nationwide, or a strategic vision for its heritage and cultural resource management responsibilities. None currently exists; none is planned.

While some parks and archaeological resource programs are exemplary, too often these responsibilities are overlooked in budgets, and consequently in hiring and program development. Thus, regarding archaeological resources, the report says (page 33), “The greatest threat to parks’ cultural resources is lack of focused management.”

As of December 2010, Georgia has 11 National Parks, 3 National Heritage Areas, 10 National Natural Landmarks, 48 National Historic Landmarks, 920 historic places documented by the National Park Service, and 297 archeological sites in National Parks (based on a document downloaded from this webpage). In 2009, the economic benefit to the state from National Park tourism was nearly $200 million.

Given the many high-profile archaeological and historical properties in the National Park system here in Georgia, including Ocmulgee National Monument, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, and the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, you may find the report’s conclusions about problems with management of cultural resources surprising. Take a look at the full report (online here) and think about how the National Park Service might raise its profile, and thus increase its funding, in these times of strict budgeting.

The Center for Park Research study looked in detail at 80 of the 394 parks in the National Park Service system, or a 20.3% sample. To download the full report (68 pages) or the executive summary (16 pages), click over to this webpage. This analysis is based on “ten years of research on the condition of natural and cultural resources within America’s national parks.”