America’s  best  unfolding idea

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cover38-4Editor’s note: We publish TPH editor James Brooks’s introduction to the November 2016 issue of The Public Historian. The entire issue is available online to National Council on Public History members. Readers can also find a blog post on one of the essays on the University of California Press site.

We can’t always choose our landmark moments. The one hundredth year of the founding of the National Park Service, commemorated here in this special issue, may be among the more striking illustrations of the maxim. The centennial year of the founding of the first national park in the United States–Yellowstone–in 1972 might have served history better since at that time the service itself stood near the high-water mark in its organizational history. Mission 66, a massive public investment of some $1 billion to improve infrastructure, research, and interpretation toward a fully three-dimensional visitor experience had created more than one hundred new visitor centers, thousands of miles of improved access roads, and had recently grown the “green and gray” regiments to their largest numbers and greatest social diversity in history–then or now. The 1973 fuel crisis, which would dramatically constrict leisure travel, was yet to arrive, as was the Sagebrush Rebellion but a murmur of discontent on the western horizon. 

Yet 2016 it is. On August 25, 1916, president Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act creating the National Park Service (NPS) as a new bureau within the Department of Interior to manage the thirty-five parks and monuments that had somewhat haphazardly created something entirely new in the modern world-publicly held lands that would “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and . . . 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.” The service now stewards 412 units across the fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands, encompassing some eighty-four million acres. More than one hundred other nations have adopted variations on this model of “stewardship for the public good,” featuring more than one hundred thousand parks and preserves. More than 22,000 permanent, temporary, or seasonal employees serve NPS visitors, along with an additional 221,000 volunteers who donate millions of hours of their own time to the mission. More than 307 million visitors experienced our national parks and monuments in 2015, the first 300 million plus year in history.[1] We ought, it seems, to rightly celebrate the success of “America’s Best Idea.”

Few do, however, whether within the organization, or from without. The reasons for our restraint vary from the historical to the contemporary–from our knowledge, seldom publicly acknowledged, that the creation of public lands in the United States entailed the dispossession of tens of thousands of indigenous people from their Native lands, in processes violent or bureaucratic or both. Some of our most celebrated units–Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mesa Verde, to name but a few–followed this relentless colonizing logic. So too did the establishment of many parks or monuments require the removal of generations of immigrant settlers from lands they had long stewarded for their own survival, as in the cases of Great Smoky Mountains (on a massive scale) or Catoctin Mountain (lesser, although the same pattern). That the service has attempted to address these facts through interpretation—and the more formal establishment of co-managed “Heritage Areas”–is to its credit, but broad discussion remains muted, given a present political climate intensely critical of federal lands more broadly.

Also in our present lies the fact that the service itself faces an organizational crisis, ranging from failures of leadership ethics at the highest levels to widespread evidence of cronyism, cover-ups, and a culture that allows superiors to intimidate or extort favors from their subordinates on a patterned basis. The year 2016 has seen these depressing truths brought to daylight. All organizations, public or private, harbor these negative potentials, but the NPS seems particularly prone to them at this critical moment. Even bold experiments in “collaborative interpretation” (such as a project that invited students to create video reflections on the history of women’s rights) provoke a vitriolic response from some public sectors. Relentless political and budgetary attacks on the NPS core mission over the last three decades have, it seems, shaped a foxhole mentality that, on the one hand, has protected the organization from dissolution, yet on the other has forestalled critical self-evaluation and transformation.[2]

Yet, “what thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” I grew up an hour’s drive from Rocky Mountain National Park and first heard the piercing clarity of pika calls on Trail Ridge Road. I visited what is now Chaco Culture National Historical Park at the age of eight, when the access roads regularly closed due to flash flooding—happily experienced when they required an extended stay in the canyon. Two years later, the sight of “Esther” at Mesa Verde National Park (a two-thousand-year-old mummified young woman) on display in the visitor center haunted my imagination–and reminds me now that NPS often does do the right thing, having removed her in 1970 in response to a request from the American Indian Movement.[3] Many years later, I accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of the Western National Parks Association (WNPA, founded in 1938 as the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association) and last year concluded a three-year stint as chair of that board. The WNPA supports sixty-seven NPS units in thirteen western states with some $4.5 million toward staff, research, publication, and interpretation, primarily at parks too small to have their own cooperating associations, and under a model that distributes resources from high-revenue locations to those, such as Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, or Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado, whose ability to serve their visitors is dependent on aid beyond that available through the NPS. Our funding has grown increasingly vital to parks with the annual constriction of federal funding that has left a legacy of some $12 billion in deferred maintenance, severe cuts in research and interpretation in order to meet the security demands of Homeland Security, and a shrinking, dispirited workforce. Cooperating associations have long been the respectable alternative to what began with coziness between the agency and early industrialists, severed during the Franklin D. Roosevelt years. They can continue to provide an alternative to the centennial’s corporate sponsorship campaigns that, at least for me, seem counter to the spirit of truly public lands.

Surely, there rides a bright star in these gloomy heavens? And yes, I believe so. My decade of WNPA service has afforded me opportunity for dozens of in-depth visits to our NPS partners. In many of these I’ve spent hours with deeply dedicated NPS personnel in the middle ranks of the service, rangers in their thirties who were drawn to work they “lov’st well,” despite the organizational hardships. These represent a pool of extraordinary talent and energy with edgy and plural notions of how our parks might be reborn as community and national incubators of scientific and humanistic inquiry–led by our citizens themselves. We (and they) know that a wave of senior level retirements will follow in the wake of centennial celebrations, a clearing of the house that we can hope will open organizational ceilings and unleash their promise. They carry environmentalism, activism, and a commitment to community in their DNA. They may also assure the National Park Service will thrive to see a second centennial.

[1] Annual Visitation Summary Report for: 2015, National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics, NPS Stats.
[2] Peter Feinman, “The National Park Service Centennial: An Imperiled Promise,” August 25, 2016, IHARE (blog), Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education.
[3] Kathleen Fine-Dare and Bryanna N. Durkee, “Interpreting an Absence: Esther’s Legacy at Mesa Verde National Park,” special issue on Interpretation and the National Parks, Journal of the West 50, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 43–50.

Editor’s note: Since this issue of The Public Historian went to press, the number of units in the National Park Service rose to 413, with President Barack Obama’s designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine

~ James Brooks is editor of The Public Historian and professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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