Bridging the Gap Between “Nature” Sites and “History” Sites in the National Park Service (Part 1)

Grand Canyon

There’s only one fundamental reason to go to a National Park. And that is to, to strip yourself of your industrial persona, and to become more basic again, to feel the quality of solitude and silence.

Clay Jenkinson, Author and Educator

If this statement from Clay Jenkinson is true–if the most important reason people should visit a National Park is because it allows people to escape the confines of modern society and become one with nature–it represents a communication breakdown about the values and mission of the National Park Service. More specifically, it means that the National Park Service as an agency has failed to communicate its relevance and purpose to the American people. As fellow historian and Twitter user Emmanuel Dabney told me, “The perception of the NPS is Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, bison, moose, and squirrels.” In other words, it’s solely about nature and wildlife for too many people who visit National Parks.

Make no mistake about it, there is nothing wrong with going to a park for solitude, silence, or moose, nor do those activities contradict the NPS mission. What makes the NPS a unique and truly remarkable agency, however, is that its purposes go so much farther. “The National Park Service,” its mission statement explains, “preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Culture. History. Interpretation. Education.

Our national parks are special not because they only offer a place of solitude and natural scenic beauty, but because they tell us important stories about the American experience. Our parks are not just about nature and buildings – they’re about people, good and bad, whose lives provide insight into ourselves and our national character. The Park Service takes care of nature, places, and people. That’s important.

Recent discussions with fellow NPS employees at other parks, however, indicate to me that an uneasy tension between “nature” parks and “historic/cultural” parks exists in the minds of at least a few people. One person last week went so far as to suggest to me the possibility of splitting these sites in two. Given the Park Service’s financial struggles and budgetary woes of recent years, wouldn’t the agency benefit from trimming its expenses and focusing solely on “nature” parks while leaving the “history/cultural” sites to another agency? It turns out that such sentiments and challenges are not new to the National Park Service.

The Roots of Historic Preservation and Interpretation in the National Park Service

When the National Park Service was established in 1916, its focus largely revolved around the preservation of natural scenic areas throughout the western half of the United States. Within a few years interpretation and education programs aimed to turn parks into “classrooms and museums of nature,” as the NPS Education Committee stated in 1918. The first NPS museums, argues Rebecca Conard, took the lead in these initiatives by preserving and interpreting natural history, which practitioners at the time defined to include Native American artifacts and cultural practices (a definition, I might add, that served to establish a distinction between “prehistoric” Indians and civilized, “historic” white people). As these education initiatives suggest, the interpretive focus of the Park Service’s early years did not have an explicit focus on history. In fact, many academic historians at the time disparaged museums (especially local history museums) as antiquated, ignorant, and too focused on irrelevant local anecdotes and legends being passed off as history.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, NPS leaders like Horace Albright and Arno Cammerer desired an expansion of the Park Service to include interpretive programs at sites relevant to United States history. The reasons for this interpretive shift are numerous, but Denise Meringolo points out that access to the nation’s parks was arguably the most important issue. Although the agency branded itself as a “national” agency, only one park unit–Acadia National Park in Maine–lay east of the Mississippi River by 1925. “In the first half of the 1920s,” argues Meringolo, “parks and monuments in the West remained for the most part accessible only to the wealthy. Most people had neither the time nor the means to travel west for pleasure. Western politicians saw some economic benefit form the tourist trade, but legislators on the East Coast–and practically those in the South–grew impatient and unwilling to commit additional time, energy, and federal funds for the disposition of land in areas too remote to benefit most of their constituents” (84-85). In sum, the NPS was a regional agency supported with federal funds; historic sites east of the Mississippi provided an opportunity for the NPS to expand its reach to more Americans throughout the entire United States.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt added more than sixty monuments, battlefields, and historic sites by transferring these properties from the War Department and the U.S. Forest Service to the Park Service through an executive order in 1933. Two years later the 1935 Historic Sites Act, according to Conard, “established historic preservation as national policy . . . and established an official advisory board comprising an interdisciplinary group of prominent historians, anthropologists, natural historians, and civic leaders” (109). Historians–including some from the academy–now found themselves in the National Park Service, working to help establish standards for the interpretation and preservation of these new parks.

Not everyone supported the effort to incorporate historic sites into the agency, however. The National Parks Association (NPA), an advocacy group for the NPS now referred to as the National Parks Conservation Association, came out against the addition of new parks and even efforts to educate visitors through interpretation, arguing that education was inherent to the process of silent interaction with nature. Robert Sterling Yard, executive secretary of the NPA at the time, asserted that a smaller agency would operate more efficiently and keep standards for park designations high: “In magnificence of included scenery, in variety, in scientific importance and in ample spaciousness, these parks must do justice to the National Park System. None but the noblest examples, painstakingly chosen, must be admitted” (Meringolo, 88). Yard and his associates argued that historic parks would lower the standards for new parks, radically change the mission of the agency, and ultimately dilute the quality of the Park Service brand. In the end the desire to keep historic sites out of the agency failed, but Yard was right in arguing that the agency’s mission would need to be amended to account for these new additions.

Is it time to separate our natural/scenic/scientific sites from our history/cultural sites in the NPS? My short answer is no. My long answer will come with my next post.


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