NPCA Calling For Culture Resource Challenge

The National Parks Conservation Association is calling for a $250 million infusion into the National Park Service so it can better protect and interpret cultural and historical treasures in the National Park System, such as White House Ruins at Canyon de Chelly National Monument/Kurt Repanshek file

The National Park Service’s capacity for protecting, preserving, and interpreting cultural and historical aspects of America has been greatly diminished by funding and staffing losses, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, which is calling for a $250 million Cultural Resource Challenge for the agency.

“These shortfalls have led to a quiet crisis that is undermining the ability of the National Park Service to protect our historic and cultural legacy,” warns the 20-page report.

Alan Spears, NPCA’s senior director for cultural resources, said many visitors to national parks today can find staff to raise questions with or go on interpretive tours. What they can’t see is the problem with managing cultural and historical resources, he said.

“Our concern right now is that it’s the back of the house, the part of the cultural resource iceberg that’s under the water where the problems are manifesting most,” Spears explained during the National Parks Traveler’s latest podcast episode. “Ninety percent of our national parks lack the baseline data assessing the condition of the resources that are in their charge. It’s especially acute at historic and cultural resource sites because they don’t have the back of the room staff to take care of these reports.”

The NPCA report outlines the struggles the Park Service has in managing cultural and historical resources:

  • Across the National Park System, there are just 138 park historians, a 25 percent decline from 2011 staff levels.
  • The Park Service currently has no inventory and monitoring program for cultural or historical resources; there are an estimated 184.9 million objects, artifacts, and documents in park collections.
  • There are roughly 26,000 historic structures managed by the Park Service.
  • While the Park Service produced 91 climate change vulnerability reports in 2022, just 14 involved cultural resources across the park system.

To make inroads into better protecting, preserving, and interpreting these resources, the NPCA report is calling for a $250 million infusion over four or five years into the Park Service’s budget to pay for an additional 450 employees in the cultural and historical resource realm, bolster historical research, tackle preservation planning and support, manage collections, and digitize collections, among other needs the advocacy group points to in the report.

Along that line, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat, this past week introduced the Cultural Resources Challenge Act (HR 1234), which calls for that $250 million in funding for historic and cultural resources at America’s national parks.

“At some point in time, if you do not understand the condition of the resources in your charge, you’re not going to be able to adequately and completely care for them plan for the interpret them,” Spears said during the podcast.  “What we’re looking to do is to call attention, not just to the fact that the Park Service’s managing all these sites, but that the workforce, the professional, trained workforce and the cultural resources side of the operations needs to be enhanced so that they can adequately take care of all these resources.”

A dozen years ago, in 2012, a similar report surfaced, warning that the Park Service was largely failing its mission to interpret history, both from a lack of investment as well as from an approach to telling history almost with blinders on. As a result, the report said, history in the parks should be viewed as “endangered.” Those findings, reached by the Organization of American Historians, came in the wake of a 2011 NPCA report that said the Park Service’s history programs and resources were suffering from problems ranging from landscapes being impacted by development and artifacts affected by “decay and damage” to even “outdated scholarship.”

That NPCA report, produced by the organization’s Center for Park Research, maintained that the Park Service at times placed a greater priority on helping visitors enjoy the parks than on protecting the resources within those parks. Beyond that, the report said inadequate funding had taken a toll not just on protecting the cultural resources themselves, but on providing the staff needed to tend to those resources; demands on resources from outside parks are impacting those within parks, and; climate-change effects are challenging the agency’s ability to cope with them.

“The Center’s research findings are distressing to anyone who cares about America’s national parks,” that 2011 NPCA report said. “Natural resource ratings ranged from ‘excellent’ to ‘critical,’ but most parks — 66 percent of those we examined for natural resource conditions — earned an unimpressive ‘fair,’ indicating signs of degradation and vulnerability to continued degradation. Cultural resources fared even worse: In 91 percent of the parks surveyed, cultural resources were in ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ condition. None merited an ‘excellent’ rating.”

In some parks, the report noted, “outdated scholarship” had left out key stories involving “women, African Americans, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, and others.”

Spears said the takeaway from the new report is that the National Park Service needs more help to meet its mission.

“We have given the National Park Service this awesome responsibility for telling our shared national narrative and protecting the resources that contribute to that shared national narrative,” he said. “I’m an NPS fan. I’ve got favorite interpretive rangers. I want to make sure that the people who are doing this job have all the resources that they can get in order to help share the complex nature of our history. It’s not always great. Sometimes it’s incredibly troubling. But it is worth knowing if we are to have any kind of a chance of understanding where we’ve come from, where we are, possibly where we’re headed to.”

Listen to Traveler’s conversation with Spears in episode 270 of the organization’s weekly podcasts. 

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