NPS: Best Idea Ever?

I’m just going to throw out a bunch of questions throughout this post because I’m honestly still having a hard time understanding many aspects of the form and function of the NPS. This post is a bit long and I apologize for that. Although by the end of it I hope I have somewhat laid out a way of understanding both, at least for myself.

I had a lot of thoughts while reading the selections for this week. My first thought was “Wow, I had no idea that the so many spaces and places fall under the National Park Service authority/umbrella”. My second thought was to question how on earth is it possible for all these spaces and places to fit under the NPS umbrella? My third thought was “wait…what is the actual mission of the NPS?”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my previous understanding of the historical role of the NPS has been to directly, or indirectly, create and maintain some through-line American narrative by way of their process of curation? How is that doable with such a diverse range of places and spaces being represented by the same institution?

After this weeks readings. I honestly wasn’t sure about any of it.

So I went to the NPS website seeking some clarity. Under the Learn and Explore section, there is a bolded quote from Wallace Stenger in 1983. It reads:

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

I had to pause for a second: Is that in fact true?

I think it would be simple enough statement if NPS just limited itself to conserving natural spaces (Yellowstone, Yosemite etc.) which seemingly offer something for everyone to enjoy regardless of their personal background. Who wouldn’t be able to appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty of the Redwood forrest?

But the whole historic park/battlefields/monuments component throws me a bit. In the book Shaping Spaces, the author talks about the NPS criteria for inclusion: “Historical parks should be associated with persons, events, or themes of national importance; should encompass structures or features of great intrinsic or representational value”.(48) In other words, things that all Americans can find some kind of value in.

Ok, but what the hell does that mean? This seems an impossibly conflicted criterion to apply to any historical site. For example, one mans Monticello is another mans house of slavery. Where is the representational value? I doubt that that many Native Americans would see much representational value in a narrative that paints Scott’s Bluff monument as an historic lookout point for westbound settlers eyeing the expansive Indian lands they would soon take from them.

Ultimately I think I would take Stenger a bit to too task on his “best ever” assertion. However I do think there is an important part of that quote which does encapsulate why the NPS is a damn good idea, if not the “best”. That is its evolving and “absolutely democratic” nature.

In the text Shaping Systems, the author writes of the NPS guidelines, “Historical parks should be associated with persons, events, or themes of national importance”.(49) Yet a few paragraphs earlier the same text claims that “All national parklands are not created equal”. My takeaway from this honest, and somewhat confusing, appraisal of the history of the park system is that the only actual narrative that can serve as a through-line in American history is one of inequality. That and attempts to redress inequality through the democratic process.

Throughout our collective history, we have seen social movements rise up to try to claim some part of the American Dream and a place within the political power structure. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Although I would quantify success in this case as more or less momentary and hardly ever do these movement truly upend our national foundation. However, we all (mostly) hold on to those fleeting moments as markers for what it really means to be an American. Democracy in this sense is the idea that anyone should be able to have their voice heard, even if it’s a small voice.

Herein lies the “absolutely democratic” component of what I think Stenger was talking about in regards to the NPS: the dilemma of representation. I would argue that the NPS dilemma of representation is an analog to the larger dilemma of representation endemic in Americas history. For example, how do we balance representation from society’s more dominant elements with its weaker elements; majority versus minority; white versus black; federal versus local etc?

It seems to me the breadth of the NPS catalog, some 400 places, is an attempt to deal with this dilemma. This is of course just my opinion, but I would suggest that by making enough space underneath the NPS umbrella, the institution is able to accommodate enough histories and places so as to make it a balanced representation of our very diverse and often conflicted history. Some historic sites are of course more local and less noteworthy than others. But, from my perspective, that is sort of the point.

Along those lines the NPS, as an evolving democratic institution, is not immune to winds of social and political change. In Shaping Systems the author writes of how “[m]ore than a dozen National Park System units have lost that status following reappraisal of their significance.”(49) That is to say any site could have its moment in the sun, given the right circumstances. In reading Barbers article on Scotts Bluff I couldn’t help but see some analog to the many locally based grassroots social movements, like gay marriage, that have risen up to the national level only later to become part of what it actually means to be an American. What could be more democratic than that?

However, when is enough, enough? There has to be a line drawn somewhere on what sites finds their way into the NPS system, right? Furthermore, how much authority should the NPS cede to local communities in dictating the best ways for preserve and conserve? How much authority should it maintain? For example, based on your understanding of the reading on Susquehanna Valley Project, did the NPS cross the line between that local vs. federal balance of authority?

These are just a few of the many questions I’m still struggling with. However, I’ll end with Barbers article on Scott’s Bluff. In it she highlights the fascinating history behind the Nebraska monument that went from basically local scenic hangout, to national monument to Americas westward expansion, to public works program for a depressed community, to tourist attraction, and back again. She writes of how the local population was “connected much more directly to the physical place itself, as an extension of their community” and how they “resisted ceding complete control of the site to the government”.(38)

It seems to me, in this particular case, that they really couldn’t have it both ways. What do you think?

Sources: The National Parks: Shaping the System, Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff Historical Monument by Alicia Barber.