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Private Interests to the Rescue?


    Back in April, I ruminated on fears that there was an ongoing conspiracy in Washington between the Bush administration, Republicans in Congress, and the commercial sector to slowly, but steadily, turn over portions of our national park system to private interests.
     Under the guise of budgetary malaise, brought on by underfunding and indifference, the National Park Service would begin to look more and more to volunteers, advocacy groups, and even the private sector to help make ends meet. There would be those bureaucrats, such as former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and outgoing NPS Director Fran Mainella, who would welcome these outside overtures, claiming they were in fact rescuing the park system.
    Of course, the downside when it comes to private enterprise is that, as I've mentioned many times before, these folks want to see a profit. They're not in it for a pat on the back or a plaque, although the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr., would have urged them to be happy with that (as I noted at the end of this post on the selling of our national parks).
    To make a profit in the national park system first requires fees, and then higher fees. And when you start to build fee systems in the national parks, you start to distance these national treasures, our national history, from some of the very Americans they belong to. Has it come to the point where our history is for sale, and available only to those who can afford it?
    That's not entirely an embellishment designed to make a point. You see, there's an effort under way in New Jersey to privatize part of the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and it doesn't sound good.

Fort_hancock_rendering_copy     The problem, you see, is Gateway NRA officials don't have enough money to preserve and maintain the Fort Hancock area of Sandy Hook. As a result, buildings are quickly deteriorating and key segments of American history are withering away.
    "The fundamental problem is the government will never have the money to rehabilitate, to preserve these buildings and bring them back to life," Richard E. Wells, the Sandy Hook Unit's superintendent, told the Asbury Park Press. "What we've been able to afford to do here is patch."
    And that's a particularly sad commentary, more so when you read the opening page of the Sandy Hook Unit's web site and come to this paragraph:

       "The National Park Service preserves the values and natural and cultural resources of the National Park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations."

     Well, that might be so. But in the case of Fort Hancock, the Park Service's solution to preserving the fort's historic buildings is to turn 36 of them over to a private developer "for education, research, office and hospitality" uses.
    Among James Wassel's plans for his $70 million-$90 million "restoration" of Fort Hancock is to possibly turn 16 Officer's Row homes into bed-and-breakfast inns. A dorm once used for U.S. troops could be transformed into classrooms for Rutgers University or perhaps Brookdale Community College. Mess halls, gymnasiums, even the old mule barn and the officer's club, would be turned into who knows what to generate profits for Mr. Wassel. And the NPS would spend $2.2 million on a new dock so he could ferry conferees over to Fort Hancock from Manhattan, for a fee I'm sure.
    (You'd think if the Park Service had $2.2 million for a new dock it could scrounge up a few million for restoration work, but I digress...)
    Mr. Wassel doesn't mince words when he talks about his vision: "I think our national parks are always going to be in the private/public business now," he told the newspaper. "(New uses are) what's going to pay the tab to get these buildings developed."
    And as those private dollars get invested, those buildings will become off-limits to the general public, unless it wants to pay Mr. Wassel's fees.
    James Coleman Jr., a retired judge who is a member of the Save Sandy Hook organization that opposes Mr. Wassel's plans, doesn't mince words when he talks about the administration's handling Fort Hancock.
    "I'm not thrilled with the president's environmental record because he thinks that the only way to save the parks is to have partnerships with private enterprise," says Coleman. "I don't think (John) Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, that's what they envisioned. Now, if they want to throw it down the drain, then let them go tear down the statute of Teddy on Mount Rushmore."
    You can read the entire Asbury Park Press story here. And see if it doesn't get you thinking about the way this administration, and this Congress, is handling the national treasures of our national park system.


Kurt, No doubt your consecutive postings about the proposed private development at the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway and the GMP at Apostle Islands was deliberate. Good job. I am struck by a quote from the newspaper link in the Gateway story: "If the federal government can't come up with the money to do (the restoration), there's only two real scenarios, …You let the building deteriorate until it falls down, and you clean it up. Or you find some other use for it and deal with the impacts from that other use." I took a look at the GMP newsletter you mentioned from Apostle Islands ( and read with interest that the park is floating options of converting one or more of their lighthouses to B&Bs. You quoted both park superintendents as bemoaning the very real costs of maintaining (let alone restoring) historic structures, and no doubt the provision of public access and services, assuming the parks were able to maintain or restore them, would be even more. The Apostle Islands GMP newsletter also obliquely refers to the possibility of partnerships to maintain or operate some historic structures now under exclusive life leases the original landowners negotiated when they sold the properties to the NPS. These “deals” seem attractive because the alternatives are bleak. But who, in the case of these partnerships, gets to determine the real public interest? Is it good public policy to maintain a historic building with private money if it means that those private interests get privileged or exclusive use? I don’t like that one bit. But I also don’t like seeing these buildings, valuable to American heritage and key components of these parks’ stories, deteriorate. These are slippery slopes, no question. It all comes down to what Congressman Frank Pallone, quoted in that same article, said: "I don't want the buildings knocked down. I don't want them to deteriorate further," said Rep. Frank J. Pallone Jr., D-N.J…. "What I would really like to see is the federal government fully fund the National Park Service, and that a lot of the (restoration) of these buildings could actually be done with federal dollars." Talk is fine, but unless Congress acts, park superintendents like Mssrs. Wells and Krumenaker have to deal with these Hobson's choices. -- JLongstreet, an NPS Superintendent

An unwelcome question, but perhaps one worth asking - does Ft. Hancock really meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Park System? The NPS has a number of new criteria for evaluating the core resources of proposed new Parks, including whether the resource is of national significance, whether there are similar resources already included in the National Park System, whether the National Park Service is the best entity to preserve the resource, and whether preservation of the resource if feasible. I think that if Ft. Hancock were not currently part of Gateway NRA, that Ft. Hancock would fail all of the above tests that the NPS uses itself for the evaluation of proposed Parks. There are already dozens of forts in the National Park System, Ft. Hancock doesn't seem to have a tremendous amount of national significance, there are other management alternatives available, and given the resource constraints of the National Park Service, the benefits to the system of including Ft. Hancock would probably be outweighed by the costs to the system. Its a tough question, but perhaps it is one worth asking... ~Sabattis

Indeed, that's the right question to ask. Trouble is that Congress should have asked it prior to it being incorporated into Gateway. Now NPS is stuck with it and presumably some of it qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places, which makes it historically significant and therefore within the NPS mandate for preservation. The irony and problem with the National Register, though, is many properties qualify at the "local" or "regional" significance level rather than the "national" and therefore those properties, when included within an NPS unit, drain resources away from the truly important (national) properties. I'm reminded of Valley Forge, whose sigificance to the nation derives from a 6 month period in 1777-78 when Washington bivouced the Revolutionary War Army there. Yet the current national historical park is replete with national register structures which post date the park. Some talk of the "continuum of history" but in this era of limited budgets and core operations we perhaps need to put less energy (or none?) into these distracting, if interesting, money pits that have no import to the primary purpose of the park. -- JLongstreet, national park superintendent

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