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A Historian's Take on the National Park Service


Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley.

Once a decision is made, it's left to the historians to decide how sound it was. After all, history can speak volumes. It can point to incredibly great decisions, as well as point out some horrendous ones.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley's lengthy National Park Service career wrapped up with a decade during which he served as the agency's chief historian. Now retired and teaching at New Mexico State University, Dr. Pitcaithley recently was interviewed by the Thunderbear, a web-zine whose self-described task is "to protect the protectors of the environment: park rangers, forest rangers, scientists, managers, and others engaged in defending public lands against rapacious developers, special interest groups and their politician friends."

Here are some snippets from that interview, which you can find in its entirety at this site. The questions were posed by Thunderbear's overseer, P.J. Ryan, a former ranger.

Dwight, you identify yourself as a "public historian." What exactly is a public historian?

The term public historian was coined around 1980 to describe historians whose primary audience is public rather than academic. So, historians who teach at colleges and universities are generally termed academic historians while those who work at historic sites, museums, archives and other places where the public is the primary audience are termed public historians. That is not to say, however, that academic historians cannot work in the public realm, and, of course, many of them do.

Do public historians get into trouble more often than academic historians?

Probably, but that depends on your definition of "trouble." Academic historians generally operate within an environment of freedom of thought and expression, although they, too, often run afoul of the "thought police." Public historians are more vulnerable to public criticism because they are more exposed to the public and do not enjoy the cover of academic freedom, although, of course, they should. Frankly, getting into trouble is not necessarily a bad thing. If a member of the public complains about an historical interpretation at a public site, it means two things: 1) that person cares about history, and 2) someone is paying attention to your presentation of the past. I would be more concerned if the public never complained about the discussion of history in public places.

What brought you into the National Park Service?

In 1974, Texas Tech University, where I had gone for my doctorate, applied for and won a contract to inventory old buildings along the Buffalo National River in Arkansas, a park which had been established two years earlier. Ike Connor, the chairman of my doctoral committee, thought I would enjoy the project because of my earlier work at Carlsbad Caverns. The inventory led to my dissertation on the social and cultural history of the Buffalo River watershed. While working on the dissertation, I wrote letters to NPS offices in hopes of finding a job upon graduation. I also visited Santa Fe and lobbied Dick Sellars for a job. Two weeks after I graduated, Dick called and offered me a four month temporary job in Santa Fe. After five years in Lubbock, Texas, we jumped at the chance.

You succeeded Ed Bearss as chief historian of the NPS in 1995. Was he a hard act to follow?

Colonel Bearss was an impossibly hard act to follow. Not only had he held the position for almost 14 years, but his photographic memory allowed him to speak on most historical topics relevant to the NPS. In addition, he is legendary as a history tour leader, particularly of Civil War battlefields. I believe every history fan in this country should take at least one Ed Bearss tour during their lifetime. If I had tried to follow directly in his footsteps and tried to accomplish all that he accomplished, my tenure as chief historian would have been a dismal failure. Luckily, I don't have the energy Ed has, so I had to chart a different path for the program.

Speaking of the Civil War, until nearly the turn of the 21st Century the NPS had pussy-footed about the main cause of the Civil War -- slavery. Would you comment on the 1998 Nashville Conference that changed all this?

When the NPS inherited the Civil War battlefields from the War Department in 1933, the interpretive programs for the parks focused on the battles themselves and contained nothing on the reasons why the battle occurred. The NPS purposefully continued this practice until the 1990s when John Tucker installed a small exhibit at Fort Sumter that linked slavery with secession. By the late 1990s, the Civil War battlefield superintendents decided that with the approach of the 150th anniversary of the war, the NPS was obligated to include in its interpretation something about the causes of the war. The Nashville meeting resulted in a unanimous decision on the part of the managers to include the causes of the war, and specifically the core cause of slavery, in new exhibits and brochures. It was, of course, the right decision.

Certain historians managed to turn the old bromide, "History is written by the victors," on its head portraying the Confederacy as misunderstood, heroic underdogs fighting for their "states rights" against brutal invaders. Did you find this a challenge?

The Lost Cause interpretation of the war which was developed in the decades following Appomattox using the histories of the war written by Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens and other former Confederates, held that protection of states' rights not property rights (slavery) was the principal cause of secession and war. The teaching of Southern history over the years anchored this interpretation of causality not only in the South, but in many places in the North as well. And while this interpretation still carries great weight in the public discussion of the war, scholars for the past 40 years or so have focused on debates over the future of slavery as the central cause of secession. Having said that, I must quickly say that it is equally incorrect to argue that the war was prompted because Northern voters wanted to rid the country of the institution because of moral objections to it. So it gets complicated, and therein was the challenge the NPS faced in inserting information about the coming of the war into its interpretative programs.

The Southern leaders and their soldiery were actually more colorful, romantic, and militarily more creative and competent than their Northern counterparts, so any interpretation based on straight military "facts" put the NPS in the position of subtly endorsing the Southern point of view. Do you agree?

Whether southern leaders were more colorful, romantic, and creative than their northern counterparts is a question you will need to ask Ed Bearss. You would be hard pressed, however, to find a more colorful figure than Dan Sickles before, during, and certainly after the war. But the point is well taken that by focusing strictly on military action one avoids the larger issues at play during the war. Superintendent John Latschar at Gettysburg has written about how the names of various parts of that battle emphasized the southern, more than the northern, point of view. After all, we do call it "Pickett's Charge," rather than "Meade's Defense."

The Sons of the Confederacy, various Civil War round tables, numerous private individuals and members of Congress generated more than 2,500 letters stating that the NPS was hijacking American history by stating that slavery was the main cause of the war and must be so addressed by each park. These letters ended up on your desk. How did you respond?

Diplomatically, I hope. The letters actually contained two arguments. One was that battlefields were not the place to talk about causality; that introducing the reasons for the war diminished the importance of the combatants. This was an argument I never understood, believing that a complete understanding of any battle must be based on why the war started in the first place. The second was that slavery was not the cause (or at least not a significant cause) of secession and war and the NPS was simply being "politically correct" in suggesting that it was. Even before the letters started pouring in, I did a great deal of homework by speaking and corresponding with the leading Civil War scholars in the country. Once the letters started arriving, I knew two things. First, that every letter must be answered because, as taxpayers, every writer had the right to hear what the NPS was planning and why. Second, I knew that my response had to be historically correct and based on the best of current scholarship. So, we responded with a two and a half page letter explaining the intentions of the NPS. In several cases, we received follow-up letters which we also answered. These were especially interesting as I and the correspondent were able to delve more deeply into the reasons of causality. I wrote about this at length in my chapter in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American History (2006).

Did your military background and purple heart prove useful?

One of the striking aspects about a large percentage of the letters was that the writer would begin with a paragraph on his military experience and/or the military traditions of his family. The intention, I believe, was to establish the notion that veterans knew how to interpret battlefields and bureaucrats in Washington did not. After a while, I started including a bit about my experience in the Marine Corps and Vietnam to help balance the playing field. I also started wearing my Purple Heart lapel pin when addressing Civil War gatherings. At the end of the day, I don't know how much my military background helped; I am certain it didn't hurt.

What was your most useful tool in the discussion?

Well, I began these conversations quoting the best Civil War historians in the country, historians like Jim McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Eric Foner, Ed Ayers, and others, but they were dismissed as either "Yankee" historians or "Scalawag" historians. So I started using primary sources which are readily available. Charles Dew's book on the secession commissioners was helpful. I also used quotes from the four declarations of secession from South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, as well as quotes on the problems facing the country from leading elected officials including James Buchanan, Alexander Stephens, and John J. Crittenden.

Not too many years ago, I noted that the "Pioneers" in the 1930s dioramas at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park were still being molested by "savages." When did the NPS start to change its view of the clash of cultures?

I think an argument can be made that it started with the legislation changing the name of Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield in 1991. Since the 1940s, the battlefield had been managed as a shrine to George A. Custer. Intellectually and historically the legislation was the right move at the right time. Western historians like Patty Limerick, Richard White, and Bill Cronon had started changing our collective perceptions about Western history during the previous decade, and the Little Bighorn legislation built on that new scholarship. The legislation, of course, did more than simply change the name. It authorized a monument to the Indians who fell that day in 1876 and insisted on a more balanced interpretation of the battle, one that presented the views of both sides.

Speaking of historical ignorance, Americans are amazingly historically illiterate, not being able to place presidents in the proper century and so on. Do you believe the NPS to be part of the solution, and if so how?

One of the interesting developments over the last 15 years or so is the realization that the preservation and protection of park resources is the beginning, and not the end, of our work. The NPS was conceived as an educational organization that preserved spectacular places as a means to that end; and yet over the years, partly because of insufficient budgets I suspect, we came to believe that preserving parks was our ultimate goal. We started to recapture that earlier vision in The Vail Agenda and then more recently in the Advisory Board's Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century. Instead of focusing our vision inward, these reports focused the NPS vision outward, looking toward the larger value the NPS can play in American society.

In caring for parks, the report concludes, "we care for ourselves and act on behalf of the future." So to get back to your question, the NPS has a fundamental educational role to play in this country inside parks and outside parks. We require the study of history in our schools to develop a more informed citizenry, so that the decisions we make today are based on some knowledge of how similar issues were handled in the past. The value of historical parks is their infinite capacity to inspire us at places where this experiment in democracy, this journey of participatory government, plays out.

The stories imbedded on the landscape of Gettysburg and Manzanar, and Little Bighorn, in the library at Adams NHS, and in the asphalt of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma all provide lessons in courage and determination and hope. They make us proud and they make us sad, and most of all we hope, they make us think about the future of the country and how we as individuals can improve it. Natural parks also contain stories, quoting from the Advisory Board report again, useful to "building a citizenry that is committed to conserving its heritage and its home on earth." NPS environmental education programs should also look beyond park boundaries.

We should envision parks as exemplars of environmental stewardship that will encourage increased awareness of environmental concerns in our backyards and city parks and the public places where we live, not just where we visit. The goal of our education programs should not be, as a recent NPS publication proclaimed "to care about and care for parks," but to develop an informed citizenry that has an increased capacity to care for and about our experiment in democracy and to care for and about our global environment. The NPS can indeed be a part of the solution to a public uninformed historically and environmentally, but it must greatly expand its vision of itself if it is to play a more productive role in this effort.

Politicians are known to view history as propaganda and contrary views as disloyal. Even Lynn Cheney, wife of the vice president, was criticized as being "insufficiently patriotic" for her support of the "National Standards for History." What was controversial about these standards?

Lynn Cheney first supported, and even funded, the development of the standards when she headed the National Endowment for the Humanities. When the standards were published and she was no longer with NEH, she attacked them as did most of the political right. Unfortunately, the standards came out around 1994 when the "Contract with America" was being formulated and the right wing of the Republican Party was attacking everything that didn't measure up to its standards of patriotism. You'll recall that the Smithsonian's exhibit on the Enola Gay and its exhibit on painting of the American West were equally assaulted at this time. Part of the problem with the national history standards was that they reflected the broader sense of America's past that had informed scholarship over the previous two decades or more. A more inclusive past involved more than political, military, and industrial history and the standards were attacked for including lesser known aspects and personalities in the nation's past. They were eventually and modestly revised to their critic's satisfaction. Many state standards of learning are now based on them. I have quoted from the introduction on many occasions. It contains an excellent justification why students (of all ages) should study the past

Historical parks make great stages for politics. What happens when the other side asks for equal time?

Asking for equal time is most appropriate if the historical record contains another view. Often, however, a "balanced" view is not realistic. Would we ask, for example, for equal time for the opposing view if the subject were the Holocaust? Part of the problem with the story line earlier presented at Little Bighorn was that a viable "other side" was not being interpreted, so asking for equal time there was most appropriate. A few years ago, several Congressmen were bothered by the film in the lower level of the Lincoln Memorial because it contained too much footage of groups protesting for gay and lesbian rights and freedom of choice. They asked the NPS to edit the film to include conservative protest footage. After researching film taken at the west end of the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the NPS "discovered" what it had suspected all along and that was that conservative groups tend to protest at the east end of the Mall in front of the Supreme Court Building. There was no, or very, little footage of conservative protests to include in the Lincoln film, and to insert footage taken elsewhere would have compromised the historical integrity of the film. To my knowledge, the original film is still being shown.

Conservations believed that their hero, President Ronald Reagan, was under attack at, of all places, Women's Rights National Historical Park. What was the problem?

The initial exhibits in Seneca Falls contained one panel that provided historical context for the site contained a paragraph or so that represented President Reagan's environmental policies in rather harsh terms. A member of Congress who had visited the park protested and demanded that the text be amended. I contacted a small group of presidential and environmental scholars and asked their help in re-drafting the panel. In surprisingly short order, the group agreed to a revision that both accurately portrayed Reagan's environmental record and satisfied the critics of the exhibit. The Department approved the revised panel and the park installed it. As far as I have heard, everyone is happy.

Is it possible to keep "politics" out of history? If so, what is the recipe?

If your question is "is it possible to keep politics out of the interpretation of history by the NPS?" I think the answer is probably a qualified "yes." In my 30 years as a historian in the Service, I never was required, or even asked, to change a message or text for political reasons. When one is interpreting history in the public sector or, as Ed Linenthal describes it, "committing history in public," there will always be those who have a different view of the past and will argue the point. The antidote is a strong understanding of the past based firmly on primary source material. Quoting, in context of course, the voices of the participants of historic events does not leave much room for argument. I don't want to be too simplistic here, and I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the NPS might be asked to develop an interpretation not based on the evidence, as it was at the Lincoln Memorial. My experience, however, has been that if the agency bases its interpretive programs on historic evidence, it can steer clear of most political obstacles.

You recently observed that the NPS worked within a culture of organizational poverty. What do you mean by that?

Over the past 30 years, the budget of the NPS has increased modestly, but has never kept pace with the needs of the new parks, which keep being added by Congress. The current budget of the agency is around $2.4 billion to manage 391 parks. While that number seems enormous, the National Parks Conservation Association, through a series of independent studies, has estimated that most parks operate on only two-thirds of the funding required to preserve, research, and interpret the incomparable collection of places we call the national park system. This means that nationwide, the NPS is operating on an annual shortfall of $800 million. In addition, because inadequate annual appropriations have forced parks to forestall needed repairs to buildings, roads, sewage systems and other park facilities, the NPS is facing a maintenance backlog of between $8 and $9 billion dollars. While the Bush administration has annually allocated $178 million on to the backlog, this money was re-directed from other NPS programs, and even at that rate it would take 220 years to address the backlog of all facilities... excluding roads. By any measure, the park service is grossly underfunded.

In 2016, the NPS will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its establishment. Will the service's Centennial Challenge address the financial woes of the agency?

Minimally. The Service has always accepted private money for specific projects and will and should continue to do so. Building its centennial around donations from the public, however, will not get the NPS where it needs to go. "Signature projects" are fine as far as they go, but a project that will attract private donors may or may not be the park's greatest need. In addition, I don't believe the Service has made a compelling case for the additional public money it is asking of Congress. In my opinion, the NPS needs to develop a budget for itself that will convince Congress that the woeful condition of the agency will change with the additional funds. It needs to assure Congress, and by extension, the American public that no park exhibit or film will be more than 20 years old. The average of interpretive media presently is 20 years, which means that some parks have exhibits that are 40 years old (Saguaro); the film at Shiloh is 50 years old. It needs to develop budget proposals that ensure that visitor use and historic buildings are adequately preserved; that the maintenance backlog is reduced over the next ten years to a manageable level. It needs to beef up its research budget for natural and cultural resources that will allow managers to understand far better than they do the nature of the resources they are charged with managing. What this means, is that the NPS needs to become far more attentive to its core mission of preservation, research, and education. These programs need to work together in an interrelated manner and become the point of the NPS's efforts.

How has the Bush administration treated the service?

Not terribly well. Over the eight years of this administration the annual NPS budget increase has been .6% compared to the annual increases over the Clinton administration of 6.5%. Additionally, we all recall the attempt by Paul Hoffman in the Gale Norton's Interior Department to subvert the Service's Management Policies to minimize conservation and maximize recreation. While exact figures are unclear, the maintenance backlog during the last eight years has grown between $3 and $4 billion. Finally, while political interference with management decisions has been growing since the 1970s, this administration has been fairly blatant in its willingness to involve itself in NPS decision making river management at Grand Canyon and snowmobile and road management at Yellowstone are only two of many examples.

As we speak, the Bush administration is building a version of the Great Wall of China along the Mexican border. Will this inhibit cultural exchanges such as those promoted by Chamizal National Memorial at El Paso-Juarez?

Now you are asking me to foretell the future. Only time will tell, but I cannot see how the barriers, which are massive, would promote cultural exchanges.


What a great article, he touches on a lot of great NPS topics. Hats off to Dr. Pitchaithley.


My travels through the National Park System:

Thank you for the useful interview with Dr. Pitcaithley. Just a few quibbles:

On his point on Women’s Rights:

Dr. Pitcaithley states that one exhibit

panel that provided historical context for the site contained a paragraph or so that represented President Reagan's environmental policies in rather harsh terms


• Wasn’t the issue actually that the panel stated, rather than environmental policies, President Reagan’s welfare reform policies were directly hostile to women?

• Also about Women’s Rights, Dr. Pitcaithley states that a

member of Congress who had visited the park protested and demanded that the text be amended

. Rather than a Member of Congress, was it not only a congressional subcommittee Republican staff member who visited the site?

On his point on original sources defanging political-historical controversy:

Dr. Pitcaithley states,

The antidote is a strong understanding of the past based firmly on primary source material. Quoting, in context of course, the voices of the participants of historic events does not leave much room for argument. I don't want to be too simplistic here, and I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the NPS might be asked to develop an interpretation not based on the evidence, as it was at the Lincoln Memorial. My experience, however, has been that if the agency bases its interpretive programs on historic evidence, it can steer clear of most political obstacles


• But isn’t it the nature of history and human experience that there are MULTIPLE points of view, and the practice of an individual historian – and especially an interpretive planner – is to select among all these sources, and in fact even using only original sources in so selecting still must lead to political conflict with some? I have personal experience with this. My father-in-law was close enough to the Atomic Diplomacy at the end of World War II to be selected to be among the observers of the first hydrogen bomb explosion, and was deeply engaged as a reporter during the Second World War in the Pacific. He had no doubt, from multiple original sources, about the motives and actions of the principals involved in Atomic Diplomacy and politics at the time. I was aware of many other original sources that could be interpreted far differently on American motives. Each of us would have been able to arrange entirely different interpretations based on primary sources. Primary sources alone only demonstrate the complexity of human perception and motivation. I myself was engaged first hand in an issue for the NPS that was covered by several hundred newspapers. I almost never saw an article that really represented what I though was going on: that press material became the “first rough draft of History.”

• A better approach to the issue of politics in interpretation is to trust the methodology of history.

• Consider such interpretation a forum for multiple voices to offer and document multiple points of view. (not just opinion as we see today on blogs, but real historical research) Let the dialectical process of the historical method sift through the interpretations: it will arrive at a more nuanced appreciation by both public and park interpreter.

• Recently at Harpers Ferry, I saw a visitor become unglued over an interpretation of the Robert E. Lee – John Brown confrontation. That visitor considered that interpreter to be an apologist for the pro-slavery, pro-Lee interpretation of the Civil War that sees Brown as a reprehensible terrorist (a charge I thought was a little harsh, but understandable). It seems to me, with just a little nuance on the complexity of understanding the politics at the time, that interpreter could have presented the complex motivations. After all, the point of significance of what American public opinion was then (and now) on this issue is: mutual exclusivity of belief. Let the visitor in on the fact that finding out what “really” was going on will be a continuous challenge. Let them know how different ideologies seize on the charismatic event to be the emblem of their cause.

This is very dangerous ground, but cannot be ignored. Parks are designated because they are at the nexus of what matters. We don’t yet have a perfect way of addressing it. Interpreters are certainly not being trained to address it, and most, out of survival, ignore it. Politicized sites attract devotees of certain ideologies, both the visitor and in some cases the interpreter. As historians and interpreters who work for a democratic government, we have to be able to present the inherently political nature of many sites, without telling people how to vote.

On his point on whether public historians get into trouble more often than academic historians:

Dr. Pitcaithley states: “If a member of the public complains about an historical interpretation at a public site, it means two things: 1) that person cares about history, and 2) someone is paying attention to your presentation of the past. I would be more concerned if the public never complained about the discussion of history in public places.”

• On the other hand, this is a brilliant insight denied to too many in public service. He is right that the problem is the apathetic person, and the engaged visitor should not be seen as the enemy. Beyond history and interpretation, Dr. Pitcaithley’s point would work just as well as a political style for most of the other challenges faced by the National Park Service (such as challenges to management decisions).

Kurt, Thanks for posting this. It was an interesting read. I need to go through P.J.'s back issues of Thunderbear.


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