Funding Lags for Historic, Cultural Parks
Compared to Large, Popular Parks
By Lori Sonken
James Van Evers remembers sitting on bunkbeds, chewing bubble gum cigars his father gave him, and riding Heidi, the German Shepherd, in the backyard, but that’s about all he recalls from his childhood home in Jackson, Mississippi. His family moved away when he was three, shortly after his father, Medgar Evers, was murdered by a Ku Klux Klan member outside the family’s home in 1963.
Today, the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument honors the couple who ran the first NAACP office in Mississippi. Fearing for their safety, the Evers placed furniture in front of the windows to block gunfire in case of an attack and taught their three children to crawl infantry style on the floor to the bathroom, according to the monument’s website.
“We’re a tragic part of history. This is the home where an American family lived, where a man who served our country in the army put his life on the line and spoke up. Someone did not like his ideas. A state and a race did not like his ideas,” said James, the youngest child.
Much work needs to be done before the Medgar Evers home is opened to the public.
When the park opens, Evers hopes the public will gain a deeper understanding of “this person who gave his life, and this family who gave their lives for the betterment of the country.”
On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from an integration meeting where he had conferred with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that stated, “Jim Crow Must Go”, Evers was struck in the back with a bullet that ricocheted into his home. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing, dying at the local hospital 50 minutes later. Evers was murdered just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech on national television in support of civil rights. — NAACP
But lots has to happen before the monument opens. “We don’t even have a visitor’s center. Or a place to greet visitors,” said Superintendent Keena Graham.
It’s not clear how the monument in a residential neighborhood without sidewalks will accommodate tour buses. The 66-year-old house needs a new foundation and driveway. The rust-bearing windows demand repair or replacement. An environmental assessment, general management plan, and long-range interpretive plan must be conducted. Depending on what studies addressing historic structures, foundations, furnishings, and load bearing find, additional work may be necessary. All this requires funding – at least $750,000 — but when it will be provided is uncertain.
Across the country, there are similar stories. The Traveler pointed to one earlier this week, Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho, that struggles to meet its mission due to lack of resources.
“There isn’t the funding or the staffing for cultural resources,” said Anne Mitchell Whisnant, historian. She co-authored a 2011 report that found a lack of resources for historical work across the National Park System compared to conservation and other functions.
“There’s been a natural resources vs. cultural resources tug of war for years,” said Rick Healy, former staff director of the House National Parks Subcommittee and chief clerk on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
In the 1960s, the National Park Service wanted to divide the parks into three systems – natural, historic, and recreational. Congress stopped this effort by inserting an amendment in the 1978 Redwoods National Park Expansion Act reaffirming the mandates in the National Park Service Organic Act that there be one national park system for the benefit of the people. All parks, regardless of official designation, were on equal footing. At least in theory.
Slim budgets are re-fueling the tussle. “We have gone through a decade where the manpower, the FTEs [full-time equivalent staffers] and boots on ground are the same as 2010,” said Healy.
The National Park Foundation kickstarted the transfer of the Evers home from Tougaloo College by providing $30,000 for due diligence efforts important to title transfer. A Congressionally-chartered organization, NPF was also instrumental in developing other civil rights sites, including contributing $10 million toward a visitor center and renovations at Pullman National Monument, and acquisition of the King family home at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park.
“Working in alignment with National Park Service priorities they set, we identify things we can raise money for,” through individual donors, foundations, and corporations, said Will Shafroth, the foundation’s president and CEO.
Without a friends group to provide additional support, the Evers monument is competing with other parks for funding from the regional office and Congressional appropriations. The President’s FY 2023 budget request asks for $1.2 million, but there’s no guarantee the funds will be provided. Only $180,000 was provided in FY 2022 even though the President requested $1 million.
Unless they are turnkey operations like César E. Chavez National Monument with its property and visitor center donated to the Park Service, parks typically take several years to open after designation. Even longer, in the case of Werowocomoco [top photo], the home of Chief Powhattan and his daughter, Pocahontas.
Located on a 1-mile-long by ½-mile-wide peninsula jetting into the York River in Gloucester County, Virginia, the archaeological site joined the park system in 2016. Managed by staff at the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the Colonial National Historical Park, the property is not expected to open to the public anytime soon.
“Werowocomoco is an ancestral homeland and is considered sacred by multiple tribes. We have consulted with tribal leadership and need to do more research about the resources on the landscape and how to protect them before we move forward with providing visitor amenities,” said Park Service spokesperson Stephanie Roulett.
Lynn Ripley does not expect the public will ever be allowed to roam the land without a guide. She knew her farm was special after discovering pottery shards, tools, copper, and other artifacts around 1996.
Through excavation, archaeologists in partnership with Virginia tribes and other researchers determined the site, surrounded by fields and forests, is the former capital of the Algonquin Indians for more than 500 years.
Knowing their “piece of heaven” must be protected, Ripley and her husband, Bob, searched for ways to keep the 300-acre property intact. The safest approach, they determined, was to turn it over to the National Park Service.
With a bridge loan from The Conservation Fund, the Park Service acquired the site for $7.1 million in 2016. The deal carved out 5.5 acres for the Ripleys, allowing them to continue living on site.
Last month the Park Service used ground-penetrating radar to survey subsurface objects – part of the ongoing research and documentation.
Additional funding will be necessary once staff from the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail and Colonial National Historic Park, in consultation with area tribes, determine appropriate ways to preserve, collect and catalogue the artifacts, conserve the land, and develop interpretation for the public.
While the National Park System counts 424 units, with Amache National Historic Site in Colorado the latest addition, the most popular parks, those with spectacular scenery and resources, capture the most support.
“Natural resource parks tend to be a lot larger than cultural and historic parks acreage-wise, and they get all the visitors” and more funding, said Don Hellmann, former head of the Park Service’s legislative affairs office.
The agency couldn’t specify how many of its approximately 20,000 employees are responsible for cultural resources, such as archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians, compared to those with multiple responsibilities, such as interpreters also working as historians.
“We don’t have a clear way to parse out how many employees have shared responsibilities or are solely dedicated to a specific cultural function,” said Roulett.
What is clear is the vast number of the agency’s vacancies. The Park Service lost 3,000 full-time employees during the Obama and Trump administrations, said Hellmann, now vice chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
Whisnant said data gathered from Fedscope, the Office of Personnel Management’s website, for her report indicates there were 182 historians working at the NPS around 2010 compared to 140 today.
Without adequate internal staff, parks hire contractors, including historians, for studies. While completing a resource study at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in North Carolina, Whisnant and her husband, David, discovered that Christopher Memminger, the secretary of the Confederate Treasury, used slaves to build the house purchased a century later by the Sandburgs.
Now the park is “in the early planning stages of several outdoor exhibits and plan to incorporate information into various programs and the house tour. Our goal is to tell a fuller history of the site beyond the Sandburg era,” said Superintendent Polly Angelakis.
Roulett stressed the difficulty in separating natural resource from cultural resource parks. “The cultural resources tell a story about the natural resources. It may be the reason why people migrated there,” she said.
For example, San Juan Island National Historical Park in Washington state preserves the historical remnants of the “Pig War” when Great Britain and the United States settled a skirmish triggered by the shooting of a pig in 1859. The park features The Redoubt, a preserved fortification on prairieland where visitors, if their lucky, can spot Orca whales and bald eagles.
“The English and American military occupation of our island was completely a result of its natural resources,” said Cyrus Foreman, the park’s lead interpretive ranger.
Park visitation jumped 212 percent the past year. Meanwhile, the park has difficulty hiring employees due to the cost of living in Friday Harbor, Wash.
Last month, park staff discovered tire tracks traversing through fox dens during kitting season and critical habitat for the endangered Island Marble Island Butterfly. Earlier, vandals drove vehicles on the native prairie and historic structures and destroyed interpretive signs and fences.
“Our park does not have funding for law enforcement. You cannot enforce federal laws without law enforcement,” said Foreman.
The FY 2022 budget is providing $239.2 million for natural resources, and $120.1 million for cultural resources, said Roulett, but these numbers do not capture staff work on grant administration such as the Historic Preservation Fund.
Stewardship is one area where the budget shows distinctions. Over the past 20 years, cultural resources activities received from 22-33 percent of the stewardship budget; the bulk of funding supported natural resource activities, according to a National Parks Traveler analysis.
The mandate for the agency to tell the country’s history remains. Historical and cultural parks “represent the full dimension of the American experience and recognize the struggles we made as a nation,” said former NPS Director Robert Stanton. The stories must be told, even when they do not portray the American people favorably, such as what happened outside the Evers home.