This Land Is Still Our Land

"Privatizing," another dubious creed of the new Gilded Age

By Jerry L. Rogers

Preservation, March/April 2006

The 25 years following the Civil War were derisively called the Gilded Age by Mark Twain. Rampant privatization was slowed by financial panics and the rise of progressivism, but not until the Great Depression did it become widely recognized that unrestrained private enterprise could be harmful. Private misuse of land led to catastrophic pollution, erosion, and loss of productivity and community not limited to mines in the West or the homesteaded prairies.

The Depression inspired the nation to enact laws to level the economic playing field, protect financial systems, and encourage fair competition. The public estate increased as privately abused lands were repurchased so that harmful practices could be halted and the lands and the ways of life they supported preserved or restored. But memory is short. Today relatively few people are aware that the national grasslands had been turned into the "dust bowl" by private owners, or that steep-slope farming created gullied wastelands that have since been restored into the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.

Now, as in the first Gilded Age, the commonwealth belonging to all Americans is in danger of being converted to a private asset. Political attitudes are controlled by slogans?"Government's not the solution, it's the problem"?while the policies of that same government support the harmful concentration of private wealth at public expense. Virtue is publicly proclaimed while being privately undermined, as the continuing corporate scandals and instances of political corruption now reveal, and public support for governmental action for the good of all is diminished by the work of well-funded "think tanks."

Cloaked in a mantle of academic respectability, these creations crank out reports foreordained to undermine support for governmental solutions. Antitax crusaders deprive government of the revenue it needs for success, although we are the least taxed of any developed nation, and then advocate repealing programs on false grounds that government has "failed." The public interest, they contend, resides with individuals in pursuit of immediate personal profit. Unless counteracted, these single-minded organizations, supported by donors who benefit from unrestricted exploitation, will privatize the best of our common heritage.

This trend is intimately tied to other attempts to use private enterprise in lieu of needed governmental action. Few dispute the fact that health care is in crisis, yet rather than create a sound system that works for everyone, Congress strains to maximize the private character of the new prescription drug benefit for seniors. The result is a plethora of company options that few can understand. Few dispute the fact that the Social Security Trust Fund needs at least some help, yet months are wasted in attempts to privatize the system, with absolutely no progress made. The public recognizes privatization as a throwback to a pre-1930s, devil-take-the-hindmost approach that works well for big corporations but not for the rest of us, yet such public sentiment cannot prevail over the priorities of a White House and a Congress beholden to special interests.

Privatizing initiatives also grind down the country's places of historical depth, physical beauty, and restorative recreation. Last April, the House of Representatives' Committee on Resources held a hearing on the advisability of limiting protection of places eligible for the National Register. In September, the committee's chairman, Richard Pombo (R-CA), included 15 national parks in a list of assets for the Budget Reconciliation Proposal that could be sold to raise revenue. When the suggestion was leaked it disappeared from the bill, and the congressman's staff disavowed the idea as a joke?one that is still with us.

In November, Pombo and his allies saddled the House budget bill with a provision enabling mining companies to secure private title to public lands of their own selection, which would have had two negative results: publicly owned minerals that are privatized would return to the Treasury far less than their true value, and second, patentees would not have to prove that the lands contain minerals. In other words, such public lands might be secured for luxury homes or other concealed purposes instead of bona fide mining. That provision was subsequently dropped from the budget bill, but this idea, too, is bound to raise its ugly head again.

The rogue committee wasn't done. In December the House passed the committee's Gateway Communities Cooperation Act, which would make national park resources subject to local interests?even when contrary to the national interest. And Pombo's Subcommittee on National Parks, with New Mexico's second-district Representative Steve Pearce in the chair, held a hearing to examine preservation provisions in the 1916 act that created the National Park Service. No one believes the intention was to strengthen those provisions. During the hearing, Pearce said, "For 40 years, the preservationists have really infiltrated the national park system." In fact, preservationists have been the core of the Service for 90 years, in accordance with the law that threatened by that hearing, in opposition to the despoilers of the nation's birthright.

The parks, historic sites, and other units of the national park system are often described as icons, crown jewels, our best idea, an inalienable heritage. They symbolize the United States almost as much as the flag itself: The falls of Yosemite, the torch of "Lady Liberty," the flag over Fort McHenry all invariably generate feelings of belonging to a great nation, and of sharing treasures owned by all.

Within weeks of the carnage at Gettysburg in 1863, a movement was launched to preserve the field of battle in perpetuity. Over the next 53 years a growing number of national parks, battlefields, and monuments gradually coalesced into a generally recognized inalienable heritage belonging to all Americans and to unborn generations. By 1916, when a law created the National Park Service to preserve these places unimpaired forever, they had become ingrained in our nationhood. Today these unique places are under threat from the dangerous, essentially un-American notion that our common national heritage should become the bounty of a few.

In the Department of the Interior, a political appointee whose last job was director of a Wyoming Chamber of Commerce secretly redrafted the policies that guide national park managers. Strong words like "preservation" were replaced by weaker words like "conservation." By twisted logic, any activity permitted in a park would become a "purpose" of the park?bus tours, commercial guide services, and snack bars would be purposes of Gettysburg. Noisy helicopter flights would be a purpose of Grand Canyon. The Petroglyph National Monument road extension that preservationists fought to prevent would be a purpose of the monument.

A revision proposed to the Park Service "Director's Order 21," regulating certain commercial activities in parks, would encourage aggressive courting of corporate donations, offering blatant recognition that would border on the commercial cacophony we now seek to escape by visiting parks and historic sites. Another change asks candidates for midlevel jobs to affirm support for the current political agenda, even though the civil service system was established in 1883 to ensure the hiring of competent professionals.

The private sector can already pursue plenty of opportunities in the parks without plundering them. Park concessionaires provide lodging, food, transportation, and other services under regulations that ensure that the private activity serves rather than counteracts the public interest. National historic and natural landmarks and places listed in the National Register mostly remain in private ownership and in economically productive uses. Recognition, grants, tax breaks, and other incentives help owners be good stewards. Unlike national parks, such places can be capital assets?viable real estate?while also being preserved. This is why the National Register of Historic Places exists.

Since the first national park, Yellowstone, was set aside 134 years ago, fewer than 400 of more than 80,000 places have been preserved in perpetuity through the extraordinary means of adding them to the national park system. The parks are not capital assets and not real estate; they are inalienable national treasures held in trust for 281 million Americans and their descendants.

As we now know, privatization began stealthily: Park budgets were severely constricted; volunteers replaced professional employees; specialists were threatened with replacement by generalized counterparts from the private sector; research conclusions contrary to commercial interests were denounced and restudied. We have reached the stage where national interests in the parks could soon be subordinated to those of businesses. Philanthropy may soon be accepted in return for advertising in the parks or other favors. Strong, clear policy is being exchanged for weaker, less precise language easier to get around. And finally, a powerful congressional committee chairman "jokes" about selling off the parks. Alarm bells should be going off in every part of the country.

Near the end of a lifetime of preserving special places, John Muir reluctantly concluded that "nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded." The subject is far broader than national parks, but it cannot successfully be addressed without starting with them. We must reestablish the nation on an enlightened course for preservation and the sensible use and enjoyment of our national treasures.

Half a century ago, few would have imagined the priority we now give to space exploration, medicine, and airline travel; the same attention can be given to landscapes, history, architecture, archaeology, and culture in general. Why not use the 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016 not just to fend off the takers, but also to launch a century of real historic and environmental preservation?

Jerry L. Rogers served as associate director for cultural resources for the National Park Service and as keeper of the National Register from 1983 to 1994.