Protecting the Past

Four new bills help the National Park Service tell America's story.


By Amy Leinbach Marquis


If you’ve ever wandered the grounds at Gettysburg, watched the sun rise over ancient Puebloan ruins, or gazed into the kitchen where Thomas Edison ate his meals, you understand the thrill that comes with touching the very places where history unfolded.

But those kinds of experiences require funding and infrastructure that the National Park Service doesn’t always have. Fortunately, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 became law in March, helping to boost the agency’s ability to interpret history in a more comprehensive way. In some cases, Congress needs to appropriate even more funding to make it happen. But this legislation symbolizes a big step forward. A few victories:

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama memorializes one of the darkest chapters in American history. In 1838, the U.S. government forced more than 16,000 Cherokee Indians from their homelands in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and marched them to what is now Oklahoma. The trip alone killed hundreds of Native Americans; thousands more died afterward.

But when the trail was designated as part of the Park Service’s National Trail System in 1987, two major segments were missing: the Bell and Benge routes, where many of the Cherokees began their treks westward. And that meant a significant part of the story wasn’t being shared with the public.

Thankfully, new legislation more than doubles the interpreted area, adding nearly 3,000 miles of new trails. It also includes 29 new immigration depots and other sites that have been discovered and documented through the National Park Service. During the next three to five years, visitors will see new interpretive signs, a memorial park on the Tennessee River, an interpretive center at Moccasin Bend, and a cultural center displaying Cherokee art at Ross’ Landing.

“This legislation recognizes not just the glory of our country and the wonderful things we’ve done, but the mistakes we’ve made along the way,” says Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), one of the congressional members who introduced the bill. “We need to remember those mistakes so we don’t repeat them again, ever, in any way, shape, or form.”

Keweenaw National Historical Park

When Keweenaw National Historical Park in Michigan was designated as a national park unit in 1992, legislation required the park to rely on local communities and nonprofit partners for a good part of its funding. Sometimes, that made telling the story of America’s booming copper industry a real challenge.

In the past, for example, Keweenaw partners had to raise $4 for every dollar offered in a federal grant. But that kind of fundraising can be hard to do in a region that hasn’t boomed since its copper industry declined a century ago. Thankfully, this new legislation lowers that ratio to a much more reasonable one-to-one.

The new bill also authorizes the Park Service to buy historically important properties that it wasn’t allowed to own in the past. But it still needs the funding to purchase those sites—and to stabilize the Quincy Smelter, one of the world’s most historically significant sites for the copper industry [see “Fighting Gravity,” Spring 2009]. Requests have been submitted to Congress, and approved funding will likely be announced this fall.

Women’s Rights National Historical Park

Women’s rights in America have come a long way since 1917, when suffragettes were picketing in front of the White House for the right to vote. Now, an interpretive trail through New York will help document just how far the nation has come. Introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the National Women’s Rights History Project Act creates a drivable women’s history trail, expands the national online database of women’s history sites, and establishes a partnership network to fund relevant educational programs. The route was designed to allow access to many of the most prominent sites of the women’s movement, including Seneca Falls and Waterloo at Women’s Rights National Historical Park, where the first women’s rights conventions were planned and held.

“So many people forget that it was just eighty-nine years ago that women were finally allowed to vote in this country,” says Slaughter. “This important legislation provides Americans with the chance to learn more about the heroines who changed history and opened the doors of opportunity for future generations of women.”

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Perhaps no park unit symbolizes the clash of suppression and newfound freedom, of brutal conquests and the budding American Dream, as Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas. Here, the military successfully fought off Native Americans in the Indian Wars, securing new territory for American settlers heading west. But as one group was repressed, another was rising above a troubled past: Formerly enslaved African Americans—the Buffalo Soldiers—proved their dedication here by ably serving the U.S. Army on the Western Frontier.

If you stand on a certain bluff in the park, you can see the same landscape and historic structures that those soldiers saw in the late 1800s. But that landscape doesn’t completely fall within park boundaries—so when it went up for sale, conservationists feared it might end up in the hands of a developer. Thankfully, NPCA helped get it into the hands of a sympathetic buyer, who’s holding it until the Park Service has the money to purchase it. That may take a while—but the new legislation officially expands the park’s border, which is a critical first step.

“The integrity of that view is as much a part of the park’s historic fabric as anything else,” says Suzanne Dixon, director of NPCA’s Texas regional office. “There’s not a gas station or a drive-through restaurant anywhere in sight. Going there is like going back in time—and now we can rest assured that that experience will never change.”

Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Summer 2009 issue.

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