The current Government shutdown in the USA caused by the political dispute over President Trump’s demand for funding for a wall along the US border with Mexico is having significant negative effects on the historic environment and nature conservation of the ‘treasured’ National Parks system, as well as related agencies falling within the realm of the Department of the Interior.
During this shutdown 80% of the employees of the NPS have been furloughed, leaving only skeleton staff mainly for policing and security.
It has been reported that the National Parks Service is losing $400,000 per day by not collecting admissions revenue where parks and heritage sites charge, quite apart from wider revenue lost from concessions, campgrounds, retail and hospitality. There have been widespread reports of significant human health, pollution and threats to nature and ecosystems, with sanitation sites overflowing and litter not being collected. Questions have also been asked on why sites have been left accessible, rather than simply closing the various NPS units/sites altogether.
Maintenance backlogs and acute maintenance/management issues are building due to the impact of weather at this time of the year also. It is not a pretty picture – foremost for the dedicated NPS staff who are not being paid, many of which are trying to keep things going on a voluntary basis, secondly for the long-term damage being done to the natural and cultural resources of the Park System which has been heralded as “America’s Best Idea”, and thirdly for the unfortunate political circumstances whereby the environment (in its broadest form) comes low down in the pecking order when Government faces a crisis.
English Heritage has just launched The Once & Future Fund designed to build an endowment to support specifically the sites looked after by the organisation that don’t have admission charges, shops, cafes or custodians. This group of free to access sites form the vast majority of the national portfolios of English Heritage (as well as Historic Scotland and Cadw), and therefore tend to be less in the public eye for recognition and visitation. The sites which vary in size from the very small (such as Dunster Butter Cross), through to the very large (like Maiden Castle) are theoretically no less important, though they do, unsurprisingly, fall much further down the pecking order when it comes to investment and maintenance.
The campaign by English Heritage is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, through its Heritage Endowments programme, with a HLF commitment to match fund donations up to £1 million. It will dedicate much needed funds and attention on this twilight group of sites which has never received the investment it should have, has never been made the most of within the broader national portfolio, and remains hugely under-interpreted for the visitor. Whilst the dedicated attention and matching commitment by the HLF is to be applauded, it does raise further broader questions about the original £88.5 million ‘endowment’ given to English Heritage / Historic England by Government as part of the English Heritage New Model organisational structure change, particularly around the state of play of reducing the long term conservation backlog for the unstaffed sites with complex needs, and the long-term viability of this part of the national collection which will have to increasingly rely on such fund-raising schemes.