Remarks of Robert G. Stanton,

Director, National Park Service

68th United States Conference of Mayors —  Seattle, Washington

I am privileged to be here today on behalf of the men and women of the National Park Service. I am especially pleased for the opportunity to participate in “A National Conversation on Local Parks.” It’s an important conversation to have.

There are many citizens of this nation who wonder what the National Park Service has to do with “local parks.” Last year we did some research to get a better understanding of what the American people know about the National Park Service and our mission. The results were compelling and surprised many of us — the American People think that there are about 3 or 4 national parks out west and they all begin with “Y.” Another thing we learned was that an unacceptably high number of people of color feel unwelcome in national parks – they have not established any connection – or rather, we have failed in helping to establish that connection.

It was clear to me that in order to establish connections, we must do a better job communicating with the American public about the breadth and diversity of the National Park System and the many partnership programs we offer. It is my belief that working together with partners like you to enhance a national network of parks – local, city, state, and national parks – is the key to establishing that connection. We not only want to welcome people to parks – but also to bring parks to people. And most of this nation’s people are in cities.

Many of you may be surprised to learn that more than forty percent of the visits in the National Park System are to sites IN urban America — places like Gateway National Recreation Area in New York, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the Bay area, and the magnificent monuments in our nation’s capitol. Some of the National Park Service’s true undiscovered gems are nestled in our nation’s cities – sites like the Fredrick Douglass Home in Washington, D.C. or New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.

We are proud of the National Park System and the rich diversity of the sites we manage. But that is only part of what the National Park Service does. Equally important is our role and responsibility to work with local neighborhoods and cities to help them preserve what is special about their communities: their greenways and open space, historic buildings, rivers, trails and neighborhood parks.

The 1st Director of the National Park Service once said, “he or she is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here in the United States who has toured the National Parks.” I strongly believe that. I also believe that those same values can be experienced in local and state parks, too.

Consider the blunt assessment of Newark’s Mayor Sharpe James: “We are going to recreate or we are going to incarcerate.” His point, which cannot be restated too often or too loudly, is simply that people – all people, without regard to category or classification – need places to exercise both their bodies and their imaginations. Parks, be they national or local, provide that.

Open space and “green infrastructure” are as essential to cities and communities as roads, schools, and medical facilities. Historic preservation and natural conservation provide the anchoring continuity for places where the pulse of life assures the constancy of change.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that “Life’s most important and urgent question is what you are doing for others.” I’ll take a moment to address some of what the NPS is doing – and some of what we hope to do in partnership with America’s cities.

Two years ago, at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we established our Urban Recreation Research Center. The objectives of the Center are both to assist managers of urban park sites in protecting resources and providing visitor services, through a sustained program of social science research AND to create a wider cultural diversity of the scientists conducting research on urban recreation, and increase the pool of minority students interested in National Park Service careers.

Last year alone, more than $2.3 billion dollars of private sector funds were spent through the historic preservation tax credit program we administer to rehabilitate almost 1,000 historic buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or in registered historic districts. Cities such as Seattle, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Baltimore, Charleston and Boston have all benefited from this form of urban revitalization. Not only has it renewed the physical community, but it has also revitalized the cultural community in city after city.

The National Register – which we administer – maintains an internet web site for our heritage education program, a series of National Register travel itineraries that include several on themes drawing attention to historic sites in or near urban centers. The itineraries provide historic context information, interactive maps, descriptions, explanations of each place’s historic significance, photographs, and location information.

The series already includes tours of historic places in Seattle, Charleston, Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago, as well as thematic tours of historic properties associated with the modern Civil Rights Movement, the Underground Railroad, and sites related to Women’s History. As long as you’re here, I’m sure Mayor Schell would join me in encouraging you to look at the Seattle tour.

So far, 38 communities across the nation have volunteered to work with the National Park Service in preparing additional National Register travel itineraries of historic places in their localities. These, too, will be on the National Register’s Web site. A look at the number of people in this room says 38 is but a small beginning.

In a very different effort, over the life of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, almost 30,000 projects of a 38,000-project total have directly benefited local units of government. Well more than half the total expenditure in matching funds has gone to support projects within Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas. And our UPARR program – specifically targeted at cities – has delivered more than $230 million to 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Through the Federal Lands to Parks program, cities, counties, and small towns have acquired more than one thousand former Federal properties, covering 63,300 acres. In fact, 82 percent of the property transferred through this program have become local parks.

The Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program has been a catalyst, working with local citizen groups and governments to revitalize rivers, develop trails and greenways, and preserve open spaces. It is a true treasure, one that gives truth to what has too often been said with derision: “We’re from Washington – and we’re here to help you.” Without a pocketbook to wield, it has succeeded in bringing together needs and resources in productive ways to invigorate and enliven communities large and small. In just the last fiscal year, their help was a key component in projects that protected 1,400 miles of trails, 400 miles of river corridor, and 11,000 acres of open space.

The technical assistance resources of the Rivers and Trails program will soon be more accessible to more of you and your staffs, as we open offices this year in Chattanooga, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City, bringing our total to 30 such offices available for on-the-ground help, ranging from strategic consultation and partnership development to providing a bridge for working with other government agencies.

The Rivers and Trails program has been enormously successful without much money. But we all know there’s something to be said for money!

Mayor Ashe recognized that when he was with the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors in the 1980s, and they proposed increased funding – and new dedicated sources of funding to allow the Land and Water Conservation Fund to revolutionize recreational opportunity in this nation. CARA – more formally, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 2000 – shows promise of accomplishing that worthy goal. We’re not there yet, but the efforts of many – and especially of many who are right in this room – appear ready to pay off. It is up to all of us who believe in its promise to work to keep the momentum going.

I think one of the strengths of CARA is that fully 90 percent of the funding plan is for state and local government grants for historic preservation, recreation, wildlife programs, and restoration, as well as acquisition. Another is that it would lift the program from the vagaries of the annual appropriation process, providing an assured, continuing dedicated source of funding, finally accomplishing what was first intended when the LWCF came into being in 1965. In turn, that stable, predictable funding will help your cities develop the matching revenues required – at last, you’ll know the program’s plans and commitments are reliable and sustainable over time.

UPARR, the Urban Parks Restoration and Recovery Program, probably holds the most direct promise for answering the call from Mayor James. CARA will build and maintain UPARR at levels that hold real promise, lifting it from the $2 million-a-year program of today to one with sustained support of $125 million annually. That, ladies and gentleman, will make a REAL difference in the lives of urban youth and their families. With $125 million annually for UPARR, we can connect a lot of city kids to parks and new recreational opportunities.

Another important element of CARA also owes a debt to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In 1966, the Conference’s Special Committee on Historic Preservation made a series of recommendations regarding the need for a national historic preservation program. As a result, Congress passed, and President Johnson signed, legislation creating the Historic Preservation Fund – a matching grant program to encourage private and non-federal investment in historic preservation efforts. CARA would fund the Historic Preservation Fund at $100 million annually, thus allowing us to retain the landmarks of our past that offer us a sense of stability and community.

And really that’s what parks and the National Park Service are about. We care for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our Heritage. From Frederick Douglass and Manzanar National Historic Sites, to the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and Yellowstone, Gettysburg, and Yosemite National Parks, the National Park System preserves the special places that celebrate, commemorate, and tell the story of our rich cultural and natural heritage. The NPS also helps communities to preserve their own unique historic sites, landscapes, and open space for recreation, education and enjoyment.

Together, we can continue to make our communities livable and restore the spirit of our nation’s citizens. I often recall the words of the highly acclaimed educator and university administrator, Dr. Benjamin May, who said: “The tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach. Not failure, but low aim is a sin.”

My aim is keep the National Park Service pointed at the highest goals we can imagine. I’m confident no one in this room will let us lower our sights. Thank you.

(June 11, 2000)

A National Conversation on Local Parks was last modified: March 7th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces
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