July 5, 2016

President's Note: Parks and Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation President and CEO, Stephanie Meeks

There is nothing so American as our national parks,” declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the “National Parks Year” of 1934, enthusiastically channeling the spirit of his predecessor and distant cousin, Theodore. That has only become truer in the 82 years since. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service this summer, we also commemorate our American story, and the deep and interwoven connections between national parks and historic preservation.

In FDR’s time, the then-young National Park System only included 23 historic buildings, and those, according to a 1935 report for the president, “can hardly be classed among the first rank of historic houses of national significance.” But many in the Park Service felt that parks should reflect more of our history, and worked hard to make it happen. Now, across the system’s more than 400 units, there are nearly 27,000 historic buildings, 3,500 historic statues and monuments, 2 million archaeological sites, and 123 million museum objects and documents—only the Smithsonian has a bigger collection.

In fact, the Park Service has always been an older sibling of sorts to the National Trust. Our first director, Frederick Rath, hailed from the service. Our original offices—in the Lincoln Museum at Ford’s Theater—were in space lent to us by the agency. And during the 67 years since our founding, we have worked hand in hand with our friends at NPS to identify, maintain, interpret, and protect America’s historic places.

This summer, along with our partners at American Express and National Geographic, we are continuing that important work through our Partners in Preservation: National Parks program. From May 25 to July 5, members of the public could vote online for their favorite national park among 20 worthy candidates across the nation, from Yellowstone to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon to Mount Rushmore, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site to the National Mall. The parks with the most votes will receive funding for important historic rehabilitation projects within the park as part of $2 million in grants.

As Roosevelt so well put it, “The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people.” That is why, he argued, every year should be National Parks Year, and every American “who can possibly find the means and opportunity” should “visit our national parks and use them as they are intended to be used.” As in 1934, so in 2016: This summer, go out, see America, find your park, and have some fun. In Roosevelt’s words, “May we come better to know every part of our great heritage in the days to come.”

Stephanie K. Meeks is president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is the author of "The Past and Future City", available now from Island Press.

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