Preservation Magazine, Fall 2015

President's Note: Public Lands in Public Hands

Often when people think of preservation, the first thing that comes to mind is historic buildings. But the story of our nation also unfolded on the land—the mountains, valleys, plains, and rivers that have harbored and inspired us for millennia. Amid these landscapes are priceless cultural resources—ancient dwellings, historic trails, and homesteading cabins that are frequently our only physical evidence of centuries of American history.

That is why, from the Great Bend of the Gila, a crossroads of human activity for thousands of years, to Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado and the Palisades in New Jersey, to sacred sites in Arizona such as Oak Flat and the Grand Canyon, we are working with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, conservationists, and nature lovers all over the country to protect America’s breathtaking natural vistas.

But while our federal system of public lands has been the envy of the world, it is facing renewed challenges. Recent legislative proposals in Congress and in some states have been seeking to transfer control of America’s public lands to state governments—a risky scheme with numerous downsides and unforeseen consequences. And funding in general for federal land protection has fallen victim to deep budget cuts.

In 2010, because many states were already struggling to maintain the historic and cultural resources under their purview, we listed the nation’s state parks and state-owned historic sites on our annual America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. Adding federal public lands to the ledger, as these bills propose, would only further strain state budgets.

Transferring federal lands to the states would also mean that the federal laws that protect these places, including the Antiquities and National Historic Preservation acts, would no longer apply. This would put millions of irreplaceable historic and cultural artifacts at risk. While the land stewardship of agencies has not been perfect, we strongly believe that a well-funded system of federal management is the best way to ensure Americans’ continued access to and enjoyment of these precious landscapes.

“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons,” Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1905, “and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.” I couldn’t say it better. Public lands belong to all Americans, including future generations, and they should be managed for the benefit of all.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

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