Event Title

Staying above the Fray: The Strange Case of the National Park Service in an Era of Hyper-partisanship

Location

Panel 20: Kearney 317

Start Date

27-10-2012 1:15 PM

End Date

27-10-2012 2:45 PM

Description

It seems clear that the United States currently is entrenched in an era of heightened political partisanship, and has been for some years now. In the past the so-called culture wars—over issues such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—seemed to provide most of the fuel for partisan divide. More recently, much of the ideological ferment has focused on the matter of the role of government—and especially the federal government—in the life of the country. How big or small should it be? How much should it be used to promote equality of opportunity? How much should Americans pay in taxes to support it? In such a divisive period of hyper-partisanship, Washington, DC, federal government agencies, and, increasingly, federal employees, increasingly are becoming targets of partisan attacks, predominantly from the right. With the exception of the military, many, perhaps most, organs of the federal government seem to be under attack.

Yet there is at least one federal agency, outside the military, that seems to remain broadly immune from this sort of systemic, broad-based critique, and is the focus of this proposal: the National Park Service. This 96-year-old agency, a unit of the Department of the Interior, occupies a unique space in the federal government, charged with preserving the natural and cultural resources of the United States of America.

When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns unveiled his 2009 series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” he was echoing a sentiment first expressed by writer and historian Wallace Stegner, who called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” And alongside the national parks, equally prominent in the public imagination, are the rangers of the National Park Service, complete with their iconic Smokey Bear hats. This seemingly happy development has resulted in an entity that appears quintessentially American, yet has provided a model copied by many other countries throughout the world.

The interesting thing is the way that, in recent years, the National Park Service has managed to steer clear of both the national culture wars that have roiled America and the increasingly vicious ideological debates over the role of government. It has managed this feat in spite of the fact that it is a highly visible, centralized federal government bureaucracy, dedicated to telling America’s story in not only natural history but also, increasingly, cultural history terms—and all on the taxpayer’s dime. It is the cultural history component of the park service’s operations that will be the focus of this paper. Although the National Park Service is still primarily identified in the public imagination with the huge national parks of the West, there is more to the National Park system than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Hundreds of units of the service are designated national historical parks and national historic sites, and they cover the full range of American history, from the revolutionary war (e.g., Independence NHP in Philadelphia) to the rise of textile manufacturing (e.g., Lowell NHP, Massachusetts) to the forcible internment of Japanese-Americans in WW II (Manzanar NHS) to America’s civil rights struggle (e.g., Central High School NHS, Little Rock, Arkansas). Inevitably, the service must deal with many potentially contentious issues relating to race, class, labor, and gender and the interplay of these forces on America’s past and present.

What is it about the National Park Service that makes it seem to sidestep the country’s partisan divide? One reason certainly is the service’s widespread diffusion throughout the United States. Its 397 units cover every state in the country. And the majority of its units inhabit districts and states dominated by Republicans; they provide much-needed jobs and a source of income to areas often in sore need of external dollars. But there is more to it than that, as this paper will explore.

As the park service approaches its 2016 centennial, this paper seeks to understand the forces at work behind this conundrum. It investigates the park service’s unique role in American life, its history and development, its place in the American polity and American culture, and the institutional culture of its employees—including, of course, those iconic park rangers. The paper also investigates cases where the park service has dealt with controversies it has been involved in—instances where its integrity has been called into question, from both the left and the right. The park service certainly has not been immune to controversy. Again, though, the point is that such controversies have failed to develop into a broad-based or organized ideological critique of the agency’s role in American society.

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Oct 27th, 1:15 PM Oct 27th, 2:45 PM

Staying above the Fray: The Strange Case of the National Park Service in an Era of Hyper-partisanship

Panel 20: Kearney 317

It seems clear that the United States currently is entrenched in an era of heightened political partisanship, and has been for some years now. In the past the so-called culture wars—over issues such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—seemed to provide most of the fuel for partisan divide. More recently, much of the ideological ferment has focused on the matter of the role of government—and especially the federal government—in the life of the country. How big or small should it be? How much should it be used to promote equality of opportunity? How much should Americans pay in taxes to support it? In such a divisive period of hyper-partisanship, Washington, DC, federal government agencies, and, increasingly, federal employees, increasingly are becoming targets of partisan attacks, predominantly from the right. With the exception of the military, many, perhaps most, organs of the federal government seem to be under attack.

Yet there is at least one federal agency, outside the military, that seems to remain broadly immune from this sort of systemic, broad-based critique, and is the focus of this proposal: the National Park Service. This 96-year-old agency, a unit of the Department of the Interior, occupies a unique space in the federal government, charged with preserving the natural and cultural resources of the United States of America.

When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns unveiled his 2009 series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” he was echoing a sentiment first expressed by writer and historian Wallace Stegner, who called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” And alongside the national parks, equally prominent in the public imagination, are the rangers of the National Park Service, complete with their iconic Smokey Bear hats. This seemingly happy development has resulted in an entity that appears quintessentially American, yet has provided a model copied by many other countries throughout the world.

The interesting thing is the way that, in recent years, the National Park Service has managed to steer clear of both the national culture wars that have roiled America and the increasingly vicious ideological debates over the role of government. It has managed this feat in spite of the fact that it is a highly visible, centralized federal government bureaucracy, dedicated to telling America’s story in not only natural history but also, increasingly, cultural history terms—and all on the taxpayer’s dime. It is the cultural history component of the park service’s operations that will be the focus of this paper. Although the National Park Service is still primarily identified in the public imagination with the huge national parks of the West, there is more to the National Park system than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Hundreds of units of the service are designated national historical parks and national historic sites, and they cover the full range of American history, from the revolutionary war (e.g., Independence NHP in Philadelphia) to the rise of textile manufacturing (e.g., Lowell NHP, Massachusetts) to the forcible internment of Japanese-Americans in WW II (Manzanar NHS) to America’s civil rights struggle (e.g., Central High School NHS, Little Rock, Arkansas). Inevitably, the service must deal with many potentially contentious issues relating to race, class, labor, and gender and the interplay of these forces on America’s past and present.

What is it about the National Park Service that makes it seem to sidestep the country’s partisan divide? One reason certainly is the service’s widespread diffusion throughout the United States. Its 397 units cover every state in the country. And the majority of its units inhabit districts and states dominated by Republicans; they provide much-needed jobs and a source of income to areas often in sore need of external dollars. But there is more to it than that, as this paper will explore.

As the park service approaches its 2016 centennial, this paper seeks to understand the forces at work behind this conundrum. It investigates the park service’s unique role in American life, its history and development, its place in the American polity and American culture, and the institutional culture of its employees—including, of course, those iconic park rangers. The paper also investigates cases where the park service has dealt with controversies it has been involved in—instances where its integrity has been called into question, from both the left and the right. The park service certainly has not been immune to controversy. Again, though, the point is that such controversies have failed to develop into a broad-based or organized ideological critique of the agency’s role in American society.