Cultural landscapes of the USA's national parks
A comprehensive inventory is the cornerstone of the National Park Service's programme of systematically identifying and documenting significant cultural landscapes.
The orchards in Fruita Rural Historic District, Capitol Reef National Park (photo: author)
The National Park Service (NPS) is the largest manager of identified cultural properties in the USA. The agency is housed within the Department of the Interior, and is financed through a combination of federal support and user fees. It maintains a total of 388 units, ranging in size from vast stretches of the Alaskan Arctic to individual sites in urban settings. The agency categorises them into around 15 different designations (not including some unique designations) such as national park, national monument and national battlefield, and develops appropriate management strategies to preserve and interpret the cultural and natural resources within them.
There are a total of 58 properties with the designation of national park in the US, the majority of which are located west of the Mississippi river. They include parks with worldwide reputation for their natural beauty, including Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, as well as others of less fame (Great Basin and Theodore roosevelt, for instance). Unlike many of the national historic sites, national battlefields or similar categories, most national parks were created for their exceptional scenery and natural landscapes, not for the cultural resources they contained.1
Thus in most national parks, natural landscapes remained at the forefront of management and marketing concerns, resulting in the neglect and even outright destruction of cultural resources. This is despite the fact that the Organic Act of 1916, which
established the NPS, mandated the agency to 'conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein...' (emphasis added).
Of all different types of historic resources in the national parks, cultural landscapes were particularly at risk. Such sites hold complex interplays of natural and cultural forces at their core, yet nature and culture had long been understood as dichotomous during the formative years of the NPS. As a result, cultural landscape sites were under-appreciated - even those with a great deal to inform us about the historic interactions of people and place.
With the rise of environmental history and cultural landscape studies in the mid-20th century, theorists began to recognise the importance of preserving the human elements of landscapes even in predominantly natural settings. At the federal level, preservation practice has begun to reflect these theoretical advances in recent decades. The NPS began by recognising cultural landscapes as a unique resource, and by implementing the national heritage areas (NHA) programme in the mid-1980s, designating nationally distinct cultural landscapes in which human activities and patterns were prominent in shaping a unique sense of place. However, NHAs are not NPS units as such, since the agency's role is limited to providing assistance with management to local and regional partners.
In the next decade other landscape-oriented programmes, including the Park Cultural Landscapes
Program, were created to address cultural landscapes within the agency's own properties. Considerable progress has since been made in inventory, treatment and interpretation for such sites. The cornerstone of this effort is the Cultural Landscapes Inventory (CLI), launched by the Park Cultural Landscapes Program in 1996 and discussed below.
The NPS defines a cultural landscape as 'a geographic area (including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein), associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values'. For the purpose of management they categorise them into four distinct but non-mutually exclusive categories that overlap with previously developed categories by UNeSCO.
Historic sites are significant for their associations with important events, activities and persons. Historic designed landscapes include landscapes that reflect some recognised style of construction, or which are associated with important persons, trends or events in the history of landscape architecture. This is a subset of UNeSCO's category of landscapes designed and created intentionally by man. Historic vernacular landscapes include landscapes not designed by trained professionals but rather reflecting how people have collectively shaped and reshaped the land to meet their needs. This category is similar to UNeSCO's organically evolved landscape. Ethnographic landscapes are associated with cultural groups such as Native Americans which carried out traditional practices on such sites, a category similar to UNeSCO's associative cultural landscape.
The NPS recommends four treatments for cultural landscapes, similar to those used for other historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction. Preservation is the minimum intervention, requiring the retention of the maximum amount of historic fabric. Rehabilitation allows altering the cultural landscape to meet new uses without compromising its historic integrity. Restoration allows returning the landscape to a selected period in history by removing materials from other periods and selective introduction of new materials. Reconstruction, the most extreme of treatments, allows a landscape to be re-created with new materials based on historical documents.
The CLI was initiated in response to the secretary of the interior's Annual Control Report of 1990 to address a 'material weakness' in the preservation of cultural landscapes on NPS properties, as identified by the report. The CLI was set up by the Park Cultural Landscapes Program as a comprehensive inventory of all cultural landscapes that have historical significance, in which the NPS has or plans to acquire legal interest. The main functions of the CLI include: identifying and locating cultural landscapes; collecting information about the cultural landscapes; and assisting park managers with treatment and management decisions. The process is designed to integrate with the documentation process for nomination of cultural landscape sites to the National register of Historic Places, for those deemed worthy of nomination.
The programme involves staff at three levels in the NPS structure: the National Center, the regions/ clusters and the individual parks. The National Center in Washington, DC, is home to the highest levels of the NPS bureaucratic structure. There are seven regional offices, some of which are further divided into two or three 'clusters'. The CLI methodology was developed by the National Center with input from staff at the regional and cluster levels, and field-tested before it was launched in 1996.
Most of the direct responsibility for carrying out the CLI lies with region and cluster staff although the National Center retains the role of maintaining standards to ensure consistency and compliance with regulations. Although they are not primarily responsible for the CLI, the staff of individual parks assist the regions with the inventory process. They also establish priorities for funding, maintenance and planning for all their cultural resources, including cultural landscape sites. Note that the national and regional staff are not themselves responsible for making management decisions, only in aiding the parks in doing so by providing information.
The Cultural Landscapes Inventory Program is funded through congressional material weakness appropriations. These funds are divided among the seven regions and allocated annually. The investment individual parks make on cultural resources, especially cultural landscapes, depends greatly on the availability of other competitive federal funds. Parks' success in obtaining these funds may be reflected partially in the differential progress in their inventory effort.
The CLI adopts a four-tier hierarchy for dividing the landscape into identifiable components and/or features. The hierarchy breaks the identified properties down into landscapes and features and then into component landscapes and component features. Landscape represents the entire area of interest, the 'parent' to all components and features. Component landscapes are elements within a landscape that contribute to the significance of a property and which could be individually listed on the National register of Historic Places. Component landscapes are documented individually for the CLI.
Landscape features are the smallest identifiable
The spectacular scenery of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, in 1937 (photo: Allan Rinehart, NPS collections)
McGraw Ranch, 2003, Rocky Mountain National Park (photo: author)
physical units that contribute to the significance of the landscape and that can be managed as individual sites. Component landscape features are like landscape features, but for component landscapes. The application of the hierarchy depends on the character and complexity of the landscape. Complex landscapes may use all four classifications while others may use fewer.
Until fiscal year 2003 the CLI structure included a four-tier inventory method for documenting cultural landscapes: Levels 0 (park reconnaissance survey), I (landscape reconnaissance survey), II (landscape analysis and evaluation) and III (feature inventory and assessment). The Level 0 Inventory was meant to be inclusive - that is, the NPS considered it better to include something potentially ineligible rather than exclude something potentially eligible. each subsequent step then became more detailed and exclusive. Landscapes at each stage were deemed either eligible or ineligible for the next stage. Those found eligible were further divided into those that were prioritised and those not prioritised for further work. Following the Level II review, the CLI staff shared their files with the State Historic Preservation Office for concurrence and certification.
As of fiscal year 2004, the NPS has discontinued all public references to the CLI levels, although they are still followed internally. external reporting of landscape progress is now divided only into 'complete' (Level II completed and certified by the State Historic Preservation Office) and 'not complete' (others). The new framework has eliminated the Level III inventory due in part to previous lack of progress.
Data on different cultural landscape sites are collected in a central database in Microsoft Access which until 2003 was named CLAIMS (Cultural Landscape Automated Inventory and Management System). The database contains over 100 fields of data for each landscape, containing a variety of information on (among others) its location, physical characteristics, context, historical significance, condition, history, type, use, management (including treatments approved through the park planning process) and threats. Some of these are narratives of considerable length, which are also structured to allow graphics, photos and maps to be included as necessary. At the end of each fiscal year the regions send a copy of the newly generated CLI data to the National Center, where it is uploaded into the national database.
The CLI database is not public, but select portions of the data as of fiscal year 2003 have been made available to the author. As of then, over 3,000 cultural landscapes had been identified in the national park system, most of which are either considered potentially eligible for the National register or already on it. roughly one third of entries are in the National Parks (as opposed to other NPS properties). Of these, 32 landscapes and component landscapes had received complete inventories and SHPO certification as of fiscal year 2003, and this number increased to 49 following fiscal year 2004. Although this may seem low, it needs to be made clear that the CLI from start to completion
Manish Chalana is a lecturer in the department of urban design and planning at the University of Washington in Seattle.
is a drawn-out process that can take years. The large increase in the most recent fiscal year suggests that many landscapes may be nearing completion.
Among the parks with the most identified landscapes are Isle royale in Michigan (116), Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio (87), Yosemite in California (65), Hawaii Volcanoes (43) and Voyageurs in Minnesota (43). Although the majority of the national parks are west of the Mississippi, three of these five are in the east. This is likely due to the fact that the east has had much denser settlement throughout history, although differences among regional offices could potentially factor in. Common types of significance for cultural landscapes include mining, ranching, agricultural and transportation-related sites, as well as numerous sites related to NPS's own activities including campgrounds, overlooks and trails.
The coordinated and concerted effort of the CLI has led to improved documentation for cultural landscape sites in the NPS system. Now that this first step is underway, it will be interesting to see how the more complex tasks of treatment and interpretation develop. This process is especially complex for vernacular landscapes. It is generally agreed that such landscapes require some form of continued traditional usage in order best to retain meaning and interpretability, yet there are no traditional inhabitants continually residing in the parks. From the database, the author estimates that between a third and a half of the landscapes on the CLI fit into the category of historic vernacular landscapes.
The NPS has come up with some creative solutions so far, most famously at Fruita rural Historic District in Capitol reef. Fruita was the site of a Mormon fruit-farming community. Today the orchards are maintained by specially trained staff using traditional methods, with the sale of fruit to visitors supporting the activities. Another case is McGraw ranch, a dude ranching operation (a dude ranch being a holiday resort offering activities such as riding and camping, and a dude being an inexperienced guest on a ride or a hunt) in rocky Mountain, now used as a research facility.
Whether the NPS can extend such approaches to more sites in ways that truly incorporate the meaning of the landscape remains to be seen. What is certain is that the necessary first step in this process, the systematic identification and documentation of these landscapes, is well underway.
1 One early exception is Mesa Verde, home to grand Native American archeological sites. A more recent one is Cuyahoga Valley, comprising a complex set of cultural landscapes.