When people think of the national parks, they tend to focus on matters of landscape and wildlife. Those are things most of us travel to national parks to see and experience, and those are the things that make up most of our memories of being there.

But beyond the scenery, the national parks are also repositories of history, from archaeological sites and artifacts to locations of historic events. And, in their ability to preserve and protect the historical sites and documents that are in their care, the National Park Service is facing some real difficulties.

The National Academy of Public Administration is sounding an alarm bell about the dire and declining state of archaeological sites, artifacts, archives, museums and historic properties in the custody of the National Park Service. Restoring competent leadership to cultural resource programs will be one of the major challenges for the next National Park Service (NPS) Director, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), a respected independent non-profit network of top public management experts, issued the report, Saving Our History: Review of National Park Cultural Resource Programs, in October 2008. Among its findings are –

* “The Panel finds troubling the fact that there are currently 2,811 historic structures of national significance in poor condition”

* “NPS is failing to fulfill its public trust for museum collections, because 45 percent of its collections are not cataloged. As a result, 56 million items are irretrievable and unavailable to park staff, researchers, and the public”; and

* NPS is unprepared to cope with a “tidal wave” of retirements of its cultural resource program staff.

For too long, the national park system has been over-used, and under-funded. Add this report to the problems of crumbling infrastructure and lack of maintenance, plus the Bush Administration’s attempts to relax the rules governing air quality in the parks and you have a good picture of a park system in serious need of help.

National parks are not only an important part of our natural resources, they are a uniquely American invention, one that has spread throughout the world. The neglect of our national parks isn’t just a disgrace in terms of our neglect of the parks themselves, it’s a betrayal of our national heritage. It’s way past time that we once again took seriously our commitment to preserve and protect the national parks.

The complete text of the National Academy of Public Administration’s report on the neglect of historical resources in the national parks is available online.