Written by Anthony Veerkamp
The National Park Service sometimes has a hard time getting the word out about the good work that it does. No one will ever forget the story of the million-dollar outhouse, but meanwhile successful resource stewardship partnerships performed on budgets that are the federal equivalent of loose change found under the sofa cushions go unnoticed.
Case in point: the Vanishing Treasures Program. Active in 45 National Park units in the arid West, the program seeks to preserve threatened park cultural resources while providing technical assistance to other governmental agencies, tribes, and local communities. In the dozen or so years that Vanishing Treasures has been around, it has largely flown under the radar. That’s a shame, as the program represents the National Park Service at its best.
Just the name “Vanishing Treasures” should be enough to get some attention. While many federal programs have names that seem designed to convey as little information as possible (with the coup de grace often provided by an unwieldy acronym) “Vanishing Treasures” is a name that pulls no punches. After all, to vanish is more emphatic than, say, to “disappear”—I say “vanish”, you say “into thin air”. Just in case the urgency was lost on anyone, the program’s original long-range plan - “Vanishing Treasures: A Legacy in Ruins” - hammered the point home.
As originally conceived, Vanishing Treasures sought to address the shortcomings of the NPS cultural resource stewardship in the context of slow, incremental natural deterioration of resources, recognizing that some misguided past interventions were failing and needed to be corrected.
The program’s 2010 annual report subtitled “A Climate of Change,” calls into question some of those underlying assumptions regarding the predicable pace of change. In her introduction, Program Director Virginia Salazar-Halfmoon unequivocally states that “climate change is now an accepted reality.” In fact, the NPS has been working on climate change-related issues for some time, as outlined in an article in the report by Project Historian Chris Johnson called “Where Nature and History Meet: A Historical Perspective on the National Park Service Response to Climate Change.”
The report notes the perennial gap between natural and cultural resources. While natural resource managers in the NPS have been studying the impacts of climate change for decades, Jeremy M Moss, Chief of Resources Management at Tumacácori National Historical Park, notes that “cultural resource managers have just begun thinking about the effects of global warming and climate change on archeological sites and historic structures.” Part of that challenge, Ms. Salazar-Halfmoon states, “is to work with those who are studying the natural environment to understand how their research may apply to the variety of preservation issues and methods that we are using to maintain our cultural sites.”
Given the political minefield that climate change has become, it is understandable, if a bit frustrating, that the report’s authors tiptoe so carefully around questions of causality; after all, when we say “smoking causes cancer” we don’t feel the need to qualify that with “although no specific case of cancer can be unequivocally blamed on smoking.”
Still, that’s a mere quibble. The NPS and the Vanishing Treasures Program are to be commended for taking on the challenge of climate change, recognizing that we may find that “the preservation treatments we have applied in the past may not be appropriate in a future altered by climate change.”
As Ms Salazar Halfmoon says “this is just the beginning of a dialog that needs to occur to ensure that we are prepared to address the preservation needs of a changing future.”
Anthony Veerkamp is the Director of Programs at the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.