The American Historian

Celebrating Twenty-Five Years: The National Parks Service-OAH Collaboration

Paul J. Zwirecki, Public History Manager

For nearly twenty-five years, the Organization of American Historians has partnered with the National Park Service (NPS) through a series of five-year cooperative agreements to develop a wide range of research projects. The current cooperative agreement, which runs through September of 2020, directs the OAH and NPS to “undertake activities that promote the greater public and private understanding of American history for their mutual benefit and for the people of the United States as well as for future generations, so they can enjoy the historic resources of the NPS.” Since its inception in 1994, the partnership has resulted in 178 collaborative projects that have produced scholarship that informs the presentation of history at National Parks across the United States.

The NPS had over 330 million recreational visits to their sites in 2017. The parks manage hundreds of the most significant historic places in the United States, and, as their partner for the last two decades, the OAH has contributed to the production of significant original scholarship. These studies have influenced the management of park units, informed interpretive efforts, and in the case of the landmark Imperiled Promise study of 2011, provided a critical assessment of the presentation of American history across the entire agency.

As part of a larger effort to recognize the last quarter century of work done through this arrangement with the NPS, the OAH will this year be presenting reflections on the partnership in various forms.

Background on Projects

As of 2018, the NPS had 418 officially designated units, 60 of which are parks (such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon) and the remainder of which fall into 18 other designations, such as national historic sites, national historic parks, and national monuments. The parks are incredibly varied, from massive natural landscapes, to battlefields and individual structures. They range from 13.2 million acres (Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska) to .02 acres (Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania) in size. Until the 2013 designation of First State National Monument (now National Historic Park), Delaware was the only state without an official unit of the parks; outside the 50 states, park units exist in Washington D.C. and four U.S. territories.

Each project that the OAH produces under the master cooperative agreement with the Park Service is done through an individual task agreement that outlines the specific research topic and scope of the study. Under these agreements, the OAH accepts responsibility for the complete production of a specific study for a park unit or region. Assuming the project is a research document, this almost always entails the full production from conception, research and writing, to final production. As the OAH takes on projects, we work to identify the right scholar to hire for the research and writing of each project.

One of the many strengths of the cooperative agreement is that it allows for innovative projects to be accomplished under its general directives. While each project is unique in its theme and scope, the majority of the OAH-NPS projects over the last 25 years fall into five broad categories: Administrative Histories, Historic Resource Studies, Special History Studies, Scholars Round Tables, and National Register/National Historic Landmark Nominations. As of early 2019, the majority of the active OAH projects fall into the first three of these categories.

Why these three categories dominate the current portfolio of OAH-NPS projects relates to the NPS procedures regarding cultural resource management. According to NPS-28, the official cultural resource management guidelines adopted by the parks in 1998, their cultural resource management:

“involves research, to identify, evaluate, document, register, and establish other basic information about cultural resources; planning, to ensure that this information is well integrated into management processes for making decisions and setting priorities; and stewardship, under which planning decisions are carried out and resources are preserved, protected, and interpreted to the public.”

Under their official guidelines, park units are required to develop a series of baseline research documents that serve a variety of administrative and interpretive purposes. Two of these baseline documents specifically require the knowledge and skills of qualified historians.

Administrative Histories

According to NPS-28, an Administrative History “describes how a park was conceived and established and how it has been managed to the present day.” These studies emphasize “the park's legislative history and important issues in planning, land acquisition, development, public relations, and other topics of ongoing management concern.” Though a park that is the subject of an Administrative History might not itself be explicitly designated a historic place (a national seashore or national recreation area, for example), the completed document is a historical product nonetheless, and conforms to the standards of our profession. Scholars engaged in the production of administrative histories visit the site and regional and national archives, conduct oral history interviews, and produce monograph-length studies meant to inform future operations of the park.

OAH scholars are in various stages of producing Administrative Histories for park units across the United States. In 2018 the OAH was involved in 23 of these studies. While the objective and structure of an Administrative History is standard across the NPS, the wide range of park units means that each of these studies can reveal unique stories of historic preservation, partnership between local, state, and federal agencies, and the decision-making process for what places and people have been considered historically significant under federal guidelines.

Historic Resource Studies

The NPS defines a Historic Resource Study as “a historical overview of a park or region [that] identifies and evaluates a park's cultural resources within historic contexts.” They are designed to “synthesize all available cultural resource information from all disciplines in a narrative designed to serve managers, planners, interpreters, cultural resource specialists, and interested public as a reference for the history of the region and the resources within a park.” Given that description, a Historic Resource study can be very broad in scope. For example, work is currently underway on a Historic Resource Study to conduct original research into African American experiences at Cedar Creek Battlefield and Belle Grove Plantation (collectively Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park) within the larger context of the Shenandoah Valley.

As of 2019 the OAH is involved in 21 Historic Resource Studies (HRS), most of which are centered on specific park units, though an HRS can also cover broader geographic areas. For example, one current HRS is examining the history of racialized and segregated spaces in units of the National Park Service in Virginia. This project transcends not only the boundaries of any one specific park unit but also those of the NPS administrative regions. Within Virginia, and covered by this study, park units fall under the administrative offices in the Northeast, National Capital, and Southeast regions of the NPS.

Outside of baseline documents, individual park units can apply for funds to develop special studies or events meant to provide context for specific themes.

Special History Studies

Special History Studies generally focus on the most specific topics of any of the projects referenced here. There has been an increase in the number of these studies in recent years, driven largely by a 2016 congressional appropriation designed to promote research and preservation projects related to civil rights. For example, in the coming months the OAH will begin a project that researches enslaved workers and the U.S. Colored Troops connected to the area that now comprises Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, specifically between the years 1850 and 1877. These studies are conducted by parks that identify specific gaps in their understanding of park resources and can directly inform the interpretation of the site experienced by its visitors.

In addition to these three main types of studies, the OAH has sponsored several other major types of projects. The OAH is particularly well-suited to conduct Scholars Round Tables, which are multiday events hosted at park units in which a group of scholars is invited to discuss the major historic themes surrounding a particular park. In 2013, for example, the OAH organized a roundtable of scholars at Mount Rushmore to “analyze the national significance and themes” of the site. During the visit, OAH scholars toured the site, experienced the interpretation offered by the park, and were then asked to reflect on these experiences. These reports offered suggestions to provide broader contexts, including better integration of the story of American Indians, especially the Lakota, into the interpretation at Mt. Rushmore. In perhaps the most direct way of any of these project types, Scholars Round Tables provide an opportunity for OAH members to directly experience and advise the parks on their presentation of American history.

an image of Mount Rushmore

The OAH also contracts with the parks to produce original (and revise existing) nominations for the National Register of Historic Places (NHRP), as well as briefing statements and applications for National Historic Landmark (NHL) status. Work was recently completed by former OAH Public History Manager Susan Ferentinos on an NHL briefing statement arguing for the national significance of Azurest South, the home of Amaza Lee Meredith and Edna Meade Colson. The structure was added to the NRHP in 1993 for its architectural significance, but in this briefing statement Ferentinos argues that the site has potential national significance (a critical qualifier for NHL status) not only for its architectural style but also for its contributions to women’s history, African American history, and LGBTQ history.

Going Forward

At the time of writing this article, most of the National Park Service is closed amid of the longest government shutdown in American history. Funding for 9 of the 15 federal government agencies officially lapsed at midnight on December 21, 2018, and, at that moment, approximately 800,000 federal workers, representing one-quarter of the federal work force were either furloughed or ordered to resume work without pay. Among those affected by the shutdown are nearly all of the 27,000 employees of the National Park Service. In recent shutdowns, the parks have been the first places many Americans “see” the tangible impact of lapsed federal funding. Locked visitor center doors and entry roadblocks greet visitors with hastily printed signs explaining that the parks will be inaccessible during shutdown periods.

a picture of a tree that has fallen over and cracked the body of the tree

During the ongoing 2018–2019 shutdown, most National Parks have been ordered to remain open, though with dramatically reduced staffing. The impact of that reduction has been readily apparent. One of the more shocking images of the impacts of the shutdown emerged from Joshua Tree National Park. With only 8 law enforcement rangers patrolling the park’s 792,000 acres, several reports of illegal camping and additional acts of destruction and deterioration of park resources have resulted, including a photo showing an iconic joshua tree cut down by vandals. This image is even more tragic when considering that the ecosystem of the park is already under threat from climate change, with at least one study predicting that by 2100 most of the joshua trees may be gone.