Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Rescuing America's heritage

A year ago Mt. St. Helen's erupted in Washington state. Now a volcano of a different sort is erupting in Washington D.C. -- at the Office of Management and Budget, in the Congress, and in the federal agencies. Viewed from the air it is spectacular -- Reagan Rhetoric full of assurances that nothing important will be scarificed. Viewed on the ground, it's Reagan Reality -- a mud slide indiscriminately burying an irreplaceable heritage.

Reagan says he's for sound conservation of our country's resources, for state and local determination, for efficiency in federal management, for careful study and thought before reorganizing the bureaucracy. But at the Department eliminating Interior he has done just the opposite by virtually eliminating three grant programs and the agency that administered them.

About these ads

The three programs -- the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF), and the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program (UPARR) -- have assisted state and local governments in acquiring land and in rehabilitating some of the country's fines parks and historic sites. They were administered by a small, highly professional agency, the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS), which managed no federal land or facilities, but worked directly with state and local governments on their priority projects within the framework of national agenda. The grant programs were among the most efficiently run in the federal government, with low administrative overhead and a computerized information system that even the budget examiners admired.

All this was wiped out with no analysis of what had been accomplished, what the consequences would be for the country, or how the long list of critical needs would be addressed in the future. Interior officials still have not addressed very basic questions about their plans for integrating the remnants of HCRS into the National Park Service when the secretarial order takes effect May 31. Nor has the administration made clear what, if any, portion of the "savings" is being turned back to the states in a block grant or what the administration's intent is after 1982. Just beneath the Reagan Rhetoric lies the Reagan Recklessness.

The sole reason for these actions seems to be that poor America -- wealthiest country in the world -- can no longer afford to preserve its beauty and accomplishments for posterity. Ironically, these actions will save only $293 million in FY 1981 and $582 million in FY 1982 over the already austere Carter budget. This is close to the $500 million annual "payment in lieu of taxes" program, abandoned by the Carter administration, which Reagan plans to reinstate. This money will go almost exclusively to the Western states as reimbursement for lost taxes due to federal ownership of land.

Furthermore, the legislatively designated funding source for LWCF and HPF is not scarce tax dollars but burgeoning offshore oil revenues -- "conscience money" earmarked to be reinvested onshore for preservation of land and historic resources. Over time, through a steady infusion of a rather conservative 50 percent federal mathc, both these programs have assisted in acquiring for public use four million acres of state, local, and national parks and recreation areas; development of 19,000 recreation projects in 14,000 communities; and restoration of thousands of historic buildings and districts. More than 20,000 communities have been assisted by these two programs. Today every state has a plan and a set of priorities that depend on the federal government kicking in half the money to protect irreplaceable land and historic sites.

The Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program (UPARR), part of President Carter's urban policy, acknowledged the critical need to reinvest in the nation's deteriorating urban parks. UPARR was the first national public works effort to focus exclusively on conserving, rather than replacing, existing infrastructure. As America ages and adopts strategies to refurbish bridges, rebuild sewers, and resurface streets, the urban parks program can serve as a model of how to target the money and measure the results.

During its short life UPARR has already encouraged hundreds of cities and towns to restore old WPA recreation centers and crumbled Olmstead parks, renovate pools and playgrounds in aging neighborhoods, and make long-needed improvements in park management.

The accomplishments of HCRS through both grants and technical assistance produced handsome tangible results --projects which meant communities were substantially better after the ribbon was cut; places to be visited now and a hundred years from now.

About these ads

All over the country people will tell you that without the grant money from Interior, the bulldozer would have destroyed their local historic district or cut through a fine old grove of trees or eliminated a village green. Without these programs, the ability to leverage private sources of funding and form partnerships with diverse interests would have been limited. Without these programs, hundreds of millions of dollars of land would not have been donated to local and state park systems in Texas, or Missouri or Idaho; many riverfronts from Detroit to Jacksonville to Boston would have less public access; and one of the most dramatic and farsighted pieces of land use legislation in our history would probably not have been adopted for the 1-million-acre New Jersey Pinelands. Without these programs, the rape and ruin boys would have destroyed a whole lot more of America than they have, all in the name of economic growth, private initiative, and getting Uncle Sam off our backs.

For each project that has been completed there are scores of others being planned in Memphis, Toledo, East St. Louis, and Anchorage. Communities have learned that such projects are not postponable frills. They serve as powerful stimulants for private real estate investment; as producers of substantial revenues from tourism; and as models of energy conservation. For example, it takes 23 percent less energy to rehabilitate an old building than to build a new one.

The real issue here is the future of our national heritage. Americans have both the burden and blessing of stewardship for their diverse land and their rich culture. The national government can't deny its responsiblity in the name of states rights or tax reductions or budget cuts. In our parks, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, historic districts, Indian burial grounds, scenic trails, barrier islands, and beaches there is a fragile legacy that outstrips even the federal highway system, or the MX missile, or, yes, even the arts.

What is the Reagan alternative? Let the private sector do it? Well, there isn't much evidence in American history that greater private and corporate wealth will benefit the public through well-targeted largesse. True, there have been philanthropic giants who left mansions and mountains, but today's benevolence requires a different form on a much grander scale.

Maybe the Republicans will use their influence to get the oil companies voluntarily to establish a $3 billion-$5 billion trust fund with some of their colossal profits. The interest could be plowed back into securing and restoring the special natural and historic places of this country. This seems like a reasonable idea at first, but is it the appropriate role for business to define the public agenda and charge consumers enough to pay for the nation's necessities and their product too? Or is this not precisely the role of our national government? Why then not tax the oil companies more heavily and earmark a portion of the profits made from exploiting America's oceans and earth to save her heritage? That, of course, is precisely what was done in 1965 and 1966 when the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund were established.

The heritage grant programs at Interior are superb examples of America doing something right and doing it well. Before the budget volcano obliter ates everything in its path, they should be rescued.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.