Dwight Pit­caith­ley,

Pasatiempo - - LIS­TEN UP -

the in­ter­pre­tive staff and his­to­ri­ans, both in­side and out­side the Park Ser­vice.

“Take Fort Union. You could be an in­ter­preter there — you could be trans­ferred there from the Grand Canyon or Ca­pulin Vol­cano — and you might have a back­ground in bi­ol­ogy or ge­og­ra­phy, and sud­denly you had to be able to in­ter­pret this won­der­ful site to the public. But it’s about the Santa Fe Trail and mil­i­tary re­la­tions be­tween the U.S. gov­ern­ment and Na­tive Amer­i­cans there, and you have to talk about so­cial his­tory and mil­i­tary his­tory and do that at the cut­ting edge of schol­ar­ship.

“What do you do at a place like Yel­low­stone, the clas­sic nat­u­ral park, and right in the mid­dle of it is Fort Yel­low­stone, a his­toric place that the Park Ser­vice man­ages? You have to man­age that place both with nat­u­ral sci­ence and with his­tory tal­ent.”

There wasn’t al­ways such a di­vide in the Park Ser­vice. Its first chief his­to­rian, Verne Chate­lain, was ap­pointed in the 1930s, and he and his close suc­ces­sors were very in­volved in man­age­ment, re­search, and in­ter­pre­ta­tion is­sues. “With the 1966 pas­sage of the Na­tional His­toric Preser­va­tion Act, the Park Ser­vice de­cided that his­to­ri­ans’ skills were bet­ter spent in cul­tural re­source man­age­ment, do­ing Na­tional Reg­is­ter nom­i­na­tions and that sort of thing,” Pit­caith­ley said. “That left a vac­uum in the in­ter­pre­tive arena, and over time, those skills that Verne Chate­lain and the other early park his­to­ri­ans had were lost.”

One of Pit­caith­ley’s ad­vances was build­ing a bridge at Harpers Ferry Cen­ter, West Vir­ginia, which pro­duces many of the NPS ex­hibits and films and which was plan­ning a book­let on the Un­der­ground Rail­road. “I had a woman work­ing for me who was well versed on the aca­demic side of that story, and when I ap­proached them, they were stunned that the his­tory of­fice would want to be in­volved in an in­ter­pre­tive project that

Harpers Ferry was do­ing.” In an­other in­stance, he brought aca­demic his­to­ri­ans into the Park Ser­vice to do a two-day work­shop on slav­ery and its im­por­tance in U.S. his­tory.

That is one of the topics he has writ­ten about. Oth­ers are his­toric preser­va­tion and the An­tiq­ui­ties Act. Right now, he has a man­u­script at Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky Press. “The peo­ple at the Ken­tucky His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and I thought a book was needed that drills down into the se­ces­sion of the South. This will be a reader, a doc­u­ment book with a 22,000-word in­tro­duc­tion by me.”

The 100th birth­day of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice ought to be a time “for re­flec­tion and for re­assess­ing what it all means,” Pit­caith­ley said. “The Park Ser­vice about a year ago posted a statis­tic that 80 per­cent of peo­ple who were polled could iden­tify the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, but only 37 per­cent knew what it does on a daily ba­sis.” In his Santa Fe talk, he will ex­plain to the Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers in the au­di­ence how the sys­tem grew from 35 parks in 1916 to 412 parks to­day. Be­sides the big, well-known na­tional parks like Yel­low­stone, Great Smoky Moun­tains, and Carls­bad, that 412 fig­ure in­cludes na­tional mon­u­ments such as Ban­de­lier and Gila Cliff Dwellings, na­tional his­tor­i­cal parks like Chaco Cul­ture and Pecos, na­tional his­toric trails such as Old Span­ish and El Camino Real de Tierra Aden­tro, na­tional bat­tle­field parks, and oth­ers. More than half of NPS sites are pri­mar­ily cul­tural in na­ture.

The for­mer chief his­to­rian laments the Park Ser­vice’s rather ar­ti­fi­cial sep­a­ra­tion of na­ture and his­tory, but he has been en­cour­aged by its more modern ap­proach in other ar­eas. “In the 1990s, Congress cre­ated a num­ber of parks that deal with civil rights — also two Ja­panese in­tern­ment-camp mon­u­ments — and it set aside In­dian mas­sacre sites ... the sort of dark side of U.S. his­tory. Congress stepped up to the plate, and to­day the Park Ser­vice is com­pletely dif­fer­ent than it was a hun­dred years ago. Stephen Mather [the first NPS di­rec­tor, 1917-1929] would be flab­ber­gasted to­day.

“But the other side is what gets short shrift in al­most any con­ver­sa­tion about the Na­tional Park Ser­vice — all the pro­grams that it man­ages. The Na­tional Reg­is­ter, the His­toric Amer­i­can Build­ings Sur­vey, [and] the Na­tional Her­itage Area pro­gram col­lec­tively en­rich us as a so­ci­ety and en­rich our com­mu­ni­ties, but un­for­tu­nately they are rarely men­tioned, even by the Park Ser­vice. That’s re­ally un­for­tu­nate that most cit­i­zens don’t ap­pre­ci­ate the good work that a lot of re­ally ded­i­cated peo­ple are do­ing out­side of park bound­aries.” One ex­am­ple is the Santa Fe Plaza, which has been pro­tected as a Na­tional His­toric Land­mark since 1960, the year the Park Ser­vice started its land­marks pro­gram. “There’s a plaque on the west side, on the side­walk, that peo­ple hardly ever no­tice.”

Foot­print carv­ings in the soft rock of Ban­de­lier Na­tional Mon­u­ment; cour­tesy Palace of the Gov­er­nors Photo Archives, Neg. HP.2007.20.463

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