The National Park Service (NPS) is responsible for maintaining approximately 9,600 historic buildings throughout the national park system. The types of historic buildings vary widely, and include stately historic mansions, military sites, industrial facilities, wilderness cabins, and shacks on the beach. Each site contributes to visitors’ ability to enjoy and experience the unique sense of place found in every park.
There are a range of management options available to NPS to manage these buildings, including leases, concession agreements, and use of buildings for the agency’s own administrative and housing needs. However, even though NPS has the legal authority to enter into leases with non-federal partners to help fund the maintenance and use of historic buildings, regulatory and policy barriers are impeding full use of this preservation tool. In response to these challenges, the National Trust released a new report titled Historic Leasing in the National Park System: Preserving History Through Effective Partnerships, which looks at the existing leasing program and offers recommendations to address some of the systemic barriers preventing greater use of leasing throughout national parks.
Of the 9,600 historic buildings in the park system, approximately 1,350 are currently being operated and maintained by private concessioners under concessions agreements. When visitors buy or rent equipment, purchase supplies or snacks, and sometimes even stay at hotels or lodges in a park, often the businesses providing these amenities are operated under a concessions agreement. Concessions agreements generally require private operators to maintain the structure where they operate. This allows NPS to shift some of the maintenance costs for its historic buildings to these private business operators and to ensure that park visitors receive the services they need.
Maintenance Backlog Remains a Challenge
Despite the success of the concessions program, not every building is needed to provide visitor services, and the 8,000 historic buildings in the park system that are not maintained through concessions agreements remain the Park Service’s responsibility. Over time, these buildings have contributed to a huge maintenance backlog.
For decades, federal appropriation levels have been insufficient to allow NPS to keep up with its maintenance responsibilities. Recent estimates provided by the Park Service value the total deferred maintenance backlog at approximately $11.5 billion. Of that deferred maintenance amount, approximately $4.5 billion is attributable to the unmet needs of cultural resources, including historic buildings. This includes 2,811 historic buildings that are categorized as being in poor condition. To address this funding and maintenance crisis before these historic buildings are lost forever, creative funding approaches, including those that seek assistance from non-federal partners, are needed. The National Trust believes that increased use of historic leasing in appropriate situations could help address this problem.
Leasing as a Solution
The National Trust’s report looks at specific examples where leasing is being used in parks around the country to identify what is working, and where improvements to the leasing program are needed. For example, the successful preservation and reuse of several of the historic bathhouses in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, which were recently profiled in Preservation Magazine and on the PreservationNation Blog, was made possible through the use of historic leasing combined with federal historic tax credits. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site is another leasing success story. There, the NPS owns houses and commercial buildings in the historic district surrounding Martin Luther King’s Birth Home. The Park Service has been able to lease these buildings and use the revenue to maintain the federally owned buildings at the site. These and other examples clearly illustrate the potential for leasing to make a real dent in the maintenance backlog.
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
Yet some parks have been unable to use historic leasing to meet their needs. In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area there is a large supply of historic buildings, many of which have sat empty for decades, which could be made available for lease. This park was created when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to flood the Delaware River valley for a dam project was scuttled. The Corps had already purchased significant portions of land that included entire villages. Once the dam project was cancelled, management responsibility for the hundreds of houses, barns, and stores on the land was transferred to NPS. Today, there are 730 buildings located within the park, with 150 of them occupied and maintained by NPS or its partners, another 100 classified as historic but currently standing vacant, and the balance identified for disposal as too dangerous and deteriorated for recovery. Making these historic buildings available for lease as vacation rentals or residences provides one promising preservation option.
Recommendations for Regulatory and Policy Reform
Based on challenges identified in the case studies and a comprehensive review of the federal laws and policies that regulate historic leasing, the National Trust’s report identifies several specific areas for regulatory and policy reform to improve the program. To begin, the National Trust believes that the NPS must conduct a thorough review of the existing laws, regulations, policies, and practices that govern the historic leasing program. The current regulatory structure can be confusing and sometimes contradictory. Clear standards are needed to determine when a concessions agreement is required by law or when the Park Service has discretion to decide that a lease is more beneficial.
The current appraisal process for historic buildings also needs to be reviewed. Simple reforms like moving from requiring individual appraisals for each building, to allowing the use of market studies to determine the value for a group of buildings, could lead to positive results in places like the Delaware Water Gap where the cost of conducting individual condition assessments and appraisals can seem prohibitive.
The existing policy preference for limiting all leases to the shortest term possible also requires a closer look. This policy has sometimes discouraged interest in leasing buildings that need significant capital investments for repairs, because the term of the lease is not long enough to recoup the investment. Related to this, the report suggests that the Park Service explore ways, including offering longer lease terms, to encourage increased use of the federal historic tax credit to fund preservation projects in the park system.
Another major barrier is a lack of adequate funding. Additional financial resources are needed for staff training and administration of a larger leasing program. Over time, increased funding for leasing administration has the potential to pay for itself, but current levels of funding are insufficient to elevate the program to a self-sustaining level.
And finally, the NPS needs to adopt a policy approach that encourages staff to focus on the preservation and use of historic resources on an equivalent footing with other park needs. Unless historic leasing and other preservation tools are highlighted as a management priority, regulatory changes alone will not necessarily lead to increased use of leasing to support preservation.
Protecting Sites for Future Generations
Urgent action is needed to meet the growing challenge of the maintenance backlog for historic buildings. Reviewing the historic leasing program to simplify procedures, clarify existing rules, and remove policy and legal obstacles is a step that can be taken to help the NPS meet its stewardship responsibilities. Federal laws, including the Organic Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, require that historic buildings in the park system be maintained and used for the enjoyment of the American people. To satisfy this important charge and to ensure that historic buildings in our national parks will be preserved for future generations to use and enjoy, change is needed now.