By Marta Roberts Like most visitors to Gettysburg, I wanted to be a witness to history. The anniversary of the battle, which took place between July 1 and July 3, 1863, was coming up. A Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Killer Angels, the enormously popular Ken Burns documentary series, and Gettysburg, the 1994 TV movie, have preserved the reputation of this patch of Pennsylvania countryside in the public mind -- a symbol of a time when the hand of war left its bloody mark on the national landscape. Indeed, most historians view the battle as the turning point of the Civil War.
As I toured the battlefield, however, I was struck by how scraggly the park looks in places. It's a problem that faces most of our National Parks. Over the last decade, the number of visitors has increased by nearly 74 million, to 430 million last year -- most arriving between May and August. But despite their popularity, money to maintain the parks remains tight. Elaine Sevy, a spokesperson for the National Parks Service, estimates the current national maintenance backlog for all parks to be around $4.9 billion. That's a huge sum, given that the current budget requests for the National Parks Service totals just $2.5 billion for fiscal 2002.
If Gettysburg is any indication, even the slowing economy won't offer the parks much respite. This year, visitor totals at this and other popular parks appear to be matching last year's figures. One reason is that most of the parks are free to the public -- a good deal for those on tight budgets. In the case of Gettysburg, more than 1.5 million visitors traverse the battlefield's 31 miles of roads each year, making it the most used (and sometimes abused) of all the Civil War battlefields.
WEAR AND TEAR. The park's administrators have been fighting what they see as a losing battle to keep up with the wear and tear. "We're mainly working to ensure that visitors don't love the park to death," explains Gettysburg spokeswoman Katie Lawhon. Gettysburg was allocated an operational budget of little more than $5 million for the 2001 federal fiscal year. Almost $2 million of that amount is being spent directly on visitor services, with another $1.3 million allocated for the operation and maintenance of facilities, including damage caused by general use.
This is pretty typical of what's happening throughout the parks system. Tight budgets see money that might have been used to preserve history being siphoned off for visitor concerns. Tourism and visitor services win out over non-essential preservation issues such as, in Gettysburg's case, updating fire-prevention systems.
For the last three years, the National Parks Service and an independent conservation organization, the National Parks Conservation Assn., have been studying the reasons behind the maintenance backlog. They have laid the blame on an annual budgetary shortfall of about $600 million. They also have concluded that the National Parks Service has failed to use its funds with strategic finesse, preferring to spend the bulk of its budgets on short-term visitor needs, rather than long-term park protection.
OFF TRACK. At Gettysburg, Facilities Manager Dave Dreier says that one of the maintenance staff's greatest concerns is dealing with visitors who don't obey park directions, such as sticking to designated trails. "It takes only a few people to start a path," Dreier says. For instance, on Little Round Top, where Union forces held off the successive Confederate attacks, visitors
have worn down the vegetation and caused erosion. Park officials have tried to replant, only to see new vegetation flattened once again by tourists. The park has even hired landscape architects to address the issue. But, Dreier says, no permanent solution has been found.
To its credit, the new Bush Administration has initiated a five-year plan to eliminate most of the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog. And the Park Service's $2.5 billion budget for fiscal 2002 would amount to a $344 million increase in spending over the previous year, if approved by Congress.
Critics say the plan does little to promote conservation and is focused too heavily on the relatively superficial, things like road repair. But, according to John Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., the superficial is exactly what's needed. "We have a $2.1 million budget," Howard said. "I could probably double that and still not have enough." He added, "A roof might be recommended to be replaced every 10 years, but you fix it when you see a leak."
HERE'S THE RUB. Gettysburg estimates that it is has a maintenance backlog of more than $6 million. The park's priorities for increased funding are preservation, education, park security, and general maintenance. All told, Gettysburg estimates that it will need an additional $1.5 million to keep the facilities in optimal condition. Gettysburg officials remain cautiously optimistic that the Bush plan will help to alleviate the battlefield's maintenance problems.
These days, superstitious travelers still rub the nose of Col. Patrick O'Rorke's statue, hoping to have better luck than he did -- O'Rorke died in first seconds of the battle for Little Round Top. The rubbing has been so persistent that, when park officials tried to repatina O'Rorke's burnished beak, it was buffed to a brilliant sheen in two days. It's history left in careless hands. Perhaps Rawlins' advice is best: "Tourists will come because that's what they want to do." It would be even better if they could get a stronger sense of history from their visit. Roberts is an intern with the Washington bureau of BusinessWeek