Saturday, September 18, 2010

Time To Rally for Change

How telling is it that the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Parks and Forestry should cancel the successful State History Fair at Washington Crossing State Park and then turn around and partner with Division of Fish and Wildlife to sponsor the first-ever WILD Outdoor Expo on September 25 and 26, 2010, to "showcase the wonderful natural resources and superb recreational outdoors opportunities" available to the public on state lands! Please note the DEP's core mission statement exclusively embraces "environmental stewardship" and places priority upon building "a sustainable structure that enhances the environment and natural resources of the state." It rightly states, "The parks and wildlife areas of the state are treasured assets and need a long‐term plan to ensure their viability, maintenance and continued access to all residents of New Jersey." These are all laudable goals, but, once again, there is no mention whatsoever of historic resources, most notably, the state owned and operated Historic Sites, which have been entrusted to the Division of Parks & Forestry since 1966. If continued, the most significant reminders of New Jersey's past will perish.

Since the mission statement clearly purposes to "direct DEP's resources to DEP's priorities," we must conclude that historic resources, too long undervalued and unprotected, will be left to further deteriorate without qualified management or minimal resources to sustain them under a bureaucracy that clearly does not value their survival or public presentation. While we must applaud the new emphasis upon customer service, the goals of the DEP's transformation only focus on "Stronger protections for the environment and natural resources of the state" and pointedly excludes stronger protections for state-owned and operated Historic Sites, including our Revolutionary War battlefields.

It is long past time to remove this ignored public trust from the Department's stewardship. If the Department truly seeks "managers who are leaders and change agents for the Department," then it should find qualified persons who will end demolition by neglect or other acts of cultural vandalism. Fulfilling an important recommendation of Governor Christie's Transition Team, Assembly bill A3121 establishes a Commission on State-owned Historic Sites in the Department of State, transfers administration of State-owned Historic Sites from the Department of Environmental Protection to the commission, and transfers historic preservation programs from the Department of Environmental Protection to the Department of State. Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle are Primary Sponsors and Assemblyman Robert Schroeder is Co-Sponsor. Senator Loretta Weinberg has introduced the companion bill (S2217) in the Senate. This will fulfill a recommendation dating back to Tom Dunkel's landmark article in NJ Magazine, "A State of Ruins," published in 1986!

I encourage everyone in the historical community to support this long overdue reform that will help bring the recognition and proper care our State-owned and operated Historic Sites have long deserved. Establishing professionally qualified administration for our Historic Sites through a commission composed of volunteer experts in relevant disciplines and elevating the long ignored Office of Historic Sites will be the biggest boost imaginable to heritage tourism in New Jersey. Ignore the voices of self-preservation and support the true forces of historic preservation.

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