Hearing the term “national park,” most Americans probably think of Yellowstone or Yosemite, expanses that preserve some of the most remarkable natural features in the country. People are less likely to think of history, but in fact, over 100 of our national parks preserve primarily historic sites.
Nearly a dozen of those parks are located in New York City, including sites connected with some of the most influential leaders and events in American history.
Take Federal Hall on Wall St., site of the first national capital under the Constitution, where the First Congress convened and the first president was inaugurated. Or Hamilton Grange, in Harlem, the only surviving home of Alexander Hamilton. Or the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, the reconstructed house on E. 20th St. where our 26th President lived until he was a teenager.
Not least among the glories of the National Park Service is Grant’s Tomb, final resting place of our 18th President, General Ulysses S. Grant, born 195 years ago Thursday.
The physical stature of the 150-foot neoclassical memorial standing on some of Manhattan’s highest bluffs overlooking the Hudson River reflects Grant’s place in the highest echelon of great Americans, alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Through World War I, the site — the largest mausoleum in the Western Hemisphere — received more visitors than the Statue of Liberty (which is also a national park).
Unlike Lady Liberty, however, the Tomb receded from memory during the 20th century. For years, before a renovation and new security measures during the 1990s, the monument was ravaged by vandalism and neglect. Those days are fortunately over, but the site still needs over $750,000 in deferred repairs.
The tomb’s weathered steps and surrounding stone plaza require repair, as do the non-functioning exterior lights. The deterioration in the area north of the monument, which sits on New York City property and includes a memorial at the site of Grant’s temporary tomb, has gone unaddressed for decades, and its adjoining stairway is so unusable it has been barricaded for years. The upper level of the tomb proper has brown patches evidencing discoloration from water damage and requires repair and monitoring to ensure no recurrence of such damage.
Then there is the problem of inadequate public access to this national gem. For budgetary reasons, the Park Service has reduced Grant’s Tomb’s operating schedule from seven days to five. The rangers at the site are dedicated, but spread so thin that the tomb itself is often closed for several hours even during its five open days, because rangers must also staff the overlook pavilion across the street.
Overall, the National Park System has an infrastructure repair backlog of over $12 billion, including unmaintained facilities, crumbling sidewalks, and visitor centers in desperate need of updating. These problems are even more pronounced among lesser known sites.
This is no way to treat America’s treasures or their visitors. Our national parks face these challenges in large part because Congress has not made them a funding priority. The entire National Park Service budget makes up just one-fourteenth of 1% of the federal budget, a number that continues to decline. In fact, the Park Service receives less than 60 cents out of every dollar it needs just to keep the repair backlog from growing, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
Against this backdrop, we now have a native New Yorker in the White House, and one who recently donated his salary for the first quarter of the year to the Park Service. President Trump has pledged to push for a $1 trillion program to make investments and repairs to our nation’s infrastructure. The perfect place to invest some of that money? Our national parks.
The backlog is large, but that would be a small price to pay when we consider these irreplaceable treasures, including the education and inspiration future generations of Americans should receive at the final resting place of Grant, the man whose leadership saved the Union.
Last year, the National Park Service celebrated its centennial. There is no better way for Congress to help our parks as the agency begins its second century than to ensure our parks have the funding and resources they need to continue protecting our nation’s favorite places. America, it’s time to fix our parks.
Scaturro is President of the Grant Monument Association. Via source.