The United States Senate voted 56-41 this week to confirm former fossil fuel lobbyist David Bernhardt as the new Secretary of the Interior. Bernhardt previously served as the deputy to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in late 2018 amid a firestorm of ethics scandals.With the confirmation vote, Bernhardt assumes stewardship of over 500 million acres of federally-owned lands across the country. The New York Times reported that due to his central role in crafting policy initiatives while working as Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt’s influence is already being felt across the country. Changes at the Department of Interior during the first two years of the Trump administration include shrinking several national monuments that had been expanded under President Barack Obama, including the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, as well as allowing for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s largest pristine landscape. While working under the former Interior Secretary, Bernhardt also pushed for increased oil exploration activities off the nation’s coasts. A plan for how and where to develop additional fossil fuel resources off the nation’s coasts is due next year. Bernhardt takes over at a pivotal time for the Department of Interior, which runs the Bureau of Land Management as well as the National Parks Service (NPS). According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the NPS is suffering from over $11 billion in deferred maintenance costs, a nasty backlog that was fully on display during the 2019 government shutdown, when raw sewage and trash piled up across many national parks. According to the group, 18 percent of the maintenance backlog amount relates to the NPS’s building stock, which is in serious disrepair. NPS roads and water treatment facilities are also awaiting much-needed upgrades. Bernhardt himself has been plagued by ethics investigations and questions regarding his ties to former lobbying clients, but the concerns were not enough to halt his confirmation. Prior to his role in the Trump administration, Bernhardt served as Solicitor of the Department of Interior for President George W. Bush.
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“Our project is at the end of a seventy-year project,” said Gullivar Shepard, principal at Brooklyn-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), of his firm’s St. Louis CityArchRiver design. Back in 2010, MVVA’s team won a competition to rework the landscape around the St. Louis Gateway Arch—technically the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial—to make it more universally accessible, easier to maintain, and more integrated into its urban context. Expanding and popularizing the site’s little-known museum was also a key goal. While the client was technically a foundation, the firm would have to work closely with the site’s owner and preservation-minded steward, the National Park Service (NPS). The challenge was complex: The landscape was hardly a clear-cut expression of Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley’s designs.
Kiley was on Saarinen’s original design team, whose 1947 proposal won the memorial competition. But the project languished until 1957, when funding became available. Saarinen and Kiley were internationally renowned by then, “so they went back to the drawing board, literally, and came up with a new design for the memorial,” said NPS Historian Robert Moore. “Basically, it evolved from a rectilinear-looking plan to a very curvilinear plan that echoed the curves of the arch itself.” Moore described how the curving paths and ponds were Saarinen’s ideas, while the allées and cypress circles came from Kiley.
The NPS subsequently stepped in and became involved in the design, thinning out Kiley’s dense vegetation. After the completion of a 1964 “final landscape plan” with Kiley (Saarinen had passed away in 1961), the NPS continued without him. Money to build the landscape only became available in earnest in the early 1970s, with much of the landscape elements in place by 1974, though final plantings were made in 1983. During this time, the NPS made small changes to Kiley’s ponds and the special stairs Saarinen had designed. “Again, [there were] many hands in the design,” said Moore.
The resulting shortcomings are numerous. Eighty percent of visitors, said Shepard, don’t even know there’s a museum underneath the arch. Many drive in from the highway, park on the on-site parking lot, take the tram to the top, and leave. The park is also cut-off from the city by highways, which didn’t exist in 1947.
In addition, the decision-making process was complicated by the fact that “this is not an actual historic landscape or actual historic building or fabric,” said Shepard. “It’s a monument to a historic concept, a moment of time.”
MVVA broke down the proposed interventions into 14 key decision points, each a constituent part of a larger landscape resuscitation.
Ultimately, key interventions included building new, fully accessible paths—embedded in the landscape—that snake down from the arch plateau to the river, replacing the allées’ infestation-prone ash trees with London plane trees, and bulldozing the parking lot to create a new seven-acre park that connects to Washington Avenue, a major urban corridor of St. Louis. The biggest (and perhaps most controversial) intervention was a new circular museum entrance embedded in a berm that leads up to the arch plateau. A new vegetated bridge, which leads directly to the new museum entrance, will replace caged highway overpasses.
While the stakes are high for the memorial, this project could have broader implications for other NPS sites. “This was the project that everyone in the Park Service has been very carefully watching,” stated Shepard. If the NPS, an organization “not built for change,” can successfully update a complex site like this, then perhaps similar projects could be possible in other cities.
In one of the most remote stretches of the United States–Mexico border, a different kind of border crossing has emerged: A remotely managed mash-up of new document-processing technology, rowboats, and donkeys.
The Boquillas Port of Entry (POE) does not have the large processing volume of a typical port on the Southwest U.S. border with Mexico. In high season, the crossing will process a couple of hundred visitors a day; no vehicles are allowed. Most days only a few tourists pass through.
For years, the U.S. government shuttered the remote crossing, citing security concerns after 9/11. Only after National Park Service rangers and teams of scientists expressed a need to reconnect across the binational divide did the port reopen in 2013; a new processing facility was also constructed to manage the minimal security concerns.
It is hard to imagine a less likely area for illegal entry. The crossing is hours from the nearest large city, in Big Bend National Park (BBNP), land controlled and managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The surrounding landscape is majestic, but foreboding for those on foot, with steep canyons, ravines, thick vegetation, and the Rio Grande providing a host of formidable natural barriers. Park visitors are warned of the dangers of heat stroke, exposure, and dehydration, even in mild months.
The binational imaginary here is pervasive and persistent. BBNP is part of the most expansive and biodiverse desert region in the U.S., and shares a transnational ecosystem with natural preserves on the Mexican side. Here, the two nations seem knit together by the river valley, and diverse advocates on both sides voice strong opposition to the proposed expansion of the International Border Fence through the region.
In the early 20th century, landscape architect Albert William Dorgan imagined transforming this land into an International Peace Park, a hyperbolic simulacrum of the real and imagined opportunities latent in border space, complete with replica frontier towns and hydroelectric power. Even in this idyllic proposal, national security concerns crept in—a scenic motorway for tourists was proposed, with a double use to support expedited military deployments.
While cultural affinities remain, the binational dream of a joint international park has faded in the midst of stark juridical differences and philosophies of land management on the two sides of the river. In the U.S., the NPS manages and enforces the conservation and protection efforts. While the Mexican land enjoys protected status, it is mostly privately owned, and is allowed to maintain traditional land uses. Communal land (ejidos) transforms the territory through farming and agricultural water use.
The remoteness of the area, coupled with strong ecological and cultural affinities, has produced unlikely cross-border partnerships, enacting an exuberant transnational territory despite calcifying juridical barriers. Longstanding agreements, in place since the 1960s and more recently amended, have allowed both U.S. and Mexican firefighting services to cross the international boundary within a “zone of mutual assistance”—a ten-mile swath on either side of the border—when property or lives are threatened. Select Mexican nationals form a crew of experienced firefighters—Los Diablos—with permission to work within U.S. territory. Supported by the Park Service and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), they set controlled burns to rid the banks of the Rio Grande of invasive plant species. BBNP has a “sister park” partnership with two adjacent protected areas in Mexico, and park officials travel through the Boquillas POE to share conservation techniques. The reopening of the port has helped park officials to connect more often and more directly, avoiding long detours through “narco territory,” perilous regions with high cartel activity.
The border crossing station is itself supported by an unlikely partnership. The port of entry falls under the purview of the Big Bend Sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which happens to have the most “border miles” of any sector on the southwest border with Mexico. Unlike other POEs, it is the first to not be managed on site by U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agents, but by an NPS ranger. CBP remotely manages the site through nearby mobile patrols of border patrol agents stationed in the park, capable of collapsing on the site in short time if needed. Sensing technology and nearby checkpoints further limit unauthorized movements.
When we visit early on an August day in 2017, we wait for the port to open. It is only open certain days at certain hours. A park ranger warns us that if we do not make it back by the time he closes the port, we will need to stay in Mexico for the night.
Down a short, winding path from the POE, surveillance cameras and a wake of turkey vultures monitor a boat launch, while a small rowboat grandiloquently named the Boquillas International Ferry shuttles a few travelers at a time across the Rio Grande for a $5 round-trip fee. The river crossing is easy, relaxed—the 30-foot journey over in under a minute. Once in Mexico, visitors can travel by burro, taxi, or on foot to the former mining town of Boquillas del Carmen, about a mile away.
The town is welcoming, but sleepy in the early morning and August heat. Visitors are rare this time of year. Children ride burros to the crossing in hopes of a busier afternoon. When it's time to return, we need to work to get our passport stamped, waking the Mexican customs official and asking that he open the office to complete the processing.
According to a press release in 2014, issued on the first anniversary of the new international crossing, the “state-of-the-art” border crossing employed “cutting-edge technologies” to secure this new outpost, building on the “already robust border security in the area.” As we reenter the POE, this technological infusion is evident, if awkwardly executed. Two kiosks with document scanners are wired into an old-school telephone receiver. Fingerprint scanners, like those now common at airport customs processing facilities, provide secondary ID confirmation. The telephone rings, and a Border Patrol agent located five hours away in El Paso asks a few questions and welcomes us to the United States. If there is robust security here, it is in the untold sensors, cameras, and field agents invisible from this unassuming ranger station.
As congressional committees call for “advanced unattended surveillance sensors” and other managerial landscape technologies to more intensely control the most remote stretches of the Southwest border, the un-monitored border will become an even more distant memory. Clandestine human movement will be discovered less through formal checkpoints and more through distributed networks of mobile, responsive patrols, hyper-managed by a constellation of federal, local, and private actors and technologies.
At Boquillas and a dwindling number of other crossings maintaining an informal atmosphere, generational customs survive by striking opportunistic alliances with emerging security officials and technologies.
The Boquillas crossing can be seen as an experiment in “unmanning” the border, a retreat from generations of border security dependent on human, face-to-face contact in dedicated brick-and-mortar facilities as an essential fail-safe to controlling cross-border migration. As sensing capability improves, buoyed by biometrics, unmanned vehicles, and surveillance technology, we can imagine these encounters of authentication and enforcement taking place even further afield, rendering physical installations and human actors unnecessary.
Although debating the ideal size, role, and scope of the federal government is one of America’s great national pastimes, there has typically been surprisingly broad and consistent support for the Antiquities Act of 1906, a landmark conservation law passed by Congress and enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt 111 years ago.
The law, generally speaking, grants the United States government—particularly, the President—broad authority in designating federally owned lands as national monuments. The effort is made as part of a federally recognized network of protections, which includes the National Park Service, in order to retain and perpetuate public use of wild, scenic, and culturally significant landscapes. The Antiquities Act is responsible for securing some of the most sublime and irreplaceable landscapes the country has to offer, such as the Grand Canyon, Giant Sequoia National Monument, Devils Tower, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, for current and future generations. The act, more or less, protects America’s—and Americans’—most literal and shared heritage: land.
But like so many other cultural and political norms and traditions under the new presidential administration, the Antiquities Act is facing an existential threat.
This April, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior not only to review 27 specific national monuments created under the last three presidential administrations but also to review the law itself, calling the Antiquities Act a “massive federal land grab.” President Ronald Reagan has been the only president not to name any new national monuments; President Trump is threatening to be the first to rescind existing monuments.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent the summer observing the new monuments—including Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, which was expanded under President Obama and has drawn ire from local landowners and politicians. Zinke completed his review in late August but is keeping the findings close to his chest, revealing that “some changes” were in store, without making the report fully public (at press time). It is expected, however, that Bears Ears Monument will shrink in size—current estimates predict it will be reduced from 1.35 million acres to just 160,000—but that, according to Zinke, the government would “maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations.” The move is fiercely opposed by Native American communities, including the Navajo Nation and Hopi and Zuni reservations, which surround the monument.
For now, we wait to see the full extent of Zinke’s report. And while we do not know where the administration’s review of the Antiquities Act itself will head, the effort—when combined with unsuccessful motions to backtrack on Obama-era methane-emissions regulations, successful measures allowing for increased mining runoff into streams, and incentivizing programs for coal projects on federal lands—it is clear the president intends to tarnish the nation’s lands in concert with violating its institutions and norms.
In the same way that architects have led the way in saving architectural relics via support for historic preservation and the National Register of Historic Places—also administered by the Department of the Interior—we must become more vocal in our support for retaining and, in fact, expanding public access to public lands. The National Park System is currently languishing with a $12 billion backlog of repairs. Efforts like the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hands-On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew, which connects young people to preservation-related trades through on-the-ground work, is a positive first step, but more work and support are needed.
As with historic preservation, national monuments exist to perpetuate and preserve our most meaningful and compelling spaces and can, moving forward, even work to highlight forgotten or marginalized histories and cultures. Natural landscapes, like cultural landscapes and historic structures and neighborhoods, are vital to the architectural profession and the country alike.
The federal government should keep its hands off these lands, and architects would do well to fight publicly for their protection.
Washington's Old Post Office Clock Tower (neighbors with Trump International Hotel) once again open for tours
Automobiles and baseball: Not much else is more American. And Detroit has been defined by both for the last 100 years. Notably, Detroit was one of the most important cities in the negro baseball leagues of the first half of the 20th century. Hamtramck, a town surrounded by the city of Detroit, is home to one of the last remaining Negro League stadiums, along with Birmingham, Alabama, Paterson, New Jersey, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Now, after years of neglect, the Hamtramck Stadium may see America’s favorite pastime once again.
It all started six years ago when a group of baseball-loving Detroiters decided to save, at the very least, the memory of Navin Field. Located in the Corktown neighborhood, Navin Field was home of the Detroit Tigers from 1912 through 1999. Despite being a Michigan Historic Site and on the National Register of Historic Places, the field was razed in 2009. The land was quickly overgrown and, as a result, the Navin Field Grounds Crew was founded. After repeatedly being chased off by the police, the NFGC eventually convinced the city to maintain the diamond on the site of the old stadium.
The NFGC is made up of volunteers and is funded completely out of the pockets of those volunteers. Even so, the crew has been out at the Navin Field diamond most Sundays for the last six years. Now they are taking on a new challenge, revitalizing the Hamtramck Stadium. As with Navin Field, the crew plans to roll out their personal lawn mowers and rakes, and get to work this spring.
The difference this time is that the NFGC won’t be alone its efforts. In January, the National Parks Service announced a $50,000 African American Civil Rights Grant for the redevelopment the stadium. Even before that, a new group, Friends of the Hamtramck Stadium, was making plans to raise funds this coming summer to repair the stadium’s grandstand.
Built in 1930, the Hamtramck Stadium was home to the Detroit Stars and Detroit Wolves throughout the 1930s. The site of the 1930 Negro National League Championship Series, the stadium saw its share of famous baseball players, including Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. The stadium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Currently, the stadium is in the configuration that was established in the 1970s. The main remaining structure, a large grandstand, has not been used since the 1990s.
Like Navin Field, the hope is to bring baseball back to the neighborhood. As originally built, the Hamtramck Stadium could hold upward of 8,000 spectators. Much of the grandstand is original, but over the years it has been reduced from its original size and is now able to hold about 1,500 spectators.
The stadium wouldn’t be the first in Hamtramck to be revitalized. Last year the Detroit City FC soccer team redeveloped the Keyworth Stadium, bringing another classic civic space back to life. In a time when nearly $2 billion is being spent in Detroit’s downtown to build the Little Caesars Arena and entertainment district, Detroiters are demonstrating what they really value with their lawn mowers and weekends.