This presentation is part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
Panelists: Susan Ives, Deborah Jojola, Dr. Richard Melzer, and Jerry L. Rogers
The nation’s public lands were vastly expanded and improved during the Great Depression thanks to the New Deal – largely through the labor of those hired by the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. In addition to providing jobs in rural communities, the government’s goal was to stimulate local economies through tourism by making the parks more visitor-friendly. The National Park System bears the imprint of these policies in the form of visitor centers, lodges, campgrounds, cabins, shelter houses, trails, picnic areas, roads, bridges, lookouts, and comfort stations. While many such visitor amenities are still in use, and some—like the great lodges—are celebrated, very few national parks interpret the New Deal’s contributions to “America’s Best Idea.”
More than any other public lands agency, the National Park Service, charged with preserving the nation’s natural, historic and cultural resources unimpaired for future generations, is positioned to inform Americans about their New Deal heritage and the spirit of government that inspired it.
Over the past 20 years the Park Service has made strides explicating the roles of the CCC and WPA in shaping the parks. Bandelier National Park, for example, offers visitors a booklet guiding them through the park’s historic district, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The Prairie Creek Visitor Center at Redwoods National Park provides signage about the history of the CCC in the park. Some displays at the Mesa Verde Museum note their provenance as the CCC. Still, opportunities to preserve, showcase, and interpret the physical legacy of the New Deal era in the parks—and to honor those that built it—are often overlooked.
Few visitors to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky would know, for example, that in order to share the risk of their exhaustive and dangerous work underground, CCC crews took turns building the caverns’ trail system. Or that in Death Valley, California, CCC work sites and camps remain, but are off limits to visitors.
Many of New Mexico’s parks and monuments were built or enhanced by local laborers and craftsmen working for the WPA and CCC. One signature example, the Old Santa Fe Trail Building, served as the Southwest Regional Headquarters of the National Park Service from 1939 until 1995. Constructed by local Native American- and Hispanic CCC workers, the building is a singular cultural landscape. Due to budget cuts, it now serves as Park Service administrative offices and has very limited public use.
Promisingly, the National Park Service may soon move to remedy this shortcoming in interpreting its own history. The Director has proposed a system-wide Comparative Theme Study that would document, assess, and prioritize WPA and CCC sites for investment and interpretation. Doing so could ensure the preservation and highest and best use of a unique and under-recognized body of America’s diverse cultural landscape.
Susan Ives works with nonprofits, public agencies, philanthropies for social change. She is part of a team of historians and scholars at the Living New Deal at the University of California, Berkeley that is building an online archive of public works across America built by the New Deal and educating people about the legacy of the New Deal and what a new New Deal could mean for our country today. Susan previously served as vice president at Trust for Public Land. She holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Michigan and a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard University.
Deborah Jojola is Curator of Exhibitions at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, NM. She works as both an artist and curator for national and international museums and gallery shows. She explores the unique position held by Pueblo women artists as essential keepers of tradition and cultural identity, while also being at the forefront in sharing this living culture with the world outside the Pueblo. She received an Associate of Fine Arts Degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico. She serves on the Advisory Boards of Menaul Historical Library of the Southwest and 516 Arts.
Dr. Richard Melzer is Regents professor of history at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia Campus, where he has taught since 1979. He has written more than a hundred articles about New Mexico history and authored, co-authored or edited 21 books, including “Coming of Age in the Great Depression: The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in New Mexico, 1933-1942.” He is a past president of both the Historical Society of New Mexico and the Valencia County Historical Society. Among the many awards he has received for writing, teaching, and service to his profession, he is most proud of receiving the University of New Mexico’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award.
Jerry L. Rogers has more than half a century of historic preservation experience. After joining the National Park Service in 1964 he held several key positions including Associate Director for Cultural Resources, Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, and served in the Old Santa Fe Trail Building as the last regional director of the Southwest Region. He also was a member of the National Parks Second Century Commission and closed his Park Service career as Chair of Discovery 2000: the National Park Service General Conference. Since retiring he has served as a Board member and President of the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance.