Preservation Priorities

A reverence for the past runs deep in the United States. The homes, workplaces, and gathering halls of great figures in the country's history dot the American landscape.

Some of these sites are famous; others little known. Many are under the care of the National Park Service, an arm of the federal government that is having increasing difficulty finding the money to sustain its role as protector of both the nation's natural wonders and its historical treasures.

The Park Service may be overextended, with more to take care of than it can reasonably manage. But who would want the delicate job of saying what should be trimmed? The best approach, the one that best honors the country's love for history, is to rally enough resources to reasonably maintain all 20,000 or so historic structures now in the service's domain.

That will require an extraordinary amalgam of political will, public support, and private money. It will be difficult, but not impossible.

One thing that's needed is more creativity in how sites are maintained, rehabilitated, and used. The Presidio project in San Francisco could prove a model. That historic military base, while officially part of the National Park system, will be financed by a public-private trust. Legislation to set up the trust and provide initial funding recently won approval in the US Senate and should be able to clear the House as well.

Some of the Presidio's 550 buildings will be restored and leased for commercial use, in hopes of creating a revenue stream that will underwrite further restoration. The yearly tab for operating the site is estimated at $25 million. The whole preservation budget for the Park Service's Western regional office is $1.5 million. Clearly, means other than straight government funding were indispensable. Restoration is already moving ahead at the Presidio, undertaken by private developers who are making use of the federal historic-preservation tax credit.

Some in the field, such as Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, think similar arrangements could be applied elsewhere - to the many still-unrestored buildings on New York's Ellis Island, for example.

New ideas for attracting private capital and generating revenue ought to be teamed with strict limits on adding new properties to the Park Service's load. In fact, an informal moratorium on additions is in effect now. But the temptation to win national recognition for some prized bit of history back home will always lure lawmakers. Budget realities demand that such candidates for national recognition come forward with clear plans to pay for maintenance, including, when possible, private involvement.

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