Alan W. Barton


National parks have been characterized as a democratic institution, a window on natural and cultural history open to all. Over its first century, however, the National Park Service’s (NPS) approach to participatory democracy has evolved. In its early years, NPS professionals applied their expertise to make decisions about park policy, administration and management with little input from the public aside from the interests of businesses that operated within the parks. Public participation in the parks was limited to using the facilities that the NPS provided for public enjoyment. Beginning in the 1930s, the NPS expanded public participation by adding management categories that included a greater range of uses, appealing to a wider public. Later, reflecting changing approaches in law, policy and political theory on how to operationalize participation effectively, the NPS increased opportunities for the public to participate in administrative and management decisions. Consulting with the public increased responsiveness to a broad range of public desires and helped the NPS develop effective management plans. In the 1980s, the NPS extended public participation even further by collaborating as partners with local communities and organizations in national heritage areas (NHAs). As a partner in NHAs, the role of the NPS moved beyond land manager as the agency took on new responsibilities in community development. Although Congress designates NHAs, they are administered by local entities with the goal of organizing heritage-based education and tourism. NHA management entities partner with the NPS to draw on its expertise in heritage tourism, interpretation and landscape management. NHAs represent a twenty-first century approach to public administration, emphasizing collaboration, partnerships, and sharing costs and responsibilities through federal-local cooperation. They expand the National Park Service’s role as guardian not only of American heritage, but also of American democracy.



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