First Annual National Park Service Historic Preservation Conference
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Merrill J. Mattes

"Planning" is not done in a vacuum, any more than "Management" is done in a vacuum. Civil Service does not recognize a professional category of "Planners" and for good reason. Planning is done by all kinds of professionals, including Historians (read also, Archeologists and Historical Architects). Historic preservation and intelligent planning are like the Federal Union, one and inseparable.

I have been involved in planning, directly or indirectly, all of my career as Superintendent, Regional Historian (Omaha), Team Captain with the Office of Resource Planning and Chief of History and Historic Architecture (S.F.) and especially in present capacity. I have been involved in some degree in the preparation of 50 or 60 Master Plans, and have been Team Captain on several major plans, including the following: JNEM (the first plan to be completed under Mission 66); Fort Laramie, Fort Union Trading Post and Fort Point at the Golden Gate; Mount McKinley, Katmai, Glacier Bay, Sitka, Skagway (Klondike Gold Rush) and Gates of the Arctic. The "pearls of wisdom" which follow result, therefore, from some knowledge of what "the planning process" involves.

There are at least ten (10) things wrong with most planning as it has been practiced by the NPS, and help to explain why this is a disaster area.

1. Many so-called planners are incompetent. They are often selected at random on the premise that anyone (as rangers, managers or whatever) with a few years "experience" anywhere in the NPS can plan. This is a fallacy, because planning takes creative imagination and lots of people don't have it.

2. Few planners know how to write. That may reflect a gap in their training or a weakness in their thinking ability. The fact is that "writing ability is thinking ability." A sentence is defined as "a complete thought." If you are incapable of complete thoughts, you can only put down fractional thoughts, which are worthless. In the old days we had to do our own thinking and our own writing. Now, since so many planners don't know how to write, we have to have a stable of clever young writer-editors who try to doctor up their half-baked thoughts.

3. Landscape Architects have attempted to sell the notion that only they know how to plan. They alone are on to some special mystique. This, of course, is a rank fallacy. Most L.A.'s are capable of good planning. But there have been some who couldn't plan their way out of a wet paper bag.

4. Planning in the past has suffered from what I call the Shangri-La complex. Instead of working out solutions to present problems, planners have preferred to enter a dream world and plan for 20- 30- 50 years from now, never mind the astronomical cost. While some case can be made for long-range planning, more stress should be made on near-term and intermediate goals, with a dynamic plan that is attainable in our lifetime.

5. The National Park Service has been guilty of planned obsolescence. The professional planners, like the Corps of Engineers and their public works, have a vested interest in keeping a large number of planners in business. So every three years or less we have a fresh crop of hot-eyed young planners eager to demonstrate their prowess. Step Number One with them is to declare the "old plan" obsolete and worthless.

6. Vast sums of money and whole forests of paper have been wasted on that twin evil of the Master Plan, the Environmental Impact Statement. It is sheer insanity to produce all this garbage when all you have in the first place is a visionary plan for the unforseeable future that has almost no chance of ever coming to fruition. The time to get serious with an EIS is when you have a plan that is realistic enough to have fair prospect of materializing within three years in a Congressional budget.

7. The popular command to planners is "be innovative." This injunction is destructive if it is not taken with a large grain of salt. Without a balance wheel of wisdom based on hard facts - mandatory legislative and policy guidelines, and knowledge of resources, for example - innovation leads to perversion. You wouldn't believe some of the zany proposals that have resulted from frantic efforts to come up with something radically different, "out of this world."

8. Planners have sinned not only by their failure to master legal and policy guidelines which govern the National Park Service generally, but also failure to bone up on the legislative intent of Congress and the policy parameters that relate to their particular subject area.

9. Planners have failed often to build on a solid base of resource data, particularly historical data in historical areas. If the data isn't available, the plan should wait.

10. Planners have frequently failed to include Historians in the planning process. All too often the result has been a massive report that had to be discarded because of its gross inadequacies. That fault is being remedied gradually but it is not yet cured. Historians can do far more than gather data and ensure legislative compliance. They can assist in the creative planning effort itself. In some cases the Historian himself could well be the Team Captain. It's a radical thought, but not more so than having a Landscape Architect, an ex-Ranger or a Biologist for a Team Captain on a historical area planning project!

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Last Updated: 14-Jul-2009