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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

National Park Service studies pile up as Congress orders a review of potential sites

Luke Runyon
KUNC and Harvest Public Media
The home of O.T. Jackson, the founder of Dearfield, Colorado. Dearfield was the state's largest Black homesteading settlement, located in rural Weld County, east of Greeley. Congress has ordered the National Park Service to study the Dearfield Homestead to determine its suitability as a National Park Service site.

The National Park Service is behind on studying 28 potential sites to add to its system, and two of them are in the Mountain West.

The agency revealed the extent of its backlog in completing the studies of potential new NPS units ordered by Congress during a Senate hearing last fall. Under consideration are everything from trails to heritage areas to wild and scenic rivers.

The studies – which cost an average of $350,000 and are supposed to be completed withinthree fiscal years– assess a site's national significance and the feasibility of adding it to the National Park System. Some sites have already been determined as NPS sites and require a study to help plan it out while others undergo studies to determine whether they even qualify for NPS status.

“The list is sort of a backlog by nature,” said Kristen Brengel, the senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “These studies simply can't be done overnight. You can't just go out to a site and look at it and determine whether it's nationally significant or feasible. These studies require time to do research.”

According to reporting from E&E News, in December alone Congress ordered the NPS to study 11 potential new sites. Those orders came shortly after the NPS completed two studies, including one in October on Camp Amache in Colorado. That study came nearly seven months after President Joe Biden signed a bill adding the former Japanese internment camp to the NPS.

In Colorado, the Dearfield Homestead – a monument to the state's largest Black homesteading settlement – was among the sites approved for study in December. But the study is low on NPS's growing list, according to Brengel.

Robert Brunswig, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado and program field director for the Dearfield Archaeology Field Project, said in an email that he is “confident” that the NPS study will be positive and that Dearfield will become a national historic site by 2026 or 2027. In the meantime, the team at Dearfield is applying for grants to convert their buildings into museum facilities in preparation for the site's anticipated entry into the NPS system.

In Utah, Golden Spike is already a national historical park. In 2019, however, Congress asked the NPS to review other potential sites like Golden Spike along the Transcontinental Railroad. An agency spokesperson said that study is “in progress and the NPS continues to work toward its completion,” but declined an interview request by the Mountain West News Bureau.

In a report to Congress last year, the Congressional Research Service attributed the backlog at the NPS – which has long been understaffed and underfunded – to "the large number of studies authorized by Congress and the extent of available resources."

Brengel said the studies require the months and years NPS staffers dedicate to them.

It's a painstaking operation to do it, but that's how serious the Park Service takes its job,” she said. “They want to make sure that this is something the public is going to really embrace.”

Brengel’s organization recently conducted a poll and found that 80% of Americans support the U.S. government conserving lands and waters, with 52% of people strongly supporting it from both sides of the political aisle.

“Parks are an American value – they're not just places,” Brengel said. “And the fact that we believe that conserving more lands, conserving more forests is an important part of who we are as a country—that's a really important statement to make.”

She encouraged people to call on members of Congress to support NPS sites and to push for these studies to be completed.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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