Stop historic degradation

Published: Tuesday, May 20 2008 12:02 a.m. MDT

Americans are pretty good at saving endangered species. They're getting better at saving resources. But when it comes to saving historic and cultural sites, they have a ways to go.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, only 1,936 of 325,000 Forest Service sites rated "historically significant" on the National Register of Historic Places are being cared for. Some claim the real number of uncared for sites is closer to 2 million.

The reasons are well-known. There's not enough money to pay for the job and not enough manpower to get the job done. And, given the squeaky economy, chances are funds and people will not be available anytime soon.

Still, until the historic-preservation cavalry can come to the rescue, citizens themselves can help. Contributing money to historic preservation is one way, of course. But just as important, society needs to rachet up the "shame factor" and the penalties for those who vandalize and deface historic buildings and places. Some people — in an act of supreme "individuality" — scrawl their mark on historic things, feeling it makes them part of something large and revered. But when somebody paints a picture of SpongeBob on the side of a historic cabin — as happened in Colorado — just the opposite happens. The "painter" isn't elevated to icon status, but he drags the monument down to pedestrian levels.

In short, we stomach more than we should when historic landmarks and cultural treasures are marred by the initials and "artwork" of taggers and vandals.

Peer pressure helped to drive cigarette smoke into the streets.

Peer pressure can also help preserve the important elements of the American legacy that link the present with the past and give a sense of continuity and shared values to the nation.

Meanwhile, voters might also put a little pressure on lawmakers to beef up funding for heritage programs and preservation efforts wherever they can. Giving more power to the Forest Service to deal with defacers, and getting more information out about the location of trouble spots and sacred sites would also be a plus.

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