Park Service Trains For Rehab, Preservation

The National Park Service is struggling to maintain crumbling, historic buildings, reports Peter O'Dowd of Wyoming Public Radio. Park officials hope the White Grass Dude Ranch in Wyoming will provide the answer. The Park Service is working to rehab its old cabins and turn the ranch into a regional national park training center for park employees, who will learn how to make their own tools and become craftsmen in historic building styles.

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The National Park Service is struggling to maintain some of the most historically significant buildings in the country. Among its 27,000 historic structures are old log cabins in Yellowstone, Spanish fortifications in the Caribbean, and the Navy Destroyer in Boston. The Park Service estimates it would take two billion dollars to do all the maintenance the structures need, but it lacks the money and the craftsmen to do the work. From Wyoming Public Radio, Peter O'Dowd reports on a new effort to chip away at the colossal maintenance backlog.

PETER O'DOWD: Thirteen log cabins at the White Grass Dude Ranch are spread out across 30 acres at the foot of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the United States.

Mr. AL WILLIAMS (Project Manager, National Park Service): We're looking right up Death Canyon right here. If you go around that gentle sloping peak right up through there, that is Static Peak.

O'DOWD: Al Williams has come to know these mountains in Grand Teton National Park over the last 24 years. Today, he watches over a crew of volunteers from a Massachusetts YMCA. Their hammers and crowbars shatter the park's silence as they rip plywood away from a cabin's concrete foundation. It's part of a renovation project to turn one of this valley's most historic dude ranches into an academy for rustic log architecture.

Unidentified Woman: So, do I get this up?

Unidentified Man: Yep, yep.

O'DOWD: When project manager Al Williams is done with White Grass, Park Service employees will travel here from across the country to learn what few people can do anymore: restore rustic log buildings and masonry to their original state.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's the handwork that is getting lost, and everything else is done with mechanical means or with power equipment.

O'DOWD: So White Grass students will put aside the chainsaws to learn how to use a broad ax, slicks and chisels. They'll grind their own knives to match the contours of windows and doors from the early 1900s. After the center opens, those artisans will first be trained and then fan out and begin working on the barns and buildings that barely stand in their home parks.

In the meantime, a handful of local craftsmen are honing their skills and using the renovation at White Grass as a teaching tool for future projects. This summer, Wyoming artisans traveled to Utah to lead a renovation project there. Craig Struble(ph) is the director of White Grass. He says the maintenance crisis at the Park Service is fueled by two things: too many buildings and not enough money.

Mr. CRAIG STRUBLE (Director, White Grass Dude Ranch): It's no different from one side of the country to the other. We are fighting a battle and the battle is either against the elements or time.

Ms. BARBARA PAHL (Regional Director, National Trust for Historic Preservation): I don't think we can afford to wait for our budget woes in Washington to get resolved.

O'DOWD: Barbara Pahl, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, isn't waiting on Washington. The trust committed to raising nearly a million dollars to propel White Grass forward. Her groups was unconvinced the park service could accomplish the project on its own.

Ms. PAHL: Superintendents in the past in Grand Teton do not always perceive that preservation of historic sites was part of the mission of the park. So for a long time, our struggle was not just for the lack of funding, but probably was a lack of will.

O'DOWD: Pahl says that resistance has slowly given way. Park administrators are recruiting private donors for the two million dollars needed to renovate White Grass. The Park Service has increased Grand Teton's budget by 350,000 dollars a year to help run the center, and already there are signs the project is working. Will Galloway is a local seasonal employee with a frizzled, white beard that stretches past his shirt collar.

Mr. WILL GALLOWAY (Local Employee, White Grass Dude Ranch): A lot of my woodworking hasn't been with log structure. Just been most of building boats, which is a far cry from what we're doing here.

O'DOWD: Now Galloway has a new set of skills. He can carve a saddle notch into an old log so it can be stacked onto another. Craig Struble says that's a good start, even if the new artisans at White Grass can only save a fraction of the buildings in America's parks.

Mr. STRUBLE: I've learned over the years that even though it's kind of heartbreaking to watch some of this go down, it does happen. And nature will reclaim its wood and its structures over time, and that's just how things go.

O'DOWD: The renovation at White Grass will continue, cabin by cabin, as money becomes available. Struble says the campus should be complete by 2016, just in time to celebrate 100 years of history at the National Park Service. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Laramie.

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