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The Ecology of Conservation

Notes from the Preservation Trades Roundtable

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in the Preservation Trades Roundtable, as a guest of the National Park Service's (NPS) National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT). The roundtable was held at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility built along the banks of the Potomac River near Shepherdstown, WV. The layout of the campus encourages walking through the scenic hills and woodlands that surround the lodging, dining and meeting venues.

The Preservation Trades Roundtable was planned by Kirk Cordell, NCPTT's executive director and Andy Ferrell, NCPTT's chief of architecture and engineering, in response to the Cultural Resource Challenge NCPTT received as a branch of the NPS. The challenge, according to the formal language, was to "develop a traditional trades program within the NPS to produce training and technical briefs to support the efforts of the public and private sector.” Kirk and Andy felt a good place to start was a meeting, which included representatives from both the public and private sectors.

I was already acquainted with most of the 12 participants of the roundtable, but several were people I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time. Among those was Julian Smith, executive director of the Willowbank School in Queenston, Ontario, Canada. Willowbank describes itself as ". . .an independent and innovative educational institution in the cultural heritage field, operating within a dramatic historic setting." The website defines cultural landscapes as environments ". . .that create a sense of place and sense of identity for cultural groups of all kinds, through the combination of artifact and ritual."

It was refreshing to hear Julian describe his program as a place that crosses the boundaries between theory and practice to arrive at an integrated approach to design and development. I'm confident I'm paraphrasing, but the message I took from Julian is that part of the solution is to realize that the future of conservation is not the domain of "historic house huggers" any more than it is that of "preservation architects." In truth, the future of our cultural heritage lies in our younger generations, who don't necessarily view it with the same baggage that many of us blue hairs do.

Integrating design and development

He was quick to point out that the younger generations have grown up being taught the importance of ecology. Rather than seeing conservation as strictly theory or as a particular regimen of trades practice, they have the ability to realize the dynamic relationships that can exist between people who think of themselves as environmentalists and those who are motivated to maintain our built environment. Realizing that those environments, the natural and the built, both exist is less important than understanding how they are related.

The very fact that we in the U.S. are stuck using the word "preservation" as the generality, rather than conservation, points up a key difference in how we relate to the ecology of cultural resources. Conservation is about keeping things useful; whereas, preservation is about keeping things as they are. In truth, nothing in any environment ever remains truly static, and it is the understanding of the dynamics of environmental change that provides the types of challenges that make conservation work both challenging and rewarding.

I'm sure this concept flies in the face of plenty of preservation practitioners who have been trained to worship authenticity and resist intervention unless it is founded in strict theoretical understanding and approved practice, but the reality that our cultural heritage is the product of cultural tradition means that the conservation of tradition itself is as important as the conservation of the artifacts it creates.

The fact that the NPS is looking for opportunities to interact with entities in the private sector points up the reality that there is a recognition of the importance of the need to source knowledge outside the Park Service itself. This is a dramatic change based partly on the limitations that are being caused by endless budget cuts and the realization that a great deal has changed since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966.

The existence of numerous schools with academic historic preservation curricula has been augmented in recent decades by many programs teaching hands-on trades skills, and the formation of organizations like the Timber Framers Guild and the Preservation Trades Network has created community environments that foster exchange of knowledge among professionals. Even the International Masonry Institute is adding education in historic preservation to its programs, and it is the connection of all these resources that could provide NCPTT with an opportunity to meet its Cultural Resource Challenge in an unprecedented way.

Those who know me and follow my blog know that one of my strong beliefs is that it is important to put tools in the hands of young people. Not only does this offer them the opportunity to realize how enabling it is to make things by hand, but I am realizing that it also is a direct connection to the cultural traditions that created much of the world they live in.

If we can create learning environments that allow educators, conservation professionals and students to learn in field-school-type environments in our national parks, conserving our cultural resources, we can truly offer them the opportunity to understand the ecology of conservation and lead the way to the cultural traditions of the future.

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