Last week, while nobody was looking, thieves looted Ringwood Manor, a New Jersey state park, netting two landscape paintings by Hudson River School artist Jasper Cropsey, along with historic artifacts including rare antique firearms. The paintings were valued in the six figures. The other items, though hard to price, all belonged to the people of New Jersey under the care and supervision of the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
The thieves had no trouble foiling the alarm system and went about their selfish business unimpeded. The vulnerability of Ringwood Manor came as no surprise to Jeff Tittel of New Jersey Sierra Club.
"I have been complaining to DEP Commissioners for 15 years," says Tittel, whose family has long ties to the site and its preservation. “Budget cuts have consequences when you cut back on staffing and funding for parks. This is one of those tragic outcomes,”
Tittel says that in 1995, there were 850 employees in the Parks and Forestry program statewide. Now the program is down to about 450 employees.
"Last year parks got cut by 40 percent," says Tittel. "This year there's an increase, but that still has us down by 30 percent despite the fact that the amount of parkland has doubled since the 1990's."
Ringwood Manor, and the woods and streams around it, play a central role in American history. During the American Revolution, its iron mines and works helped outfit the Continental Army. It forged some of the iron links that were used in a massive chain across the Hudson river that was deployed to keep the British from using the river north of West Point.
Ringwood Manor is a National Historic Landmark. It was home to Robert Erskine, the Revolutionary War's "forgotten general" who served as General George Washington's surveyor and chief mapmaker. Erskine made 200 maps used by the Continental Army, and Washington was a regular guest at Ringwood, where he held critical planning sessions. Ringwood was strategically located along Route 202, halfway between West Point and Morristown, Washington's winter military headquarters after the misery that was Valley Forge.
Washington was at Ringwood on April 19, 1783 when hostilities were declared over between the United States and Britain, and Ringwood continued to produce materials for the U.S, military from the War of 1812 and through the Civil War .
By the late 19th century, Ringwood was home to industrialist and visionary philanthropist Abram Hewitt. Hewitt was one of the early conservationists who urged the preservation of open space. He revolutionized how steel was produced in the U.S. and was elected Mayor of New York City, beating Theodore Roosevelt in the process. As mayor, he fought Tammany Hall and lobbied for the city's first subway line while also finding a way to finance the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. His descendants gave Ringwood Manor to the state of New Jersey in the 1930s.
Some of my earliest childhood recollections are of visiting Ringwood Manor. It brought my text books alive, and made the nation's past struggles and the individual sacrifices made by others throughout history tangible. The idea of Ringwood's iron works producing for the Revolution caught my young imagination. Through this, I learned that for a nation to be viable it had to make things.
And no matter how bad things got financially, as my family fought foreclosure in the 1970s, Ringwood was a cheap refuge. It didn't matter that we could not afford to visit the Jersey shore. We could always make it up to Ringwood and have a picnic with my five brothers and sisters, while deepening our appreciation for the origins of our nation.
As a young adult I came and read Wendell Berry, Thoreau and Emerson in the gardens and fields that were so carefully maintained. As a father I brought my children. So I take very personally what happened last week in Ringwood, as well as what is happening to places like Ringwood across the nation.
Ringwood Manor is not an isolated case. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, almost 30 states are cutting their park budgets and closing 400 state parks. The National Trust now ranks all of the nation's state-owned parks and historic sites as endangered.
This week, historic preservationists will converge on Washington to make their case against proposed federal cuts that would further undercut the already sinking states. Both the Obama Administration and the House Republicans have targeted the Save America's Treasures program, which since 1998 has helped fund the preservation of 1,200 of the nation's most significant historic and cultural treasures in every state.
The program has helped fund work at Ellis Island, Valley Forge, Thomas Edison's Invention Factory, Dr. Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church and even the Star Spangled Banner itself.
Back in the 1970s, Congress voted to create the Historic Preservation Fund, which is supposed to get some of the $6 billion in revenue that generated for the federal government from oil and gas leasing rights. Under the provisions of the Historic Preservation Fund, the fund should be able to receive as much as $150 million. That is in turn divided and matched by states and locals to save at-risk cultural and historic treasures. In the past, Congress has only appropriated a third to one half of those funds. The proposed cuts would shrink this even more.
In respecting and restoring the places that remind us all where our country has been, we expand the places we might yet go.