IN JULY 1775, General George Washington moved into a charming yellow house in Cambridge and plotted to drive the British from Boston.
In the 230 years since Washington's victory, the house has been home to other successful Americans, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for whom the building is now named. But today's tenant, the National Park Service, struggles valiantly to maintain the historic edifice and tell its story to thousands of visitors annually; Congress will find out why at a public hearing tomorrow at Faneuil Hall.
The attention comes none too soon.
Like nearly all national parks across the country, the Longfellow National Historic Site suffers from chronic underfunding. According to the National Parks Conservation Association's new assessment, despite the best efforts of dedicated park staff, the house, grounds, and extensive museum collection are in ''fair" condition. An annual shortfall of $400,000 prevents the Park Service from filling key maintenance and curatorial positions, affecting the condition of the park and its many treasures, some of which are stored in attics without proper environmental controls.
Insufficient funding has also caused the park to be closed eight months of the year, restricting access for visitors and school groups. It is open only five days a week during the summer.
To stretch pennies, park managers have relied on individuals and community groups to provide elbow grease. The support of the Friends of the Longfellow House has enabled the park to offer education programs, complete historical research, and restore the home's extensive gardens, among other projects.
The Commonwealth's congressional delegation has been a strong advocate for the national parks; Senator Edward Kennedy has secured funding for extensive renovations. Local volunteers dedicated 3,700 hours of service in 2004. Partnerships with local universities have increased knowledge of the park's literary and archeological resources. Clearly, the Longfellow house has first-rate staff and supporters, but they can't do it all.
Nationwide, national parks struggle under the weight of a well-documented operating shortfall in excess of $600 million and a backlog of maintenance projects that is estimated to range between $4.5 billion and $9.7 billion. Decades of inadequate investment have undermined the ability of the Park Service to serve as guardian of our nation's heritage.
Alexander Hamilton's house in New York City is dilapidated; roads in the Delaware Water Gap are hazardous; popular education programs at Acadia in Maine and Morristown, N.J., have been cut, and artwork and artifacts at the St. Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire are vulnerable to fire. In Boston, the public enters the Charlestown Navy Yard visitor center through one working door, its cracked glass held in place by tape, after passing a wall from which the Park Service's proud logo has either fallen or been torn from its place
US Representative Mark Souder of Indiana, chairman of the criminal justice subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, will oversee tomorrow's hearing in Boston, the third in a series of congressional hearings intended to examine the funding needs that challenge America's national parks.
We need comprehensive, intelligent solutions to this chronic problem in our parks. The National Parks Conservation Association advocates that the Park Service continue to enhance its fiscal responsibility and improve management practices. Annual appropriations for national parks must be increased to a level where park managers can gain ground and not merely tread water.
Additionally, Souder and others in Congress have introduced the National Park Centennial Act, one solution to meeting park needs. This legislation would provide funds for park maintenance and natural and cultural preservation projects through 2016, the 100th anniversary of the park system's creation. Funds would be raised though a voluntary check-off on our federal income tax returns and from the general treasury, enabling individual Americans to leave a legacy by contributing to the preservation of the nation's most significant natural, cultural, and historic places.
As of today, the bill has broad support across the political spectrum, with US Senate cosponsors including Senator John McCain and more than 50 Republican and Democratic cosponsors in the House, including Barney Frank. I urge all of Congress and the administration to join this bipartisan effort.
The nation must rise to the challenge of helping our national parks not merely to survive but thrive. We must protect and restore America's priceless heritage, and a local treasure, the old yellow house in Cambridge.
Thomas C. Kiernan is president of the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington, D.C.