The National Park Service will return staff to Nicodemus National Historic Site, and renew efforts to acquire land to build a visitor center.
On Wednesday, representatives from the National Park Service met with the Nicodemus Historical Society to listen to local concerns about the agency’s current management. Acting Regional Deputy Director Clara Wooden acknowledged that mistakes had been made, but expressed that she was committed to making Nicodemus one of her priorities and a park the agency could be proud of.
Nicodemus, Kansas is the oldest all-black pioneer town west of the Mississippi River.
The park in Nicodemus was established by Congress in 1996, but the agency removed rangers from Nicodemus in the fall of 2017. The agency’s General Management Plan for Nicodemus says that “onsite staff will include a superintendent, administrative staff, maintenance staff to care for NPS-managed properties, and NPS rangers-interpreters to operate the visitor contact facility.”
The transition back to Nicodemus is expected to take several months, and Mrs. Wooden anticipates the first staff will begin arriving in 2020. The National Park Service is also evaluating land in and around the town site to determine a suitable location for a visitor center. Plans are still tentative pending approval by Acting Regional Director Patty Trap, who originally had agreed to attend Wednesday’s meeting, but was not present.
In February, Free State Kansas filed a Freedom of Information Act Request seeking detailed expenditures for Nicodemus National Historic Site for fiscal years 2015-2019. Those documents failed to account for more than $700,000 of Nicodemus appropriations between fiscal years 2016 and 2018.
When asked where the missing Nicodemus appropriations had gone, an information officer for the National Park Service explained that the park had declared a “surplus of funds due to several vacant positions,” and those funds were then taken by the agency’s Midwest Regional Office in Omaha to spend on other parks.
In fiscal year 2018, more than $220,000 of Nicodemus appropriations were taken by the regional office, and another $183,000 was spent on salaries for National Park employees stationed at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, and Fort Larned National Historic Site in Larned, Kansas. That gave the appearance that congressionally designated appropriations for Nicodemus were being used as a slush fund for other parks, so further inquiry was made.
Initial observations were presented to the NPS that the condition of the site and the use of Nicodemus appropriations appear to indicate a pattern of serious mismanagement over a prolonged period of time. Additionally, a request was made for the NPS to advise whether that reaction to management of the Nicodemus budget was incorrect in any way.
On Thursday, March 28, 2019 the NPS information officer responded that the NPS employee who had been assisting her with the budget information was “retiring effective today,” and the question about budgetary mismanagement would go through the comptroller of the Midwest Region.
When no response was received for a week, a follow up email was sent asking whether the NPS disputed that there had been serious mismanagement of the budget. The information officer responded that she was still attempting to obtain an answer.
At the time of this publication, three weeks after the initial request, Free State Kansas has still not received the comptroller’s assessment of whether serious mismanagement of the Nicodemus National Historic Site budget has taken place.
In the past there have been questions about whether the National Park Service prioritizes Nicodemus National Historic Site as it does larger parks like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.
A recent Washington Post article on Nicodemus declared: “the National Park Service is failing in its responsibility to maintain this historic site.”
In 2017, the High Country News wrote, “Nicodemus became a national historic site in 1996. Since then, the National Park Service has erected a half-dozen signs that are so worn and weather-beaten they are hard to read, shored up one building, and put a new roof on a small old hotel. That’s it.”
In a National Parks Traveler Article, Dr. Bob Pahre questioned why the National Park Service had not yet built a visitor center in Nicodemus, when other parks that were legislated at the same time had already received very nice visitor centers. Pahre concluded, “this site appears abandoned not only by residents but by the National Park Service, Congress, and the American people.”
Wednesday’s commitment by Acting Regional Deputy Director Clara Wooden may signal a new era for the National Park Service in Nicodemus. Free State Kansas will continue to follow this story, and will report on any successes as they happen.