What makes Vancouver unique from the rest of the Portland metropolitan area? Our position safely across the Columbia River in Washington, for one. But perhaps an even bigger factor is our history.
Generations before seaborne explorers and Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery brought Euro-American settlers, the lower Columbia River was a Native American gathering spot and trading area. The Hudson’s Bay Company built on that trading tradition, establishing Fort Vancouver in the winter of 1824-25 as a fur-trading post. Though its primary purpose was commercial, the fort played a role in the settlement of the Oregon Territory, which ironically contributed to the decline of the fur trade and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s withdrawal to present-day Canada, where it continues in business. (Though it now prefers plastic over beaver pelts in exchange for its woolen blankets.)
Later Vancouver was home to the U.S. military. Future Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant famously served here as a quartermaster before unhappily resigning his Army commission and returning to Illinois. Others include Union Gen. O.O. Howard, who was awarded a Medal of Honor during the Civil War; Gen. George Marshall, the only career soldier to win the Nobel Peace Prize; and Joseph K. Barnes, who became Army surgeon general in 1864 and attended President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot. And there are four Medal of Honor winners buried in the historic post cemetery off Fourth Plain Boulevard.
The National Park Service is the custodian of this history. Its Fort Vancouver collection includes more than 2 million artifacts. It now cares for a collection of historic military buildings and reconstructed fur trade-era buildings. There’s even a garden of heritage vegetables. There are many activities at the post, particularly in the summer, often featuring costumed volunteers re-enacting various historical events and history. Finally, the Park Service locally cares for the historic retirement home of Dr. John McLoughlin, Fort Vancouver’s legendary chief factor, in Oregon City, Ore.
Over the years there have been tensions between the Park Service and local leaders. The most recent spat over control of the Pearson Air Museum resulted in the withdrawal of its unique airplane collection and the loss of a venue for local events. After U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler introduced legislation, talks began that we still hope will lead to the return of the airplane collection.
Squabbling aside, it’s time for Congress to look at investing more in the Parks Service and its programs. As The Herald of Everett recently noted, spending on national parks has gone from 0.125 percent of the federal budget in 1982 to only 0.067 percent this year. President Barack Obama’s budget proposes a reasonable $2.2 billion for park operations and another $10 million for the Park Service’s 2016 centennial.
Locally, it has taken a dozen years to secure funding to remodel the 52-year-old visitors center opposite Officers Row. That work should begin this summer or fall, and will take about nine months. There are many other needs, including further preservation and repurposing of Vancouver Barracks buildings, entrusted to the Park Service’s care when the Army left for Joint Base Lewis-McChord and its new Reserve Center in Orchards.
In an era of massive federal spending, it’s tough to make a case for more money. But the National Park Service, as custodian of America’s most valuable places, deserves this consideration.