A more proactive planning for history tourism (see this morning's item, below) is unfolding in Washington. There, Congress is being asked to give the authority the National Park Service needs to add the sites of Forts Henry and Heiman to its existing Fort Donelson Park. A Congressional okay will position the NPS to move on property entering the market and would create a supersized ACW locale for those wanting to make a day of it.

This Capitol Hill greenlight would not guarantee that the NPS actually secures these forts, however. If the NPS low-bids a property it can lose it, as recently happened at Antietam.

One very curious thing in this situation is the stance of Kentucky's state governement.

These three forts are distributed between Tennessee and Kentucky, and Kentucky "has raised nearly $1 million in grants and donations to help the the Park Service buy the land" under Fort Heiman. Why does the state not buy the land directly, now? The owners are willing to sell, according to the papers, and the property could go under the state's own park system, short- or long-term.

It seems Kentucky is assuming Fort Heiman will generate tourism, but wants the maintenance costs borne by the NPS. It is not acting expediently to secure the place.

Moreover, Kentucky cannot influence what the NPS will eventually bid for available property, even if the NPS were allowed to take the $1 million gift. Waiting for the NPS to act and win invites an Antietam situation again, where Civil War buff William Chaney bought battlefield land for well below market prices (I live nearby, he got a steal) and then erected statues, a museum, and gift shops on the property. There was an uproar.

The uproar came from people who do not want public historic places commercialized and who look to the NPS as a shield against commercialization.

Commercialization can be a good thing if it is the only way to open historic sites to public visits. There are better outcomes, but Kentucky's reticence in buying the land now opens the door to this. Further, we have to consider Chaney's motivation in buying land near Sharpsburg: he was extremely unhappy with the content of the NPS's history as conveyed at the site. And there is really no way a private person can better register their unhappiness with NPS park history than to buy land and set up a counter message at the same site.

Had Antietam been run as state parks are run - without an overbearing series of historical truths being ladled out to visitors - Chaney might have stayed home. At most state sites, the park is rarely packaged in an official history; this makes state parks preferable to NPS management on at least one count.

State park ownership by Kentucky while keeping the new site free of the pall of NPS historiography would also preserve the fort from the development decisions of a single decisionmaker like Chaney.

If state ownership is a better choice than federal ownership, private ownership holds the greatest potential of all. The well travelled museum-goer knows that the best private museums tower above the best state or federal facilities in quality and visitor experience. If Civil War donors can register this fact and form themselves into a private civil war park body, amazing things can be done. One trembles to think that the National Park Service might even be privatized through such organizations.

It is truly sad to see the germ of such an organization stake its first $1 million in a gamble where NPS ownership is the winning outcome.