Clarifications, and why we couldn’t accept the Ultimatum from the Park Service

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Friends:

First of all, thank you for your concern about the Claude Moore Colonial Farm’s future and for following up with us. You should know how much this means to us right now.

We want to address the recent National Park Service (NPS) communications and also respond directly and clearly about the terms we could not live with and how the NPS refused to negotiate or accommodate.

Read for yourself: NPS Termination Letter.

National Park Service is Sowing Confusion

We absolutely have seen how the automated response from George Washington Memorial Parkway (GWMP) Superintendent Alexcy Romero, of the NPS, has created confusion and muddied the truth. The NPS statements have a number of inaccuracies that are not easy to spot thanks to the professional PR team the NPS has writing these.

For example, the hundreds of thousands of dollars the NPS says that it spent to develop a plan for a sewage system at the Farm site is true. But the rest of the truth is that it is just a plan, a study, a piece of paper. The system was never built, never even started. In fact, Fairfax County experts have said that, as designed, it would fail in months. If you have visited the Farm, you know that “Ar-Jons” are our sewage system. That’s right, the NPS really did waste hundreds of thousands of Park Service funds on a study. After we found out from the county that the design would never work for seasonal use, we turned to the friend of a friend who does this for a living and he designed a system that would work, is less expensive to install and would not involve going the length of Colonial Farm Road, under Georgetown Pike and through the backyards and landscaped homes in the Evermay subdivision. The NPS construction estimate for its plan was almost $1,000,000 and the Farm would have had to pay for that. Our system design was free and Fairfax County approved of it.

It is also true that over the past 37 years we have received help from the NPS and sometimes it was a great deal of help. The maintenance division would repair a water line or run electricity, donate a load of pathway gravel, loan equipment and even repair our 40-year old tractor, which was purchased when the NPS ran the Farm from 1972 until June of 1981. For a number of years we even received an annual cash contribution of $100,000, which was a lifesaver to us. But five years ago all financial and physical support ended, which was not a bad thing but a good thing as we always believed that we could provide for ourselves.

As to the road clearing and tree trimming, Claude Moore Colonial Farm Road is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the NPS is obligated to maintain it for the two Federal agencies that use it. Within the Farm, we do our own snow plowing and for a number of years a Farm volunteer plowed the entire road, which was much appreciated by our neighbors. About three or four years ago, the GWMP tree crew did take down a tree that was dangerous to the school children doing a Farm Skills program and that was very helpful. During this same 37-year period, the Farm volunteers, supported by a small staff, have removed hundreds of tons of trash and construction debris left from when the open land that the Farm and Pavilions sit on was a construction landfill and used as a local dump for household trash, vehicles, appliances, tires, etc.

When the NPS acquired the land in 1971 from the GSA under President Nixon’s Legacy of the Parks Program, the Park Service simply bulldozed the debris and then burned it along with the scrub trees and underbrush. Every year prior to opening, we would go to the edges of the field and cover every item that had surfaced over the winter with brown paint until leaf cover would hide it. In 2008, a wonderful volunteer joined us and made it his mission to get rid of everything polluting the soil of the Farm. This is almost restored however we stopped that process along with other improvements in October 2013 when the NPS closed the Farm as part of the Federal government-wide funding shutdown. Even though the NPS was forced by public outrage to allow the Farm to reopen, this sent a very clear message that then new Superintendent Romero was not going to be a friend of the Farm.

The Friends have rebuilt almost every structure, added the administration building with help from a 1989 grant from Congress, built the Pavilions area, created the Market Fairs, developed multiple volunteer and educational programs — and the Farm just won Best Museum and Best Place to Instagram in Northern Virginia Magazine’s Best of 2018 contest. We have raised, earned and invested almost $17 million to make the Farm what it is today. When Superintendent Romero said: “there are no privately operated National Parks,” he was flat wrong. The Claude Moore Colonial Farm is the only privately operated and funded National Park. The Farm has welcomed and educated over 2,000,000 visitors to an award-winning National Park over the 37 years the Friends have been operating it.

NPS spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, in a May 4th WUSA-TV interview, said that the Farm wanted “all the privileges of operating in a National Park, but none of the responsibility or accountability.” This is truth turned upside down. For the last five years we have had all the responsibility and accountability – as well as costs — of running the Farm. Except for the honor of being able to provide our programs and living history on Federal government-owned land, for which we are very grateful, we do not seek any National Park Service funding, nor other administrative and bureaucratic “privileges” — privileges that we have not received since 2013.

Finally, when Superintendent Romero says that: “All this means right now is the Farm will close as winter approaches, as it always has…” this statement is completely false. This time the Farm would have to vacate, not just hibernate. The letter terminating our relationship states very directly that the Friends must remove all of our property from the farm site and that anything left behind becomes Park Service property. As well, if the Park Service has to dispose of property the agency will charge the Farm to do so. Our members know that nearly every structure, all the animals, all the vehicles, farm equipment, stables, coops, and on and on, belong to the Friends of the Farm. The Friends would be required to remove everything by December 21st, or forfeit it to the NPS.

The information that the NPS is sending out is full of inaccuracies and disinformation and is being carefully worded to cast doubt and confusion among the public and supporters of the Farm. Please continue to read and listen to everything from the Park Service extremely carefully and with a grain or two of salt. And let us know if you have additional questions.

Burdensome and Oppressive Requirements are a Death Sentence 

Some have asked: Why can’t you just live with the National Park Service’s standard terms and keep the Farm open? The simple truth is, we really can’t. The Park Service refused to negotiate on terms that are not just burdensome to us, they are debilitating and destructive. The terms in the NPS ultimatum would dramatically curtail our ability to earn and fundraise, ignores our need for a stable long-term future and, probably most importantly, eliminates the independence to run our non-profit organization, the Friends of the Farm. The effect of the Park Service’s demands are to raise our costs of operation and cripple our ability to support ourselves.

Here are the three most burdensome areas where the National Park Service was inflexible and unwilling to even negotiate with us:

  1. Freedom to Fundraise: We asked for flexibility to raise/earn funds, legally, the way we always have, through sales, Pavilions rental and events. The NPS “standard terms” would eliminate 95% of our fundraising efforts by limiting what we can sell, and how we run events. We asked for relief but the NPS refused to negotiate.
  2. Certainty of a Stable Long-Term Future: A long-term future is essential for a “working, living history farm”. Planning, investment, building, repair, livestock breeding and program development are significant long-term investments. Without a 25-year term, minimally, it is impossible to make financially significant decisions that involve the health and lives of our animals as well as the safety and comfort of our visitors. The NPS offered us a five-year agreement (remember, we’ve been negotiating for over six years), and then stretched it to ten. The NPS refused to negotiate beyond that.
  3. Operational Independence: We run a legal, audited organization. We do not use, nor seek, federal funds. We are not like many adjunct “Friends organizations” that raise money to support an NPS operation. We are independent and intend to remain so. We have business processes, accounting systems, and operational, marketing and communications procedures. All run without the assistance or input of NPS. The NPS standard terms required that we submit nearly everything we say, publish, do, sell or buy, for their review and approval. The Standard Work Plan is full of bureaucratic requirements, excessive reporting and tasks not related to safety or good fiscal management. We must run our operations like a non-profit business, lean and efficient. We need to make decisions on our organization’s future ourselves without intrusive oversight or second guessing from the NPS. We must be able to communicate freely, directly and on a timely basis with our members and the public, and not through NPS review and approvals. Of course, we have and would continue to comply with all legal and safety requirements, as well as establish reasonable reporting and meetings with the NPS, although we understand that Interior Secretary Zinke could waive any NPS requirements that are not consistent with the mission of the National Park Service. Again, we asked for accommodation on these terms, and the NPS refused to negotiate.

During negotiations we believed that these three key areas could be discussed and easily agreed to by the NPS. But the Park Service refused to negotiate on the terms that are essential to our existence as an organization. The NPS, in fact, threatened near the end of negotiations that if we didn’t sign the agreement presented that the agency would give the land to Fairfax County. When the NPS sent the Farm the ultimatum — “sign or close” — in March 2018, we opted instead to sign an extension through December 21st to allow time to work through these minor differences. The NPS used our signed extension as an excuse to end all negotiations and terminate the relationship. This was not what we desired, not in the least.

We hope that this explanation helps you better understand what is happening and why we can’t survive the terms of the NPS ultimatum. To the Friends of the Farm, these were accommodations the NPS could have easily made to keep the Farm open — small concessions for the NPS, and essential to the Farm.

Stay Informed

Lastly, as you read further news releases, comments and quotes from the NPS, continue to pay careful attention. It is very clear that the National Park Service does not have a plan for the future of the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, at least not one it is willing to share publicly.

Regarding what lies ahead for the Farm as of December, the NPS spokesperson has said: “That might mean the Park Service operating it with the many volunteers who have served for a long time. It might mean a new partner coming in to support the Farm. Or it might mean something totally different for the future.” While offering a variety of possibilities this does not sound like “business as usual” to us, nor like a clear plan for the future of the Farm.

We have limited staff to respond to every mischaracterization that the NPS could make going forward however we will do all we can to keep you informed. While our team is not as substantial as the NPS team, we will read every communication and respond. Thank you for your interest and patience.

Let’s keep a great thing going. Please help us keep this 45-year Fairfax County institution, the enormously popular, historically accurate, working, living history museum — an inside the Beltway escape to Colonial America — alive and well for another 45 years.

Negotiating Committee

Board of Directors

Friends of Claude Moore Colonial Farm