20 Iconic American Sites That Need Saving Before It’s Too Late

The United States is fortunate to have many magnificent heritage sites and spectacular wilderness reserves, places that are an essential part of the nation’s fabric. But the sad truth is that all too many of these key locations face threats from a variety of directions. Challenges include climate change, over-development and soaring visitor numbers. Read on to find out about 20 iconic American sites facing danger now and in the future.

20. SS United States

When she first set sail in 1952, the majestic SS United States was the last word in luxury cruise liners. She was also a record breaker, sailing from New York to England faster than any ship ever had. That first trip was actually backed by clandestine Department of Defense money. The military was keen on the idea of a ship that could quickly cross the ocean with 15,000 troops aboard.

But the ship’s heyday was all too brief. In 1969 she was retired from service, never to speed across the Atlantic again. In the years that followed, the United States passed through the hands of several owners with various plans to use the vessel. But none came to fruition. The latest proposal, announced in March 2020, is to convert the ship into a hotel and museum. We can only hope that this $500 million scheme is more solid than others that have come before it. For now, she sits rusting at a Philadelphia pier.

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19. Yellowstone National Park

Founded in 1872, Yellowstone was the first of America’s 421 national parks. The park’s two million acres cover a variety of habitats from towering mountains to geysers and dense Douglas-fir forests. And there’s no shortage of wildlife, with cougars, elk, grizzlies and wolf packs roaming the lands. It seems like a paradise, but sadly all is not well with this national gem.

Let’s start with the wildlife. The animals obviously don’t respect park borders, so when they roam beyond their boundaries, they can be under threat. This is a particular problem for bison. Then, there’s fire management. Park authorities want controlled burning, but neighboring property owners often take a different view. Invasive species are another hazard. An especially pernicious example is the bark beetle which has blighted some of the parks magnificent pine stands.

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18. Kauai, Hawaii

With its extraordinary biodiversity, gorgeous beaches and tropical forests, the Hawaiian island of Kauai can plausibly claim the title of earthly paradise. But, sadly, all is not well. Although the Garden Isle, as it’s known, boasts almost 500 native plant species, more than a quarter are in danger of extinction. They’re threatened by wildfires, alien plants and forest degradation.

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And it’s not just plants on Kauai that are on the cliff edge of oblivion. There’s also the Newell’s shearwater, a highly endangered seabird that’s seriously threatened by manmade perils and invasive species. The birds are ground nesters and often fall prey to introduced species such as black rats and feral swine and cats. Conservationists are working against the clock to preserve the flora and fauna of Kauai. We can only hope they succeed.

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17. Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel

A fabulous example of American mid-century motel architecture in Polynesian style, the Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel opened its doors in 1960. It remained operational until 2002, but from then has stood empty. You might shrug your shoulders and ask why we should spend money on saving a disused motel. That certainly seems to be the attitude of the State of Mississippi, which now owns the Sun-n-Sand and wants to sweep it away in favor of a parking lot.

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But there’s much more to this historic building than its retro charm. It was a venue much used by the civil rights activists of the 1960s, as well as by politicians based a block away at Mississippi’s Capitol. Dismayed by the proposal to demolish this unique piece of heritage, locals have mounted a campaign to preserve the building. The outcome of their efforts remains in the balance.

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16. Joshua Tree National Park

California’s Joshua Tree National Park isn’t in danger of disappearing, but it’s a different story for its best-known inhabitants. The Joshua trees themselves can grow to a height of 30 feet and are capable of living for 300 years. Mormon settlers are said to have named it because the tree reminded them of the biblical character Joshua in prayer.

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But this tree – actually a type of yucca – faces real dangers. According to a 2019 National Geographic article, the trees are already in decline, especially in parts of the park with lower altitudes and drier conditions. And with more severe droughts and increased wildfires predicted, there’s a risk that many more trees will die.

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15. Route 66

Route 66 takes you from Chicago in Illinois to Santa Monica in California, a road trip of some 2,400 miles across eight states. Countless Americans traveled the route westwards during the Great Depression of the 1930s in search of work. Often called the “Mother Road,” it’s perhaps best immortalized by the R&B standard “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.”

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The highway was in decline for many years. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that heritage buffs started to take an interest in preserving the historic route. Many argue that the best way to do this would be to designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. Two members of congress have pushed for legislation to make this so in the past. They haven’t yet succeeded, but they’re trying again as of September 2020.

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14. Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska gets its name from Mount Denali. This is North America’s tallest peak, which is something over 20,000 feet at its summit. The park’s six million acres feature a variety of habitats, including floodplains fed by glacial streams, alpine tundra and taiga forests. A huge variety of animals thrive in the protected environment, like both black and grizzly bears, moose and snowshoe hares.

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Unfortunately, the pristine environment of Denali faces a range of problems. Increased development, more intensive hunting and higher visitor numbers are all a cause for worry. Alien species have a detrimental effect on the native wildlife there. And increasing temperatures may alter the landscape in ways that create adverse effects on the flora and fauna.

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13. Hall of Waters

The Hall of Waters, located some 30 miles from Kansas City, is a splendid spa center. Built as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal job creation program at a cost of $1 million in the mid-1930s, at one time this place even bottled its own mineral water. But its main attractions are the magnificent Art Deco buildings and interiors.

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Today, the Hall of Waters operates as offices for the City of Excelsior Springs and as a museum. However, this historic building is in dire need of extensive remedial works, which experts estimate will cost some $16 million. This is far in excess of what the good folks of Excelsior Springs can raise themselves, so this palatial edifice faces an uncertain future.

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12. The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is perhaps the best known of America’s natural wonders. Its creation has spanned a tremendous period of time, starting some two billion years in the past. At this point, the rocks of the inner gorge formed. Next, about 70 million years ago, the Earth’s crust moved, lifting the geological structure upwards. Then, from five or six million years ago, the Colorado River carved the shape of the canyon we see today.

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In recent years the National Trust for Historic Preservation identified the Grand Canyon as one of America’s most at-risk heritage sites. The listing was largely prompted by proposals to exploit the uranium reserves in the canyon. Such mining is currently banned until 2032. But new government plans could mean that exploitation might be allowed in the future.

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11. Industrial Trust Company Building

There’s little romance in the name of this structure in Providence, Rhode Island. But even a cursory glance at the Industrial Trust Company Building will tell you why it’s so treasured. The skyscraper’s the spitting image of the Daily Planet headquarters where Superman’s alter ego Clarke Kent works as a reporter.

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But this 428-foot-high Art Deco masterpiece dating from 1927 is a thrilling piece of architecture in its own right. Yet this sublime structure has been empty for the past number of years. Proposals for the building have included converting it into a hydroponic farm, creating an amusement park, or using it as housing for seniors. But no firm rescue plan is on the horizon yet. Where’s Superman when you need him?

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10. Katmai National Park and Preserve

Katmai National Park in Alaska is probably best known as a prime location for close encounters with bears. The park is home to an estimated 2,200 brown bears, meaning that there are more bears than people living around these parts. Having said that, plenty of visiting humans flock to the park’s Brooks River to watch the bears gorging on sockeye salmon.

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But the bears may face an uncertain future. According to environmental group the Sierra Club, proposals to dilute environmental protection laws – which the organization goes as far as to call the “Extinction Plan” – could put the bears at risk. In the Sierra Club’s view, the law changes would make it easier for companies to develop in important habitats.

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9. Nashville’s Music Row

If you’ve ever visited Nashville, Tennessee, you’ve likely taken a stroll down the boulevard called Music Row. And you might well have popped into one – or several – of the 200 bars, studios and other music-related businesses to sample some authentic Nashville sounds. It’s an experience that everyone should try if the chance comes their way.

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But the opportunity to enjoy Nashville’s Music Row might disappear in years to come. Unrestrained office and residential development has seen the demolition of some 50 properties in the Music Row area since 2013. Community groups have long campaigned to preserve this important part of America’s music culture with stricter planning regulation. But to date they’ve met with little success.

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8. Mendenhall Glacier

The Mendenhall Glacier is a 13-mile-long ribbon of ice that runs from the 1,500 square miles of the Juneau Ice Field to the Mendenhall Lake. Set in the mountains of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, Juneau was formed during the most recent ice age. The Mendenhall Glacier attracts hordes of visitors each year who come to marvel at the ice caves that form beneath the massive sheet of ice.

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But if you’re planning on a trip to Mendenhall Glacier – as 575,000 adventurous visitors do annually – it might be best to pencil in your visit at an early date. That’s because, like other glaciers in Alaska, Mendenhall is losing ice each year due to rising temperatures. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service reports that the glacier has shrunk by around one-and-a-half miles in the past 50 years.

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7. Ponce Historic Zone

Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second city. Its star attraction is the Historic Zone, which features charming 19th century architecture. Highlights include the Parque de Bombas, a striking building decorated with red and black stripes. It was once a fire station but now operates as a museum. Then there’s the pink and white Museum of Puerto Rican Architecture, which might remind you of an elaborate wedding cake.

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Unfortunately, devastating Hurricane Maria – which swept across Puerto Rico in 2017 – caused extensive damage to Ponce’s historic buildings. That damage has been worsened by a series of tremors and earthquakes that struck Puerto Rico starting from December 2019. Although there are restoration plans afoot, questions remain over where the necessary funding will come from.

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6. Biscayne National Park

Divers and snorkelers visit Florida’s Biscayne National Park for the glorious sights of the underwater natural world that it affords. Little more than a stone’s throw from downtown Miami, Biscayne encompasses enchanting islands and stunning coral reefs. It’s not just for divers, either –the environment is ideal for all types of boating.

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But the clear waters of Biscayne are threatened by ecological damage. A shocking example of this came in August 2020, when a combination of heat and pollution drastically lowered the oxygen level in the sea. That resulted in a mass fish die-off. And University of Miami marine scientist Chris Langdon told the Phys.Org website, “Heat is breaking records and there’s more nutrients flowing into the bay, so we are watching closely for signs of stress on the corals.” A major coral bleaching incident could be on the cards.

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5. Bears Ears National Monument

It was only as recently as 2016 that the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah was inaugurated. Its unusual name comes from two towers of rock that have a striking resemblance to a pair of bear’s ears, a name that’s mirrored in various Native American languages. The land is considered sacred by the people of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi National and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. There’s much intriguing evidence of early human occupation of the reserve.

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But only 11 months after presidential proclamation declared the land as a National Monument, a second presidential declaration diminished the size of the reserve by some 85 percent. Some of Utah’s people and politicians were right behind this shrinkage of Bear’s Ears. The land includes uranium reserves which commercial operators are keen to exploit. The issue remains highly controversial, with many passionate about preserving these historic lands.

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4. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a site of stunning natural beauty set on the waterfront of Lake Superior. The park features around 100 miles of trails that meander through landscapes of soaring sandstone crags and dense forests. Springtime sees an explosion of color as wild flowers come into bloom. Fall, too, has its own multi-hued display as the approaching winter turns the leaves.

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But the Pictured Rocks reserve faces some serious problems, especially when it comes to its wide variety of wildlife such as beavers, white-tailed deer and bald eagles. According to the National Park Service website, the elongated shape of the park can create problems. This narrowly defined reserve can lead to populations of some species becoming isolated and so losing genetic diversity. In the longer term, this could be bad news for some of the animals that inhabit the lakeshore.

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3. National Negro Opera Company House

The National Negro Opera Company House on Apple Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was originally constructed as a home in 1894. By 1941, though, it had become the headquarters for the opera organization. The woman behind this group was one Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson, who founded it during this same year.

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The house provided accommodation for various prominent African-American musicians and sporting figures over the years. But sadly, this historic Victorian home is in a dismal condition today. Abandoned, its roof is collapsing, windows are boarded over, and the building continues to crumble. Local campaigners are working to create a plan to save the building for alternative use, but time is running out.

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2. Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park in California is one of the best-loved reserves in America. It earns that honor, of course, because of its magnificent Sequoia pines. But there’s more to the park than these gigantic trees alone. Wildlife is abundant, with creatures like yellow-bellied marmots, red-tail hawks and wolverines calling the park home.

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But like so many of America’s natural wonders, Sequoia National Park does face threats to its status. And it’s the monumental trees – which can live for up to 3,000 years – that face difficulties. According to the Yale Environment 360 website, rising temperatures and declining snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains may have a harsh impact on the trees in years to come. Future water shortages could also put seedlings and saplings in particular danger.

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1. National Mall Tidal Basin

Known as “America’s Front Yard,” Washington’s National Mall Tidal Basin is visited by millions each year. The site is a hymn to America’s history, with memorials to various central characters in the nation’s story including Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Plus, there are the famous cherry trees that burst into colorful bloom every spring.

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But as the Trust for the National Mall points out, the site faces a range of challenges. The Trust’s website declares that, “subsidence, daily flooding, increasing visitation, and crumbling infrastructure threaten its long-term sustainability.” Moves are afoot to create a master plan for the preservation of this key national site, but there’s no time to lose.

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